By Paul Gardner
So it's the referee's fault again. A Turkish referee, Cuneyt Cakir, had the gall to red-card Manchester United’s Nani --- at Old Trafford, no less -- and Real Madrid won the game. And a torrent of abuse has gathered about Cakir's head.
To be expected -- at least from the ManU fans, and to a lesser extent from those fans who believe British clubs should win everything. But this particular wave of disgust with the referee seems to have overwhelmed our resident experts at Fox Soccer.
Warren Barton, broadcasting live, and doing a pretty good job, was the first to succumb. Having just praised Cakir for “handling the game very well,” he gasped at the red card, declared himself speechless, but managed to add “I’ve been in the game for 25 years, I’ve never seen a red card for that.”
The particular “that” referred to by Barton was the sight of Nani’s cleats ramming into the rib cage of Real Madrid defender Alvaro Arbeloa. Barton admitted “Yes, it’s a high foot” but insisted that the offense merited only “A yellow card -- max -- for me.”
Watching the replay, Barton indignantly asked “Is there any intent there whatever?”
Back in the Fox studio, the assembled panel -- with Rob Stone in the chair, and Eric Wynalda, Brian McBride and Richard Gough the opinion guys -- had their say.
McBride: Not a red card -- there’s no intent.
Gough: In a big game like this the referee has to be 100 percent correct, there can’t be any doubt in his mind,” then, watching the replay again, “Definitely not intent involved.”
Rob Stone asked, tellingly, how do you judge intent? Wynalda admitted that he didn’t know. Stone commented “Impossible to judge intent.”
Back to Barton, now telling us “You have to be 100 percent certain there was intent”.
Wynalda leveled the age-old criticism at referees: “... you wonder, how much do they really know? How much have they played the game?”
And you might also wonder how much the panel of experts knows -- how often have they read the rules? Because here you have a bunch of four top ex-players, and none of them knows what the rule says -- the very rule they’re discussing. I would have thought that when you’re employed -- by which I mean paid -- to be an expert on soccer, one thing you’d do for sure -- maybe the first thing -- would be to bone up on the rules.
Appallingly, none of these guys has. Allow me to make that worse -- they are working from a rulebook that was re-written in 1997. None of them, not Barton, not McBride, not Wynalda, not Gough, has bothered to keep up to date, to actually read the rules.
What happened in 1997 (among other changes) was that “intent” was virtually written out of the rules. It remained only for cases of handball. For all other fouls, it ceased to be relevant. The fouls -- kicking, tripping, charging, striking, pushing etc -- are all still there, but the referee from then on has had to judge whether they are committed in a careless, or a reckless way, or if “excessive force” has been used.
In 1996 I attended a referees’ seminar on these changes, where it was announced, with relief I thought, that “referees will no longer be required to be mind readers.”
I’ll emphasize that I’m making no judgment on that rule change. But a change, a huge change, it was. Forget intent. Yet here we have the Fox experts condemning Cuneyt Cakir for failing to apply a rule that was abolished 17 seasons ago.
Nothing in what I’m saying precludes the possibility that Cakir got the call wrong. But if he did, it had nothing to do with the presence or absence of intent.
One might agree with Barton that this foul warranted only a yellow card, but that would be questioning Cakir’s judgment on the severity (and not the intent) of the foul. Cakir evidently judged the foul to involve the use of “excessive force” (defined in the rule book as “far exceeding the necessary use of force” and “in danger of injuring his opponent”) and therefore a red card. Barton would claim that it was only a “reckless” foul (“complete disregard to the danger to, or consequences for, his opponent”), and therefore a yellow card.
That is an arguable issue. I’m not trying to sit on the fence here. Cakir’s decision is, to me, the correct one, within the rules, because that was how he saw the foul. Four Fox experts may well see it differently. But they need to do their homework before mouthing off.
Amazingly, the most sensible comment on Cakir’s decision came from former ManU hard man and hit man, Roy Keane. It’s worth listening to -- Wynalda, who thinks only the players know what’s what -- should pay attention. Here is Roy Keane: “In my career I would think ‘did I give the referee a chance to send me off?’ If I did, then it is out of my hands. I think that is the right decision. It is irrelevant if Nani meant to do it. He should be aware of the players around him. Does he think that he will have 20 yards to himself?”