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The hazards of perception

Michael Steele

Eden Hazard is not a monster. He's not even close. Anyone watching the match yesterday without an agenda towards demonising a club and its players would have seen immediately that any contact he made with ballboy Charlie Morgan while (successfully) retrieving the football that the 17-year-old was attempting to hide was both minimal and not in the least bit forceful.

But the simple truth is that most observers are not disinterested. If the media isn't biased against Chelsea or Hazard, they're certainly at the very least aware that controversy around the club with garner enough attention to make stoking the flames worth their while. Meanwhile, young Mr. Morgan rolled around in feigned agony, almost begging Chris Foy to issue a red card to the flustered Belgian.

And so the narrative that escaped into the world was 'Hazard sent off for kicking ballboy'. Videos were released to that effect, headlines were written demonising Hazard as some sort of vicious bully, and while it was nice to be distracted from the fact that Chelsea had looked totally and utterly abject for ninety minutes and were consequently knocked out of a tournament that they should have strolled to victory in, the means by which that distraction occurred were not what anyone would have hoped for.

I had a chat today with a former colleague of mine, and was surprised to hear him say that he had initially believed that Hazard had actually kicked Mr. Morgan before seeing the reverse angle and realising that it wasn't true. The shock wasn't that he'd changed his mind after reviewing better evidence; it's that he ever believed that Hazard had actually struck the ballboy in the first place.

The reverse camera angle doesn't 'suggest' that Hazard kicked more ball than boy because the facts already did so. Watching live, we saw a kid rolling around trying to protect the ball and Hazard pop it free. Certainly, from some angles it looked worse than others, but in general it seemed pretty clear to me that Mr. Morgan was feigning injury to get one of our players in trouble*.

*Which didn't stop me for condemning Hazard for being silly enough to fall into the trap set by an idiot kid.

But that's not how it appeared to many in the media.

If you weren't watching the match, your first exposure to the incident would have been the .gif that floated around immediately after the red card:

via @bubbaprog

This is actually the 'reverse angle', as cameras originally showed the view that makes it clear that Hazard was kicking the ball. It doesn't look good. At all.

I would suggest that the selection of that angle for the .gif was deliberate, designed for controversy. So were the headlines that completely ignored the context of said kick. When you see the above, it's not very difficult to imagine Hazard brought up on assault charges.

And this was the narrative that people latched onto as the truth of the matter. Never mind facts -- perception is what matters in the real world, no matter the subject. Footballers know this instinctively, which is why they sell fouls to the referee rather than stay on their feet and argue vehemently about calls when they know they're in the wrong. Truth is irrelevant. All that matters is how the referee sees the incident.

This is why Hazard's decision was stupid, rather than criminal. His failure wasn't kicking a child, it was kicking out at a child and thereby sparking a scenario in which he was sent off and then vilified by the press.

Forget the facts. Just like in the John Terry-Vanessa Perroncel case, the facts no longer matter. That's stupid, but it's the world we live in and anyone with any media training at all will know that. Hazard is guilty of a failure to manage perceptions, from Chris Foy's to the legions of headline writers just desperate for a controversy to sink their collective teeth into.

That's why he shouldn't have done this. And that's why his apology 'to' Charlie Morgan yesterday didn't include a confession of kicking the kid. He didn't kick him, and Morgan doesn't deserve to be apologised to. Hazard's mistake was to let himself get drawn (via dastardly means) into a compromising situation that was always destined to get him in trouble. His 'sorry' wasn't really to Mr. Morgan. It was to his teammates.

It was to us.

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