Alastair Mavor analyses the least important moment in the Capital One Cup semi-final at the Liberty Stadium on Wednesday night, and explains how the intense environment of Football combined with human nature to turn it into the most divisive controversy in Football so far this season.
It rivals the most bizarre incidents that have occurred on a Football pitch in recent years. Trailing 2-0 with just over ten minutes remaining of normal time, Chelsea’s hopes of making the final at Wembley, and with it one of their only two remaining chances of winning a meaningful trophy this season, were fading fast. The ball goes out for a goal-kick behind Gehard Tremmel’s goal. It is collected by ball ‘boy’, Charlie Morgan, although it must be noted that at a mature looking 17, ball ‘man’ is perhaps a more appropriate description. Morgan, whose Twitter feed has seen his following grow from under 500 to upwards of 100,000 in three days, then proceeded to provide a magnificent impersonation of a lion mauling its pray, as he collapsed to the floor burying the football beneath his midriff. Eden Hazard was far from amused. After failing to shrug Morgan off the ball, he swings a kick in the direction of it, seemingly connecting with both ball and ball ‘man’. Hazard picks up the ball and returns it to Tremmel, as Morgan is left to nurse his war wounds. Referee Chris Hoy consults his fellow officials and decides the only course of action possible is to send Eden Hazard off for Violent Conduct.
The subsequent debate over the incident has seen enough comment in the sporting world to solve British print media’s financial problems in one. Players, managers, pundits, and surprise surprise, Joey Barton, have all had their say in the matter; Barton reminding us all of his taste for violence by suggesting Hazard’s only crime was that he didn’t kick him ‘hard enough’, before frantically backtracking.
Yet aside from the inevitable debate and controversy over the incident, there lies beneath a greater discussion of why incidents of unreasonable behaviour, such as Hazard’s, so commonly occur in Football. Carlton Simon once said of ‘reason’, that it ‘only controls individuals after emotion and impulse have lost their impetus’. Football is, with just two 45-minute halves, a lack of stoppages and an inherently fluid structure, a game which relies heavily on impulse and reactionary thinking. Unlike Rugby and to a greater extent American Football for which set-piece manoeuvres play a greater part of the game, Football has few natural breaks or natural pauses. Thus the game’s very structure encourages impulse in both thought and action.
While decisions based on impulse can undoubtedly provide moments of brilliance, without control, they are riddled with problems. Dr Steve Peters, Team Sky and GB Cycling’s resident psychiatrist who has had a significant influence on Bradley Wiggins and Victoria Pendleton’s success, describes such problems as a ‘chimp paradox’. Comparing the frontal and limbic sections of the brain to a ‘chimp’ and a ‘human’, he explains the problems which can occur when the impulsive ‘chimp’ takes over, and makes emotional decisions before the rational ‘human’ has a chance to calculate the best course of action to take. Wired into every decision made by the ‘chimp’ is survival, which causes decision making to be based around a ‘Fight, Freeze or Flight’ philosophy.
Yet, this is designed to be used in situations where our lives are under threat. Whatever Sir Alex Ferguson may think, this is rarely the case on a Football pitch. Eden Hazard was not under threat on Wednesday night. His ‘inner chimp’ suggested he was though, and decided the most appropriate response was to fight, before his ‘human’ brain had a chance to manage the situation and decide stepping away was the logical response. Had he done so, how many additional seconds the referee would have added to stoppage time would have been the only debate to be had. One might argue that the intense atmosphere of a cup semi-final, combined with a frustrating evening for Chelsea helped to create the pre-conditions for Hazard’s behaviour. Certainly! Nevertheless, as Peters says, ‘you are not responsible for the nature of your chimp, but you are responsible for managing it’. We can understand why Hazard behaved as he did, but it neither excuses nor absolves him from the likely consequences.
Ironically, for an incident which has received so much global attention, Hazard’s sending off had very little influence on the match. Swansea were excellent throughout both legs, punishing Chelsea’s mistakes, and defending stoutly against a side enriched by attacking movement, and filled with endless attacking options. Yet, a failure to think reasonably as opposed to impulsively will mean Hazard is one attacking option they will not be able to call upon in the coming weeks.
There is a time for emotion, and a time for reason. Since Andy Murray began working with coach Ivan Lendl last January, his game has improved immeasurably. It is unquestionable he has become more aggressive in his hitting style, while the improvements he has made with his forehand have added a necessary bite to his game. It is the mental improvements he has made though, which have helped to yield a more productive return at the major tournaments. Whether he beats Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open Final tomorrow or not, his ability to control his emotion on court is having a considerable effect on his game. Losing the 4th set tie-break against Federer, having served for the match, would have been enough for the Murray of a year ago to lose his cool, lose the plot, and probably lose the match. Yesterday, he was able to control his ‘chimp’, move on, and focus on the game. Hazard could learn a thing or two.