In Middelburg, a city in the South West of the Netherlands, there is a theme park/museum called the Voetbal Experience. It's been mentioned here before, on account of a tongue-in-cheek area devoted to the footballing relationship between the Netherlands and a certain neighbouring country (see: "Dutch-German rivalry on the wane?", May 25, 2010).
There is another section in the Voetbal Experience I have not told you about until now, primarily because I know there are some sensitive souls among you. After all, there is a sign near the entrance to this area that suggests minors and people with weak nerves - or delicate stomachs - should not enter.
The section I'm talking about is called the Villa Rotschop, the second word being a Dutch expression for a nasty kick that calls for a red card. The section is made up to resemble a dark ride or a ghost train in an amusement park, only you walk rather than ride. The entrance is a huge painting of a face I presume is supposed to belong to former referee Pierluigi Collina; you enter through the mouth he has opened to yell "Off you go!" or something.
Villa Rotshop is devoted to ugly fouls. There is a video screen replaying ghastly hackings and, when you stand in front of it for too long, a voice yells "Go away, I can't see!" As you turn around, you notice the figure of a fat, hairy bully who obviously enjoys the tape very much.
Elsewhere, there is stuff devoted, if that's the right word, to the infamous Niels Kokmeijer incident. As a German, I had only a fleeting knowledge of the case, but a plaque told me all I needed to know. In December 2004, a Sparta Rotterdam player by the name of Rachid Bouaouzan committed a sickening foul on Kokmeijer, a forward with Go Ahead Eagles.
Bouaouzan's flying tackle broke Kokmeijer's leg in two places, a fracture so complicated that it ultimately ended his career. The Dutch FA banned Bouaouzan for ten games and his own club, Sparta, then suspended him for the entire rest of the season. That, however, wasn't the end of the story. The foul was so brutal that the Dutch public prosecution department charged Bouaouzan with inflicting grievous bodily harm he was sentenced to six months on probation and 200 hours of community service, while having to pay Kokmeijer €100,000 in compensation.
The reason I remembered the Voetbal Experience, Villa Rotschop and the Kokmeijer story was, of course, the furore surrounding Hamburg's Paolo Guerrero after he scythed down Stuttgart goalkeeper Sven Ulreich from behind.
No matter how you feel about Guerrero and the foul as such, there's little doubt that the main reason the player received such a harsh penalty - he was banned for eight matches - was the public outcry. On the day after the game, the biggest German tabloid said this "was not a foul but an assassination" and "demanded" - yes, that's the term they used - the "maximum penalty". Former referee Markus Merk, meanwhile, said Guerrero's foul "was like Gentile against Maradona".
It was this remark that made me realise how rarely fouls make headlines these days; at least in the Bundesliga, where we hadn't had incidents like the Kokmeijer injury or Martin Taylor's foul against Arsenal's Eduardo in recent memory. It used to be different, though.
For those of you without receding hairlines, let me explain that Merk's comparison referred to the Italian defender Claudio Gentile, who man-marked Diego Maradona during a second-round game at the 1982 World Cup and pretty much kicked him into submission.
It was obviously dastardly play of the most despicable order, otherwise people like Merk wouldn't still dredge it up, but you also have to say that it was almost par for the course back then. For a certain period during my formative years as a football fan, fouls dominated the public debate with saddening regularity.
I think it started on the first day in December 1979, when Duisburg's Paul Steiner kicked one of my favourite players out of the game, Cologne legend Heinz Flohe. The impact not only broke Flohe's leg in a variety of places, it also irreversibly damaged nerves, which would cause him much pain over the following years. He later tried to sue Steiner in a civil court. It may have been the first such case in Germany, but it came to nothing, because Flohe would've had to prove that Steiner had acted with intent.
Flohe was 31 when this happened and seeing out his career with 1860 Munich after more than a dozen years with Cologne. The injury forced him to retire earlier than intended and rendered him a certified disabled person. It was the beginning of a sad story, as Flohe also had many other, unrelated but recurring, health problems later, for instance a heart condition. In May 2010, some 22 months ago, he broke down and has been in a coma ever since.
Perhaps it's a sign of the times back then, when bonecrushing fouls seemed so much more normal, that Steiner moved to Cologne less than two years after ending Flohe's career and enjoyed a long career at the club. Then again, even in those dark ages there were fouls people would not forgive or forget.
Only three months after Steiner's fateful foul, in March 1980, a young player called Lothar Matthaus brought down Frankfurt's Jurgen Grabowski with a late tackle. Grabowski, too, had to retire from the game. He was, however, already 35 at the time and Matthaus' foul was not as vicious as Steiner's. But Grabowski, a 1974 World Cup winner, was the greatest of all Frankfurt icons, with more than 440 league games under his belt. Consequently, the club's fans never forgave Matthaus and this foul was a major reason he could not become Frankfurt coach more than two decades later, in early 2001.
One and a half years after the Matthaus tackle, probably the most famous - certainly the most traumatic for those watching - foul in Bundesliga history was committed during a game between Werder Bremen and Arminia Bielefeld in August 1981. On 20 minutes, Bremen's defender Norbert Siegmann challenged winger Ewald Lienen and his studs slit Lienen's thigh like a carving knife cuts through a turkey on Thanksgiving. The wound, which would require 23 stitches, was ten inches long and if you had the misfortune of watching it on television, you could clearly see tendons, tissue, muscles - the works.
Lienen accused Bremen coach Otto Rehhagel of having instructed Siegmann to hack him down. Siegmann maintains it was an accident, though he admits that his mind would keep wandering back to the incident for a long time. He finished his career five years later, in 1986, and then travelled the world for a decade, spending considerable time in Japan, Mexico and India, where he turned towards Buddhism. These days, Siegmann can be found in a Zen group in Bremen, meditating as the sun comes up.
Four months later, in December 1981, we first heard of a man by the name of Andoni Goikoetxea, commonly known as 'The Butcher from Bilbao'. In a game between Athletic and Barcelona, he brought down the Catalans' playmaker Bernd Schuster, shredding the German's anterior cruciate ligament. It would be nine months before Schuster could run again, which is why the most talented German player of his generation missed the 1982 World Cup.
This tournament, played in Spain, not only brought Gentile's hit job on Maradona into our homes, but also the sight of West Germany goalkeeper Harald Schumacher knocking down France's Patrick Battiston like the proverbial loose cannon with a recklessness that was in equal parts inflaming and chilling. The following year, in September 1983, 'The Butcher' came back to our attention, when he sidelined Maradona for months with a scything tackle from behind that broke the Argentine's ankle.
Closer to home, the 1985-86 season brought an infamous Klaus Augenthaler foul that would kickstart the feud between Bayern and Bremen. With Werder in first place, three points ahead of the Munich giants, the two teams met at the Olympic Stadium. After 27 minutes, Bremen's rising star Rudi Voller ran past Augenthaler, who tripped him up. Voller suffered a severe injury that necessitated two operations and kept him out of action for months. Bayern were accused of deliberately weakening an up-and-coming competitor and it didn't exactly improve the relationship between the clubs when Augenthaler defended himself by saying: "Well, I can't help it if he's that quick." That season ended with another World Cup - which gave us a new record when Uruguay's Jose Batista was sent off for hacking down Scotland's Gordon Strachan after 38 seconds.
That was quite a lot of carnage for less than seven years, and it probably explains why I'm not at all - in contrast to some of my friends - nostalgic for football in the late '70s and '80s. It was very often very awful, both on and off the pitch.
Steiner, Siegmann, Gentile, Goikoetxea and Augenthaler were only booked (although, to be fair, the Spanish FA's disciplinary board suspended 'The Butcher' for many months for the foul on Maradona). Matthaus and Schumacher, meanwhile, weren't even given a yellow card. Today, they'd all be off the pitch even before their victims hit the ground.
In part, it's because the laws have changed. In 1990, the so-called 'professional foul' was made a red-card offence. Eight years later, the same happened with the tackle from behind, provided you miss the ball, of course - a detail which gives people like Guerrero an explanation, if not an excuse.
In part, it's because the game's culture has changed. The days when a film like Vinnie Jones's Soccer's Hard Men would become one of the best-selling sports videos of the year are, I state with a mixture of belief and hope, over. (Contrary to popular belief, this 1992 football video did not collect Jones' most spectacular fouls but highlighted about a dozen different tough players, from Nobby Stiles to Graeme Souness.)
Now there are very few people left who hold the punisher in more esteem than the creative player he's told to stop. And that's good. On the one hand, I do agree with some columnists - the guy from the online version of weekly news magazine Focus comes to mind - who complain that Guerrero is being unfairly treated by the public, as he's not a nasty player. His character may be, well, difficult, but he's never been a mindless hacker.
On the other hand, I'm relieved there has been public disgust, even if it may have been exaggerated, because I don't want to go back to the '80s. I'm glad they are over.