As far as we can tell, these are the facts of the case. In the final minutes of the second leg of a League Cup semi-final match between English Premier League powerhouse Chelsea and the Welsh club Swansea on Jan. 23, Chelsea’s multimillion-dollar midfielder, Eden Hazard, chased a ball out of bounds and appeared to make contact with a ball boy who was trying to retrieve it. The ball boy, 17-year-old Charlie Morgan, then appeared to fall on the ball, covering it with his body. As video of the event shows, Hazard then delivered a swift kick — whether to the ball or to Morgan’s chest is unclear — and, freeing the ball, continued with play.
Or at least, he would have. With Morgan rolling on the sidelines, clutching his ribs, refs presented Hazard with a red card, tossing him from the game. The match ended 0-0, allowing Swansea through to its first cup final in the team’s 100-year history and handing Chelsea an ignominious defeat (Swansea won the first game 2-0).
The Belgian footballer, who signed with Chelsea for $50 million last May, was pilloried for his actions by everyone from the Belgian Football Association (“No football authority or person interested in football likes to see acts of violence or lack of respect”) to Gordon Taylor, chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association. (“You can’t take the law into your own hands. He lost his head, his actions were unacceptable and the referee had no alternative.”) Members of the public also complained to the South Wales police, who interviewed Morgan but were told the teenager didn’t wish to make a formal complaint.
Hazard, who is said to have apologized to Morgan after the match, now faces an automatic three-game ban, and things could get worse. On Friday, Britain’s Football Association (FA) issued a statement charging Hazard with violent conduct and calling for more aggressive punishment:
“It is alleged that Hazard’s behaviour in relation to a Swansea ball boy, for which the player was dismissed in the 78th minute, constituted violent conduct whereby the standard punishment that would otherwise apply was clearly insufficient.”
There are also rumors that at least one camera angle appears to show Hazard only making contact with the ball, and not with Morgan.
Some of Hazard’s fellow athletes have issued statements of support for him as well. English soccer star Michael Owen tweeted that Morgan’s antics were “scandalous,” while Tottenham Hotspur player Gareth Bale called Hazard’s red card an “unbelievable decision by the referee.” Meanwhile Harry Redknapp, the manager of Queens Park Rangers, called Morgan’s actions “disgusting,” describing him as “behaving like an idiot who won’t give you the ball back.”
Hazard has until Jan. 29 to respond to the FA’s charges.