If you watched Manchester United’s 1-1 draw with Leicester City on Sunday, then you’ll have seen the particularly unsavoury incident in which Robert Huth pulled Marouane Fellaini’s hair, resulting in an elbow in the chin from the Belgian.
Needless to say, neither of these acts should be seen on a football pitch, but when questioned by Geoff Shreeves about the incident after the game, Manchester United boss Louis Van Gaal was quick to defend his player.
“It was a very difficult match for the referee – when you see what Huth is doing with Fellaini, is that not a penalty?” van Gaal said.
“Shall I grab you by your hair? What is your reaction when I grab your hair? Your hair is shorter than Fellaini but when I do that, what are you doing then?
“It’s a reaction. Every human being who is grabbed by the hair, only with sex masochism, then it is allowed but not in other situations. They did it. They did it several times I think.”
Leaving aside the frankly bizarre reference to “sex masochism”, let’s dissect Van Gaal’s comments for a second.
Essentially, the Dutchman is justifying his player elbowing Robert Huth hard in the chin because he believes that Huth was the first player to commit an offence.
In other words, retaliation is now fine.
That’s the way the United boss must see it, surely? What other conclusion can we come to?
The trouble with a comment like this is that it sets a worrying precedent. By justifying Fellaini’s actions Van Gaal is essentially saying that there is a time and a place for transgression of the rules of football, and that referees should be lenient on acts of vengeance.
Where does this end? Are you allowed to punch someone in the face if they slide in on you late? Can you kick someone in the back if they barge you illegally off the ball?
What Van Gaal’s comments refuse to consider is that rules are rules. There are no exemptions on the basis of provocation, and nor should there be.
Footballers must act with the knowledge that their actions are being seen by millions of people, many of whom see them as role models. Would Van Gaal advocate a seven-year-old boy elbowing another in a football match because his hair has been pulled? Would that be allowed because the boy had been provoked?
What’s strange about the Dutchman’s statement is that there is no need for it. He could easily have said, ‘I’d like to look at some replays before I comment’ or even, ‘I’m not going to comment on that today’.
Instead, he’s engaged with the issue, said some embarrassing things and set a very poor example for kids all over the world.
What Fellaini did was wrong, and he should be punished severely for it. And, if you’ve watched him during his time in the Premier League, you’ll know that this isn’t the first time he’s done something like this. The FA are likely to ban him and end his season. And when that happens, Van Gaal would do very well to keep his mouth shut.