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Fellaini has had it both ways this season. At Manchester City on Dec. 1, he was the one doing the yanking. He pulled down Edin Dzeko in the box. Referee Lee Probert awarded City a penalty. Which begs the question: Why isn’t pushing and pulling always punished?

“There’s just no consistency,” said Fellaini’s teammate, Sylvain Distin.

Holding isn’t a new problem, just a recurring one. In the 2006 World Cup final, the verbal spat that escalated into Zidane’s head-butt started with Materazzi holding France’s No. 10 in Italy’s penalty box, standing behind him, his thick tattooed left arm clutching Zidane’s chest, preventing him from moving freely for Florent Malouda’s cross.

Zidane and Materazzi exchanged words. Then the France captain wheeled around, lowered his head and rammed the Italian in the chest, knocking him to the ground. Like Fellaini, Zidane was banned for three games but served the punishment by doing community work because he retired after the final.

Gary Neville, the former Manchester United defender and now the most lucid and convincing soccer pundit on British television, opined that pushing and shoving is simply part of the sport and that Fellaini was at fault for reacting so violently to it.

“It’s almost been made out to be Stoke’s fault, like they’re the sinners because Ryan Shawcross is holding,” Neville said on Sky Sports. “This goes on all over the pitch, every single game, arms in the air, physical challenges. It’s just the way the game is.”

“To me, that’s just competitive,” Neville added.

Soccer is a contact sport. It should be physical. The job of defenders is to defend. But soccer can do without the sly shirt-pullers, bear-huggers and arm-tuggers with clinging tentacles. By clambering all over attacking players, they deny fans spectacle. Soccer mustn’t become rugby.

Head-butts should never be the answer.

But there are sometimes reasons for them.


John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at) or follow him at