Sometimes, when I want to cheer myself up or have a quiet chuckle to myself, I think back to the greatest bad tackle I’ve ever seen in a football match — Benjamin Massing’s improvised appendectomy on Claudio Cannigia in the opening game of Italia ‘90.
No one’s condoning foul play here — well, not much — but so long as the injured party isn’t badly injured then most football fans relish seeing a really wild tackle. Often the act isn’t cynical or homicidal, just comical: a mad rush of blood to the feet (both of them, off the ground), a hapless hack from a slow and ageing hero, or a desperate taking-one-for-the-team where a speedy striker is bearing down on goal and the chasing defender clips their heels to do the needful. Massing’s is a classic of the genre, both in comedy value and (ig)noble intent.
Context makes it all the greater. World Cup holders Argentina were losing 1–0 to minnows Cameroon, a side that unexpectedly turned out to be 11 free-spirited brick-shithouses who played adventurous football while outmuscling all around them. The sheer crappiness of Cameroon’s goal — basically thrown in by a goalkeeper down on one knee trying to gather a weak downward header — made it all the more embarrassing.
Into the last few minutes, then, with the Cameroonians still pressing, and the Argentinians were stinking with panic. A loose Cameroon attack broke down and the ball fell to Caniggia, their flamboyant and long-haired striker who had come all the way back to the edge of his own penalty box. Defenders up ahead were rushing across to block his path but Caniggia had little choice; if Argentina were to save face and dig out an equaliser, he would have to put the head down and drive upfield towards goal.
What followed was an almost operatic crescendo of violence.
First, as Caniggia nears the halfway line, he has to vault the outstretched leg of Emmanuel Kundé. Then, entering Cameroonian airspace, Caniggia is swung at more crudely with an attempted kick up the hole from Victor N’do and, in dodging him, barely keeps his balance. Surely the worst is over.
Looming up on Caniggia, though, is Massing and you can almost see his thought process: “Ah, the lads have softened him up nicely for me. Time to finish the job with a tackle for the ages. Up Cameroon!”
With the run up and take off of a long-jumper, Massing flies hip-bone-first into Caniggia at waist height. He knocks him into a mid-air spin and has him land with a thud, almost horizontally. As a grace note, the impact sends Massing’s right boot flying off.
The general reaction is one of stunned incredulity. Caniggia lies on the ground with his hands to his face, seeming to be genuinely traumatised. The Argentinian players, perhaps fearful for their own welfare, mostly run not to Massing but to referee Michel Vautrot. The befuddled ref first pulls out a straight red card to Massing before then showing him a superfluous yellow.
Massing, having lashed out at an irate Argentinian with his stocking-ed right foot, then pulls on his errant boot, rather half-heartedly pleads his case, and trots off the pitch, job done. Cameroon hold on for a famous victory and, with thanks to elderly hip-swinging super-sub Roger Milla, go on to be the best-loved team of Italia ‘90.
When people reminisce on football from the good old days, this is the kind of stuff they mean. The slow-motion replay is glorious: