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Feb 16, 2013

Football - bloody hell

In some parts of Germany, this past Monday was the most important day of the year - Rosenmontag. The name translates as Rose Monday and is the day the English know as Shrove Monday.

Rosenmontag is the high point of the German carnival season and a bank holiday in the strongholds of this particular form of organised merriment, most of which are dotted along the Rhine.

In Mainz, Cologne and Dusseldorf, literally millions of people take to the streets (and bars) dressed in fancy and elaborate, and sometimes bizarre, costumes to - as they stubbornly maintain - party, celebrate and have fun.

When they told Martin Latka about this local custom and its dimensions, the Czech defender who's recently signed to Fortuna Dusseldorf cracked a grin. "Well, I already have a mask," he said. "Guess now I only need a costume to go with it."

The item in question was not a Zorro or Marvel superhero mask but one of those protective face masks made of high-tech plastics or carbon fibre. Latka needed one because he'd sustained a nose fracture during the dying moments of Dusseldorf's game against Stuttgart the previous week.

These masks have become such a staple of modern football equipment that you hardly notice them anymore except in unusual cases, such as when Leverkusen's Michael Ballack and Chelsea's Petr Cech, both wearing masks, shook hands after the Champions League game between their teams in November 2011. The sight was made even more bizarre by the fact Cech was also donning his trademark padded helmet. To top it off, he was dressed in white while Ballack was clad in an all-black kit, making the moment resemble nothing so much as a scene from Star Wars.

The patron saint of the masked marauders, at least in Germany, is Christoph Metzelder. He first wore a mask in December 2001, when he was still with Borussia Dortmund, in a game against Nurnberg. Less than a year later, in October 2002, he fractured his nose again and played a few matches with a mask, among them a Champions League game against Arsenal.

Metzelder then went to Real, where he broke his nose a third time, away at Valencia shortly before Christmas 2008. During the following month, he wore a mask during training, though not in a game. The defender then joined Schalke and cracked his nose once more during a game against St Pauli in April 2011. A few days later, he played against Inter sporting his by now almost familiar masked look.

While Metzelder may have pioneered and then established the face mask in the German game, he wasn't the first player to use one. As early as 1993, Tottenham legend Gary Mabbutt needed one after Wimbledon's John Fashanu had broken his cheekbone and eye socket. The following year, Southampton's goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar was in the middle of a match-fixing scandal when he, too, fractured his cheekbone.

Defiantly, he told Rob Hughes of the New York Times that he was not going to protect his face with a mask: "I won't wear it. I don't want to hide behind a mask. If they want to see me, I'm right here." He must have had a change of heart, though, as he eventually took to the field with an outlandish white, red and green zebra-print number.

Somehow the rise of the masks coincided with the fall of the turban. "Turban" is the perhaps politically incorrect term Germans used for the head bandages that were a common sight in the 1980s.

The most famous "turban" belonged, of course, to England's Terry Butcher. He suffered a head wound during the early stages of a World Cup qualifier in Sweden in September 1989 that was initially covered with bandages and then stitched up during half-time. Since Butcher kept heading balls out of the danger zone, the wound re-opened and he was bleeding so profusely that you wondered if his family name was really just a coincidence.

In the German game it belonged to Bayern's towering striker Dieter Hoeness, the younger brother of Uli. In the 13th minute of the 1982 DFB-Pokal final, he went up for an aerial duel with Nurnberg's Alois Reinhardt and sustained a bad cut. Like Butcher, he had his wound first covered with a bandage and then stitched up during the interval.

Hoeness briefly considered coming off. But his brother Uli pleaded with him to stay on, because Bayern were not only trailing 2-0 but had also lost defender Bertram Beierlorzer, who'd torn his Achilles tendon only ten minutes after the Hoeness/Reinhardt incident, and so coach Pal Csernai was reluctant to make another substitution so early.

Eight minutes into the second half, a Wolfgang Dremmler cross from the right found Hoeness at the far edge of the six-yard box. Hoeness smartly headed the ball over to Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, who pulled one back for Bayern. Half a minute later, Hoeness intercepted a pass and Bernd Durnberger had a good chance. Nurnberg were now coming apart at the seams, it seemed, while Bayern surged forward.

But that left a lot of space for Nuremberg to exploit. On the hour, Werner Dressel played a through-ball that cut through the Bayern backline, his team-mate Herbert Heidenreich received the ball near the penalty spot and shot on the turn - only to see Dremmler throw himself into the path of the ball and deflect it against the left-hand post.

Five minutes later, Rummenigge hit the woodwork at the other end, but Wolfgang Kraus was there to put the rebound away and make it 2-2. Hoeness, often derided as a stiff, awkward player who was only good in the air, now became a pivotal figure in Bayern's attack, as Rummenigge and Breitner regularly used him as a wall player for one-twos that split Nuremberg's defence. Of course he also made his main strength count: his bandaged head knocked the ball into the path of Kraus, who went down under a challenge from Peter Stocker to win a soft penalty. Breitner converted the spot-kick to bring his side ahead after 72 minutes.

It was left to the man of the match to put the finishing touch on this legendary cup final. With a minute to go, Paul Breitner sent in a cross from the left and Hoeness headed home from seven yards for the final scoreline of 4-2.

The "turban" look stayed in vogue until the early 1990s. Its last hurrah was a UEFA Cup game between Dortmund and Real Zaragoza that defender Gunter Kutowski finished with a blotched head bandage and a blood-stained shirt. But around that time, most sports introduced so-called "blood rules" on account of the AIDS scare and in the wake of basketball icon Magic Johnson's November 1991 announcement that he'd contracted the HIV virus.

These days, you can't even play in a bloody shirt, no matter if the wound itself has been closed or not. This led to a bizarre moment during Werder's Champions League qualifier at Sampdoria in 2010. Striker Sandro Wagner suffered an eyebrow cut, which the physios attended to. But when he was ready to get back into the game, there was no clean shirt for him to be found.

Bremen played with ten men while the kit man frantically searched for a new shirt. After five minutes or so, Werder coach Thomas Schaaf lost patience and told Markus Rosenberg to get into the game for Wagner. In the final minute, Rosenberg then scored the goal that sent the game into extra-time. Werder eventually went through.

The fact that the face mask has replaced the classic blood-stained bandage seems to hint at another development. Gone, I guess, are the days when two players went up for a ball and their heads clashed. These days, the much more common injury during aerial duels is caused by an elbow hitting a face.

As early as 1998, the Daily Mail reported that "defender Martin Keown warned that flailing arms are again becoming a menace in football", having just broken an eye socket. Eight years later, ahead of the World Cup in Germany, the International Football Association Board urged referees to clamp down on elbowing. But little has changed.

Quite the contrary. Two days after Latka fractured his nose, 1860 played against Kaiserslautern in the second division. On the half hour, defender Kai Bulow was badly hit by the elbow of Kaiserslautern striker Mo Idrissou as both went up for the ball.

Bulow lost a tooth and had to come off with a bleeding wound, though luckily enough he didn't suffer a fracture. Idrissou, who'd been booked three minutes earlier, stayed in the game.

I don't know if players had a different heading technique back in the old days. Perhaps they just went up straight in the air like pogo dancers instead of using their arms to accelerate the body. Or maybe arms have always been flailing and noses have always been broken, but in the past players then sat out the games that followed, whereas modern technology now allows them to play with a mask, which in turn draws more attention to their injuries.

Then again, not every face mask is worn because a reckless thug has used his elbows. In the 1860 versus Kaiserslautern game mentioned above, the hosts' Daniel Bierofka played the first half wearing a mask to protect a fractured nose. It had been broken a week earlier by the arm of a man called Robert Hartmann. The perpetrator escaped without any punishment whatsoever, though. Hartmann couldn't be booked because he was the referee.

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