If ever there was a moment when the so-called guardians of football, in the form of UEFA and their angelic referees, shamed a great game and drained the joy out of it for its millions of adoring acolytes, it was in the fifty-sixth minute of the second leg between Manchester United and Real Madrid yesterday. For in choosing to utterly reject his duty to uphold the spirit and occasion of one of football’s most sacrosanct events – the meeting of two torch-carriers of the game in Manchester United and Real Madrid -, in favour of enforcing a crassly pedantic interpretation of the rules, referee Cuneyt Cakir committed blasphemy against the sport. What other phrase is there to bestow on such a capricious, careless act undertaken by a match official on as big a night as this which at a stroke neutered one team, pre-determined the outcome and destroyed one of the greatest spectacles football has offered for years?
If Cakir so reprehensibly failed to grasp the significance of the occasion, and importance not to let unnecessary refereeing interventions cripple it, others did not. Sir Alex Ferguson as good as admitted in his programme notes that the biggest source of kindling that keeps his hunger burning bright for the game at 71 was the prospect of grand European duels on nights such as this, with “a packed Old Trafford, the floodlights on, the pitch glistening and two of the greatest and romantic clubs in the game about to do battle.” For fifty-six minutes, the game between these two great clubs lived up to every one of those hopes and dreams evoked by Ferguson above, and it would have delighted him that his players were largely responsible for that. From first to fifty-sixth minute, they put in a performance of such warrior-like commitment and panache that it adorned football in a magnificent light before one of its largest watching audiences since the last World Cup. These were players who were deservedly etching their names in history with giant-sized performances to match the greatness of the occasion, and who were doing a sterling job in conveying Manchester United’s name as a vehicle for all that is good and inspiring in the game.
How galling, when such stirring footballing lore was in the midst of being created, that a pint-sized insurance agent with an inflated sense of his own power should step in and decide at the injudicious stroke of a card what would happen instead. How galling that one man should wipe out the greatness of United’s performance from the history books, with no consultation of his linesmen in making his decision, nor admittance of the need not to despoil the occasion unless it was absolutely necessary. Ferguson did not prolong his career to have the night which was promising to bring the sum of his labours together in thrilling apotheosis on the pitch, and rank alongside his finest achievements, ruined in such an unnatural way. United had forced Real into a corner through a stunning array of the most fundamental sporting values – competitiveness, tactical ingenuity, physical stamina, lionheartedness – only for that to be rendered null and void by a decision that corrupted the occasion.
If UEFA think there is no need to offer so much as a platitudinous apology for what was allowed to pass as footballing justice yesterday, they are grossly mistaken. Their democratic policy of choosing referees from a variety of countries with different interpretations of the rules has belittled a competition that is supposed to represent the apex of the game in every sense. Juventus were allowed to grapple and manhandle Celtic’s players at every opportunity at set-pieces in their first leg, in full view of the much-vaunted extra referees; but in last year’s competition, AC Milan were reduced to ten men against Barcelona for doing the same thing. In 2011, Robin van Persie received a second yellow card and his marching orders against Barcelona for an offence as trivial as kicking the ball following the referee’s whistle at a point when Arsenal were ahead in the tie, which meant the referee effectively guaranteed a Barcelona comeback; Chelsea suffered much the same against them last year when John Terry was sent off for an offence that an official more in sync with the occasion could easily have issued him a yellow for. Chelsea were also denied a place in the Champions League final of 2009 by a referee who seemed determined not to award them a single penalty despite the evidence piling up to the contrary in their semi-final. Greater consistency in decisions, more merit-based election of officials and, above all, an appreciation that they are there to protect the spirit of the occasion rather than dictate its outcome with heavy-handed decisions is sorely required if fans are not to begin growing disillusioned with the tournament. For there is no doubt that plenty of neutrals would have woken up this morning feeling that Manchester United had been denied their rightful place in the quarter-finals of the Champions League in the cruellest manner possible, and that the lack of any correction of these grievances will lead to some adopting a resigned, apathetic attitude to this tournament in the future.