By JOHN LEICESTER
PARIS — It’s just wrong when a sports star with wealth and influence kicks a 17-year-old simply because he finds him annoying.
The soccer players past and present who lined up on television and on Twitter to suggest otherwise, who reached for half-cocked justifications for the violence from Eden Hazard, should wise up. Seeking to excuse the inexcusable, suggesting that the Chelsea player’s victim somehow brought this on himself, is a guaranteed way to make soccer look like the morally bankrupt sport some of its critics take it for. Kicking a kid? Who do these players think they are?
True, the teenager on the receiving end of Hazard’s boot, Charlie Morgan, wasn’t badly hurt. His dad, Martin, is the largest shareholder of Swansea City soccer club. The club said father and son both told police they didn’t want to press charges against the Belgium international with quick feet and a seemingly quicker temper. So, at worse, the younger Morgan came out of this hazardous close encounter with the Chelsea forward with 15 minutes of fame and tens of thousands of new Twitter followers he can brag about to his friends.
Also true: Morgan wasn’t an entirely innocent victim. As one of the ball boys in Swansea’s League Cup semifinal against Chelsea on Wednesday, his job should have been to help the match run smoothly, not become part of it. When the ball ran out of play and Hazard dashed over to retrieve it, Morgan should simply and efficiently have handed it over. Instead, he not only kept hold of it but flopped to the ground, over the ball, to stop Hazard from getting it.
There seemed no question that the youngster’s actions were deliberate. Swansea was on the verge of advancing to its first major cup final. Just 11 minutes remained for Chelsea to get the two goals it needed to cancel out the pair Swansea scored in the semifinal first leg at Stamford Bridge. As a Swansea supporter and son of a club owner, Morgan had reason aplenty to try to run down the clock. At age 17, on the cusp of manhood, his behavior couldn’t simply be laughed away as a boyhood prank. Morgan gave his game away in a tweet before the match that he may have intended as a joke but which later made him look guilty.
“The king of all ball boys is back making his final appearance (hash)needed (hash)for (hash)timewasting,” he tweeted.
Swansea coach Michael Laudrup and a club spokesman both insisted their ball boys weren’t under instructions to waste time. But former England manager Glenn Hoddle thought he smelled a conspiracy. The Sky Sports pundit spotted another Swansea ball boy dallying earlier in the match.
“The ball boys would have been told to do that,” Hoddle claimed. “In European games, I know for a fact, if you’ve got ball boys you will tell the people that are instructing the ball boys that if you’re winning the game, don’t get the ball back quickly.”
“That’s your home advantage,” Hoddle added.
Still, none of this could excuse Hazard’s loss of control. Morgan was wrong to provoke him. But he is still a kid. His behavior was naughty but not a crime. Hazard was far more in the wrong to react as violently as he did. First, he tried to rip the ball out from under Morgan with his hands, which was fine. Then he aimed a short, sharp right-footed kick under the prostrate kid, dislodging the ball. He may also have caught a rib or two in the process. Hazard claimed not. That wasn’t vitally important. What mattered was that Hazard lost it like this at all.
Morgan rolled over theatrically and then slowly sat up, grimacing, clutching his side and yelling something. Was he mimicking the players who week-in, week-out make a mountain of molehills, who feign injuries and make it seem as if they have been shot when they are tackled? Looked like it. The gamesmanship that generations of players have honed into a dark art seemed to be coming back to bite Hazard.
Referee Chris Foy was right to send him off because that’s what the rules require for violent conduct, which this undoubtedly was. The smart choice for Hazard would have been to let Foy handle Morgan and rely on the referee to add extra minutes for those the ball boy wasted.
The speed with which Chelsea and Swansea both sought to smooth over this affair was unsettling. A Swansea spokesman said Thursday that Morgan and his father weren’t giving interviews. That left only the club’s word for how Morgan felt. It said Chelsea invited him into its dressing room after the match to shake hands with Hazard and that Morgan “was very impressed” — making him sound either star-struck, sheepish or both.
“As far as both clubs and individuals are concerned the matter is closed,” Swansea’s statement said.
“He apologized. I apologized. So voila,” Hazard said in French to Chelsea’s in-house television channel, hardly the picture of remorse. He added one word in English: “Sorry.”
Now Hazard has time to learn a few more.
For violent conduct, Hazard will miss at least three games. So he can practice this phrase for next time: “Can I have the ball back?”
And — why not? — even add “please.”