My brother recently stated that a pet hate of his is was the use of the term "cynical challenge" to describe a football tackle.
Can a nasty challenge be worded as a "cynical challenge"?
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I believe that your original confusion over whether "tackle" is being used as a noun or a verb lies at the heart of this question.
No, a tackle (n) cannot be cynical. But a person may tackle (v) with a cynical disregard for the spirit of the game.
To be grammatically correct, the sentence should refer to the act (of tackling or challenging) made cynically. Since it is a verb that is being modified, then the modifier ought to be an adverb.
So why are "cynical challenges" made so frequently, because the commentators have as little regard for the niceties of grammar as the players concerned do for those of football.
The term 'cynical' can for sure be used for a noun. In this context, it is used for describing a rather hurtful tackle in football, i.e., more inclined towards negative of sportsmanship. In that sense, the word might go well with the usage here. However, usages in English have been so varied that it's almost impossible to know the correct or incorrect usage. To point the least, many novelists invariably use pretty unconventional adjectives in writings.
In football (i.e. real football, not the gridiron stuff) a "cynical tackle" would be a tackle on another player that deliberately risks breaking the rules, or maybe even does break the rules, but the player judges that the downside of the violation (maybe a free kick or a yellow card) is outweighed by the benefit of getting the ball of the opposition. A "cynical challenge" is another way of saying the same thing. For example a very physical challenge on an attacking player just outside the penalty area, so that if the defender commits a foul they only give away a free kick and not a penalty.
It's one step less bad than the "professional foul" which is a blatant and deliberate foul on another player, for example to stop them scoring a goal. A professional foul almost always gets a red card from the ref ("taking one for the team") and ofen leads to a penalty — but that might be judged worth it if you were, for example, one goal up in the last minutes of a cup final.