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The case for why Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s elbow deserved a suspension

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An opportunity for a good precedent has been wasted.

MLS: Los Angeles FC at LA Galaxy Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Soccer is a contact sport. Sometimes players get hurt. Sometimes it’s all an accident.

It’s true, and some will make that case regarding the elbow by Zlatan Ibrahimovic on Mohamed El-Munir in Friday’s clash between Los Angeles Football Club and the LA Galaxy. Ibrahimovic clearly eyed up El-Munir as the players came together for an aerial, he didn’t necessarily cock his elbow back, but his elbow unquestionably made contact with El-Munir’s temple, leading to a fracture.

Reports emerged on Wednesday that Ibrahimovic would escape sanction for the play beyond a “formal warning,” a phrase lacking meaning insofar as it allows him to skate by with no games missed while El-Munir will be out weeks to months as he recovers from the surgery to repair the literal dent in the side of his head.

Again, in soccer, there’s no standard of punishments matching an injury incurred from a sanction-inducing play.

But MLS went through a period where they got tough on severe injuries, in 2011, when a spate of top players were scythed down on terrible challenges.

The most infamous was the flying revenge tackle by Brian Mullan on Steve Zakuani, leading to a broken leg on Zakuani, who missed more than a season, and ended up casting a pall over the rest of both players’ careers for different reasons. Mullan was suspended nine additional games, likely as much an example to the rest of MLS to watch themselves as a punishment to Mullan for the shocking violence of a play.

Then David Ferreira and Javier Morales both had their ankles broken weeks later that season. In the case of Morales, the player who tackled him, Chivas USA’s Marcos Mondaini, was suspended three games for a tackle from behind that led to catastrophic results.

Should we punish players based on the injuries they wreak on opponents? I think most people realize that’s not realistic — you can tackle someone harshly and one time they may end up needing surgery and another they jump right up and are back at it seconds later.

But not as an LAFC partisan, but someone shocked by the nature of El-Munir’s injury (seriously, a facial fracture around the temple is scary!) I realize there’s a constant state of uncertainty around the nature of many plays in soccer. Did a player mean to handle a ball? Did that player intend to step on the opponent in that situation? Was the elbow deliberate or incidental?

The difference is that MLS has established that a player who jumps over an opponent but lands on top of him and steps on him merits a red card and a Disciplinary Committee penalty. It’s happened repeatedly around the league this season and you can make a case in each that the person stepping on the opponent did not mean to do it — but it was violent conduct due to the potential for danger involved on a vulnerable opponent.

And that’s why Ibrahimovic needs to be suspended for his elbow on El-Munir. Not every elbow is the same, but elbows that lead to skull fractures should just be suspensions, period. If you establish a precedent that players can’t step on each other accidentally, then a play which knocks a player out indefinitely through a head injury should lead to a suspension as policy.

Otherwise, where’s the line for appropriate punishment? A player needs to go in a coma? Be resuscitated on the field? Actually die? I’m not trying to scaremonger, but the truth is, if we don’t want to see a player die from a freak elbow, maybe we need to see more harsh punishments to discourage players from whacking each other. That’s the bottom line.

What do you think? Leave a comment below!