Standard Liege forward in the dock over horror tackle

By Nick Bidwell
European foul of the Season? If such a dubious award existed, Standard Liege’s current Belgian Footballer of the Year, Alex Witsel, would surely be a contender after the over-the-top stamp which broke the right leg of Anderlecht’s Polish full-back Marcin Wasilewski.

Witsel, who received a red card for the horror tackle, claimed the challenge was not premeditated and that he had not deliberately set out to injure Wasilewski, a tough defender who was caught on camera elbowing a Standard player in last season’s league title play-off.

“I badly controlled a ball but thought I could still make up the ground to recover it,” explained Witsel. “At the last moment I saw someone surge in. There wasn’t enough time for me to know who it was. It all happened too quickly.

“We were both going for the ball. It was involuntary on my part. Of course, I regret Wasilewski’s serious injury. I’m not a nasty person. I don’t play football to break legs.”

However, the slow-motion images of the incident were damning. As Wasilewski slid in, Witsel appeared to disregard the ball, launching himself with a straight leg and bringing his entire weight down onto the lower limb of his victim.

The sports committee of the Belgian federation had no doubts as to the seriousness of the offence. Witsel was banned for 11 games and fined £22,000, though on appeal the punishment was reduced to eight matches and a somewhat comical £220. His suspension only applies to domestic first-team fixtures so he is not barred from his club’s Champions League campaign.

As for Wasilewski, he will be sidelined for much longer. So far he has undergone three operations to repair the double fracture of tibia and fibula, and he is expected to be out for at least 10 months. There are even concerns that he may never play again.

Despite the reduction in sentence, Standard remain extremely unhappy with what they consider to be Witsel’s trial by media. They also feel the authorities were wrong to conclude the Belgium international had done the deed on purpose.

“The federation’s legal team initially said they could not be certain of intent,” declared Standard chief executive Pierre Francois. “Then they say he meant it. They have criminalised the act of Axel Witsel in a way which should not be tolerated. This is the sort of justice which took place in the Middle Ages when people were made examples of. The fact he is a talented sportsman worked against him.

“He’s been told he must change his mentality. But what can he change? He has a good mentality and didn’t mean to hurt anyone.”

Witsel, too, was of the opinion he had been harshly treated, claiming: “I know I’ve made a mistake and have to pay for it, but the sanction is exaggerated. They want to paint me as someone I’m not. I’m no killer.“

The affair has completely taken over the Belgian news agenda: the updates on Wasilewski’s recovery, the possibility of a private prosecution, the death threats sent to Witsel, the attempts of Standard’s shirt sponsors (mobile phone company BASE) to distance themselves from the fall-out.

Cast as Public Enemy No1, Witsel has been pilloried mercilessly in the media and a favourite line of attack is to suggest that the 20-year-old has had too much fame and fortune too soon.

Utter nonsense. What really set the scene for his ugly lunge is the climate of hatred engendered by Standard-Anderlecht games these days. The fans are at daggers drawn and the players clearly have no respect for each other either. Witsel was not the only guilty party in a game which, from start to finish, was uncontrollable and brimming over with rampant machismo and rash challenges.

A rapprochement between these two bitter rivals has to be a matter of urgency.

Wasilewski has subsequently announced that he intends to sue Witsel for damages.