I have rarely seen such a remarkable European tie as this year’s European Cup quarter-final (NB: “leagues” don’t have “quarter finals”) between Real Madrid and Juventus. These were two exceptionally talented teams, superbly trained, clashing on one of the game’s largest stages. A fine early team goal, some daft messages, a candidate for goal of the decade, an epic comeback and then a gripping finale – it really did have everything.
However, it also left a hint of a sour taste. Right at the end of the tie, English referee Michael Oliver made not just the right, but also an extremely courageous decision to award the decisive penalty. For this, he was surrounded and shoved by angry defenders including Gianluigi Buffon, who thus saw red in his final European match. Unfortunately Mr Buffon, a fine ambassador for the game generally, then further let himself down by suggesting in no uncertain terms that Mr Oliver should not be a referee.
Mr Buffon’s logic was rather curious. Essentially, Mr Oliver should not have awarded the penalty not because a foul had not been committed, but because it deprived us of the drama (presumably of Mr Buffon’s own team completing the comeback in extra-time). This is ludicrous – and it takes someone in authority to point out it is ludicrous. It is dangerously ludicrous, in fact.
That it is dangerously ludicrous was demonstrated on the very day of the second leg by a story from the English Midlands of an amateur referee having to withdraw his (effectively voluntary) service to the game because he had been physically assaulted for the second time. This is extremely serious.
There remains within the game of football a culture which tolerates blistering attacks on the referees – even when these are in error. Here is the thing – if someone with the high reputation of Gianluigi Buffon is entitled to yell at a referee from inches away and to say he should be in the stand with his family instead, then others will inevitably take this as licence to engage in their own anti-referee activities. We know this can approach and sometimes exceed the boundary between verbal abuse (bad enough) and outright physical assault.
Mr Buffon should now use his status as a soon-to-be-retired ambassador for the game to apologise profusely for his terminology and accept the nonsense of his argument. In fact, what happened was that the world’s greatest player was allowed a free header at the far post, from which a situation arose where the best way to stop a goal was to bundle over that player’s team mate by both pushing and kicking him at the same time. Contrary to what the “experts” in the studio may have said, a clearer penalty award you will rarely see – and Mr Buffon should say so, publicly, in retrospect, while expressing sorrow directly to Mr Oliver.
If Mr Buffon cannot manage this, UEFA or even FIFA should consider stepping in. It is long since time that the game’s authorities stood up for their officials. Mr Oliver didn’t get to do a press conference where he could have analysed Juventus’ dodgy defending in the last few minutes, but somehow Juventus get to accuse him (wrongly, as it turns out) of dodgy officiating. It is plainly unacceptable, and it then ripples down the game until a referee is forced to quit in an amateur league in England because of the abuse and assaults he completely unjustifiably receives.
To be clear, Mr Buffon’s reaction was unacceptable even if Mr Oliver had been wrong. But Mr Oliver also was clearly not wrong. So what will it take for the game’s authorities to react? How many referees have to quit at amateur level, or retire at Premier League or La Liga level, before it is recognised fundamentally that the game is nothing without its officials?
Mr Buffon was wrong. Mr Oliver was right. It is essential we all recognise it openly.