Five years on from the last meeting between two giants of world football, Real Madrid and Juventus served up a first half of fascinating quality on Wednesday night to tee up what should have been a sensational crescendo. But, yet again, the fans leaving the Bernabeu at full-time and those digesting what they had seen on TV all across the globe were left talking about cheating and abysmal officiating after Giorgio Chiellini’s ridiculous red card.
The decision to send the Juve defender from the field of play in the 48th minute of his side’s 2-1 Champions League Group B defeat would have damaged the memory of what should have been a fantastic match regardless of the context. But Cristiano Ronaldo’s unforgivable play-acting and the officials’ conclusion that Chiellini should play no further part for simply administering the kind of defending that is seen 100 times per game struck a blow against the spirit in which football is supposed to be played.
Chiellini had already fallen foul of the assistant referees once, with Madrid’s vital second goal coming from a penalty conceded by the giant stopper after he pulled back the home side’s Sergio Ramos at a corner. That decision had been made thanks to good communication between the team of officials, with the additional assistant behind the goal helping the referee come to the correct outcome.
However, Chiellini’s red card was altogether less worthy, and the main person to blame for the dismissal was Ronaldo. When chasing a ball into the far corner of the field, the Madrid striker was side-by-side with Chiellini when the Italian stretched out a high arm to leverage a path in front of the €94 million man, making contact with Ronaldo at the top of the chest before sliding his arm up against the Portuguese’s chin. Ronaldo’s response was to sprawl across the turf, clutching a face in general and nose in particular that had not been touched.
Tussle | Chiellini had earlier given away the vital penalty from which Madrid won the game
The correct decision would have been to award Real Madrid a free-kick, with a booking at most issued to Chiellini, while referee Manuel Grafe would also have been well within his rights to book Ronaldo too for his sensational simulation. Instead, with Grafe unsighted due to the angle at which the two players had been running, it was left to the assistant referee and official behind the goal to lend their wisdom to the episode. Unlike with the penalty incident, he was badly let down by his team, receiving word that Chiellini had committed an act of foul play when clearly he had not.
Juve coach Antonio Conte immediately responded by replacing goalscorer Fernando Llorente with defender Leonardo Bonucci, limiting the outlet the Bianconeri had earlier had when taking the game to Madrid. The red card, coupled with Conte’s decision to err on the side of caution, turned a thrilling contest into something of a non-event thereafter.
How many more times must major fixtures be ruined by disgraceful decisions based on cheating footballers who are trying to get one over on opponents by foul means rather than fair? Chiellini was wronged by the team of officials, but more so by a fellow professional. Ronaldo also spoiled the enjoyment of most of the watching world with his successful attempt to con the referees.
Much is said about the need for video evidence in football, but first and foremost it is the players who need to become the vanguard of fair play, especially those at the very top of the sport such as Ronaldo. In truth, that is never going to happen. Increasingly, officials are becoming a bunch of ill-equipped kindergarten teachers trying to control sneaky children attempting to get one another into trouble. It is world football’s job now to find the best detectors of this cheating as much as it is to get referees who are fully aware of the rules.
Huge punishments for cheats would be a start, but it appears a non-starter in the eyes of the game’s governing bodies. Officials need to take greater responsibility for taking big decisions without a huge degree of certainty over what they have seen too.
Another potentially fantastic game has been ruined, and football fans are left with yet another sour taste in the mouth as a result. Sooner or later, something has to be done.