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Dec 13, 2008

Persistent fouling a real mess

For the footballing purists out there, much of what occurred in the first half of the highly-anticipated 'El Clasico' match on Saturday night would have been taken in from behind the sofa.

The persistent and cynical fouling of Lionel Messi by Real Madrid's players left little to the imagination and it appears that when a football player becomes as important as Messi has for the Catalans, there is only one way to stop him.

This is not a new phenomenon, however. NBA star Shaquille O'Neall was subjected to the 'Hack a Shaq' ploy, in which opposing players would foul him before he had a chance to put the ball in the basket - forcing him to take a free throw (which he would subsequently miss).

England's cricket team adopted an extremely aggressive form of bowling to combat the great Australian batsman Don Bradman in 1932, and would attract a host of criticism for what would become known as the 'Bodyline' series.

And the greatest footballer of all time, Pele, was kicked all over the pitch in the opening game of the 1966 World Cup against Bulgaria and then badly injured in Brazil's exiting defeat to Portugal, causing him to vow that he would never play in another competition.

It is by no means the way that sport should be conducted, but when an opponent's ability is limited, ruthless aggression takes over.

Messi is the modern day equivalent of these stars from yesteryear and, as such, can expect more rough treatment for the rest of his career. The Argentine is fantastically talented, but he's tough as well and certainly has more than enough power to repel any who try and end his career early.

Reportedly wearing two sets of shinpads on either side of his stocky legs, he knows he's in for a fight every time he walks onto the pitch and seems to be made of much sterner stuff than some of his fellow professionals. Madrid's kicks certainly found their mark at the Nou Camp, but the 21-year-old still found the strength to help his side win the game with an exquisite finish in the final minute.

Ultimately, Messi should take the kicks as a sign that other clubs view him as one of the best in the world. Shaq went on to win the NBA Championship with Miami in 2006, Bradman still averaged over 50 in the Bodyline series and went on to become the greatest batsman the world has ever seen, while Pele returned in 1970 to win the World Cup with what is generally regarded to be the best football team ever.

Barcelona's shining light will find himself subjected to more abuse in the coming years, but in rising above it and finding a way to hurt the opposition more than they hurt him - he will be in exalted company.

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