Ref justice?

Rob McNichol agrees that Manchester United's Nani should not have been sent off against Real Madrid, but also thinks Cuneyt Cakir was left with problems by the laws of the game...

Nani receives his marching orders for the challenge on Arbeloa

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I am not going to come before you and speculate on whether or not Manchester United deserve to be in the next round of the UEFA Champions League.

To suggest that Real Madrid would definitely not have scored in the 40 or so minutes that were played after what will surely be one of the most talked about moments of the season occurred, is frankly disrespectful to a wonderful football team. There is every chance Real could have won 2-1 anyway. There is also every chance United would have extended their lead by another goal or two. We shall never know.

There were also other matters in the game which I feel the referee didn't correctly identify. I thought Manchester United should have had a penalty for a trip on Danny Welbeck. I also thought Rafael handled the ball to block a shot which would have meant a spot kick to Madrid and maybe his own dismissal.

However, the dominant talking point is that Nani was sent off for a challenge on Alvaro Arbeloa, and this undoubtedly swung the game inexorably in Real Madrid's favour. So this is what we must tackle.

The Laws

A player is guilty of serious foul play if he uses excessive force or brutality against an opponent when challenging for the ball when it is in play. Using excessive force means that the player has far exceeded the necessary use of force and is in danger of injuring his opponent. Any player who lunges at an opponent when challenging for the ball from the front, from the side or from behind using one or both legs, with excessive force and endangering the safety of an opponent, is guilty of serious foul play.

It is firstly very important to distinguish what Nani was sent off for. He was not dismissed for 'Violent Conduct'. Violent conduct is defined as an act when you are not challenging for the ball, which Nani clearly was.

He was sent off for 'Serious Foul Play', and to be dismissed for this you must "use excessive force or brutality against an opponent when challenging for the ball when it is in play."

Further to this, the law states: "A tackle that endangers the safety of an opponent must be sanctioned as serious foul play."

It is on this last point we must focus, and it is one of those annoyingly malleable phrases that exist in the Laws of the Game which you can massage to fit your point. I saw a challenge on Saturday where two people jumped for a header and clashed heads. They each could have had serious head injuries from that.

At Stoke, Peter Crouch swung a leg to scissor kick a ball and ended up kicking Matt Taylor in the face. Taylor was taken off after apparently losing consciousness temporarily: Crouch was not even booked. Did he endanger his opponent's safety? Sure he did. But he didn't mean it.

Did you hear an outcry from people demanding to know why Crouch wasn't punished? Did you even hear Sam Allardyce or anyone from West Ham asking why no action was taken? I didn't.

If you attempted to apply the exact sentence to the actual game of football you would barely get through a game without dismissing someone for it. Even this game, before Nani's exit, had the Madrid goalkeeper punching Vidic in the face. He came for a corner, missed, and punched Vidic right in the chops. So it's a penalty, right? And a red card! He could have knocked him out!

Should Nani have been sent off?

I'm of course being deliberately over the top. My point is that there is far more to a decision that the black and white text.

In many ways the wording of the Law is a nonsense. Take the phrase: "A tackle that endangers the safety of an opponent must be sanctioned as serious foul play" as noted above. Now compare it to: "Reckless" means that the player has acted with complete disregard to the danger to, or consequences for, his opponent. A player who plays in a reckless manner must be cautioned."

I can't see a lot of difference between the two items there and yet they emerge telling you two different things. Had the referee only cautioned Nani and then had to face people asking why he didn't send him off then he could still hide behind the law.

There are other things that referees are instructed to take note of - one of those being the matter of intent.

Above all, regarding Nani, I don't for a second believe that he meant to kick Arbeloa. What he did was reckless and dangerous and without doubt worthy of a caution, but he did not have any thought along the lines of 'I'm going to hurt someone here'. Not thinking about what you do and actually hurting someone is practically a definition of the word 'reckless.'

Even if referees - and refereeing bodies - feel that this sort of thing is worthy of dismissal, I honestly think they are missing a trick by not involving players in the discussion. You can tell by their body language that no Real Madrid players were expecting - nor demanding - a red card. Players think differently to referees - in fact they also think differently to fans - and they have an instinctive feel for fair play, for the most part. I feel certain that if 1,000 players were polled, from all corners of the earth, that at least 90 per cent would say this deserves a caution at most.

I'd turn the situation on its head. Had Nani not been sent off, I don't think I'd be typing this report defending the referee for not dismissing him under the weight of letters demanding to know why he wasn't sent off. You'd have forgotten it by now.

Phelan: We're distraught

Lastly, I have heard plenty of comments along the lines of 'Well, that's what you get for having a Turkish referee in charge.' I'm really not a fan of that borderline xenophobic type of comment, but I can amend it to create what I think is a realistic criticism and leads to a positive and creative solution.

I don't think the referee's nationality should make him inherently unable to do the job. It would be like saying that George Weah should never have played for a top club because Liberians aren't very good at football. Nonsense - if he's good enough, then sign him, pick him. His nationality in many ways is superfluous information.

What I will say is that, such as in this case, when two giants of world football meet, representing two of, if not the two strongest leagues in European football, it would be nice to have an official taking charge who is used to dealing with such games. The Turkish league is far from a mugs' league, but it is not among the top half a dozen in Europe in terms of quality.

To me the solution is not to only select referees from England or Spain or Italy or Germany or the like. I would instead like to see officials from all over Europe take part in exchange programmes where they can take charge of games in other country's domestic leagues.

This would not only allow elite referees from countries whose domestic football is not of the highest standard to improve their work, but also allow them to experience how different countries have their own footballing culture. It would widen their horizons and make them better at what they are clearly naturally good at.

I don't believe that, for the most part, referees will be able to take their game to the highest level - and there is no higher level than Manchester United v Real Madrid - without getting regular experience officiating at a high level.

There is no way either Jose Mourinho or Sir Alex Ferguson would have had a player on loan in the Austrian league all season then recalled them to play in this match. They may be a great player, but they wouldn't be up to speed under these conditions.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, on this night, neither was Cuneyt Cakir.

Should Nani have been sent off?

  • Yes
  • No