Yesterday EPL giants Manchester United were eliminated from the UEFA Champions League.
The English language press’ outpourings of grief and horror were on a scale that surely matched the media flagellation currently being played out on Venezuelan television for their deceased leader Hugo Chavez.
For anyone with a lower level of European football interest or knowledge, they may have concluded that the elimination marked both a milestone (made of actual stone) in European football history and moreso the gravest miscarriage of football justice since 1986.
United’s 1-2 loss at home to Real Madrid followed a 1-1 draw in the Spanish capital, giving the Madrilenos a 2-3 aggregate win. Who are these upstarts Real Madrid, who dared topple media and global darlings Manchester United?
They are merely nine times winners of this trophy, the most successful club in European football history and champions of Spain.
United have won the same European trophy a mere three times and they weren’t the top side in England last year. Hell, they weren’t even the top side in Manchester.
Much of the outrage focused on a 57th minute decision by Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir. He produced a straight red card for a tackle by United forward Nani on Alvaro Arbeloa.
The normally restrained Guardian alluded to his “controversial handling” of the game in a piece which linked linked to their matchday article which referenced no controversy or anger, except from Manchester United’s own staff.
English anchorman Warren Barton was working for the Fox Soccer Channel and repeatedly referenced the referee ‘costing United the game’, and Madrid being so good but not needing help from the referee. Barton’s work is usually very good but on this occasion, he let his viewers down in our opinion.
To justify that assertion, we are going to examine the two fundamental pillars of his reasoning:
1. Did the referee make an error of fact or law egregious enough to justify the reaction or was it just a call that didn’t go United’s way?
2. Did Nani’s exit ‘cost’ United the game?
Nani had his studs raised at the start of the tackle to roughly chest height, but his foot was on the downward cycle by the time it met the opponent Arbeloa. His defence counsel cited a bizarre line of reasoning.
‘Nani was watching the ball’ and did not know where his opponent was.
Can one’s own negligence be a defence? Surely knowing where your opponents are is part of a top professional’s duty, especially when he’s about to raise his studs above the waste. Indeed, that is exactly the reason why FIFA has rules against dangerous play and high boots. There is always a chance an opponent’s head or midriff will be in that area.
Nani’s lack of attention to who else might be in his vicinity is not a defence but an indictment of his own recklessness. Studs at that height are discouraged not because you always hit someone, but because there is a likelihood of it and the increased chance of serious harm to the exposed bits of your opponent.
Secondly whether Nani knew where his opponent is or not, the studs to the midriff could be termed serious foul play. Nani did not kick him that hard and no-one could say with 100% certainty Arbeloa didn’t milk it. He did, but Ferguson has had plenty players over the years who have done the same. But you put studs at thigh height, you’re risking damage to some pretty serious organs. Dangerous play does not have to be deliberate.
It was definitely a yellow card and probably a very very dark orange, not quite a nailed on red perhaps because the contact was not that hard, but far nearer a red than a yellow. In the split second the referee had, he made a call that is justifiable. If not unquestionable.
Put aside such partial and aggrieved judges as Sir Alex Ferguson, Rio Ferdinand and the Guardian.
It was indeed a harsh call perhaps.
The sort that normally goes United’s way, especially at Old Trafford? Maybe. But really … a monumental injustice? No. Not by any stretch of the imagination.
UEFA have jumped in and said they had no problem with Cakir’s handling of the match. The governing body says its disciplinary panel will judge the case on 21 March, and a spokesman added: “There are no issues for us regarding the sending off.” They are judging Nani’s tackle and United’s reaction.
That view was backed by former Manchester United captain Roy Keane on English television:
“I think the referee has actually made the right call. Everyone’s upset about it and it’s slightly unlucky, but it’s dangerous play. Whether he meant it or not is irrelevant. It’s dangerous play – it’s a red card. You have to be aware of other players on the pitch.
Does he think he’s going to have 20 yards to himself? Whether it’s [a brave decision] or not, it’s the right decision. Whether he meant it or not doesn’t matter. Nani’s a quick boy to go down anyway. He’s not the bravest player on the planet.”
On the same BBC page as Keane, another ex United star Pat Crerand takes Keane to task:
“Roy Keane was in a minority of one. Not one person said it was a red card except Roy. Does Roy want to be noticed? Why are we talking about Roy Keane – because he played for Manchester United.
Well, let me tell you something. I played with Manchester United, I played in a European Cup final, Roy didn’t. The referee was wrong.”
What Crerand (and the BBC) forgot to mention in his opinion about possessing sufficient credentials to have an opinion is that Crerand still works for Manchester United on their MUTV station.
He is not impartial. He should not have been quoted as if he were.
That does not mean only United fans and employees disagree with the call.
Former referee Dermot Gallagher weighed in:
“At worst it was a yellow for dangerous play, but if I was refereeing that game I cannot see by what stretch of the imagination I would have sent him off for that.”
Former Germany and Liverpool player Dietmar Hamann said it was ‘not even a booking‘.
The call was debatable but not unreasonable. Far from being sympathetic to United’s whimpering, UEFA are playing hardball.
They are taking action over Nani’s red card and the “non-fulfilment of post-match media obligations” at Old Trafford. The latter refers to Sir Alex Ferguson’s boycott of the post match press conference. Their players also walked through ‘the mixed zone”, the term for the area where journalists congregate to secure post match interviews.
It was a combined demonstration of petulance from a group of professionals who ought to know better.
Rio Ferdinand’s sarcastic applause in the face of the referee may also be discussed on March 21 although there is no verbal indication from UEFA yet on that matter.
The second strand of Barton’s reasoning is that the dismissal of Nani cost United the match.
United led 1-0 at the time (2-1 on aggregate). While not exactly cruising, they had weathered the worst of Madrid’s early storm and given themselves a comfort goal. A 0-0 score was enough for them to advance. Their 1-0 lead gave them a cushion against an away goal.
No-one can say for certain but odds were against Madrid securing the one goal they needed to force the game into extra time.
After they lost Nani however, United seemed to suffer an intestinal collapse; almost as if they wanted the self-pity of being victimised as much as the win. The ‘look what you did to us’ glances at the referee post match seem to bear that out. It was a most atypical performance from a team whose fighting qualities have been to the fore this season.
But there is no law of football that decrees a side who lose a forward have to collapse defensively. Ten men have defended leads for half an hour often in football history. They have done so without even a defender never mind a winger.
There was nothing inevitable about Madrid’s victory as Nani left the field. United had lost an attacking outlet. They had not lost a defender. What they did lose was their discipline.
That is no-one else’s fault.
Not even Cuneyt Cakir.