Champions League: Manchester United vs. Real Madrid (Knock-out Stage, 2nd Leg, Mar13)


Ad nauseam the media and social networks remind us that Nani’s send-off in the 2nd leg of the knock-out round of the Champions League by the Turkish referee was not with excessive force and that Nani certainly had no intent or any malice (deliberateness) in his challenge to qualify for serious foul play and thus a dismissal. See image file of the incident below.

Nani challenging for the ball. Serious Foul Play (excessive force) ingredients ticked off: High, at speed, right angles, extended stiff leg, studs first, launched into air,  intensity of contact, speed of players.
Nani challenging for the ball. Serious Foul Play — all the ingredients for excessive force ticked off: High challenge, at speed, right angles, extended stiff leg, studs first, launched into air and intensity of contact.

The sequence frames can be seen here:

A clear impression is created in the media the absence of malice/deliberateness from Nani is the only reason why player Nani should not have been send off for serious foul play. Furthermore, most commentators reason that Nani’s resultant kick with his outstretched leg to bring an aerial ball under control did not endanger the safety or health of his opponent when his boot or studs connected with the chest of his luckless opponent.

As always, The Law as a framework and start point:

LAW XII: 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.

Using excessive force” means that the player has far exceeded the necessary use of force and is in danger of injuring his opponent. A player who uses excessive force must be sent off.

Excessive force. There lies the rub. How do referees judge excessive force?

Most media opinions pontificate, without mentioning the FIFA mandated criteria referees should consider for conditions of serious foul play/excessive force, the Turkish referee made a shocking decision to dismiss player Nani. It certainly was, if the referee’s decision to dismiss the Manchester United winger was based on the malice factor alone. However, there was no malice or deliberate intent to harm his opponent. How do we know this?

Body language and movement of Nani. As can be seen in the CLIP SEQUENCE above, Nani is clearly looking at the ball about to drop into his path — his head turned, looking upwards — and it can be reasonably assumed he is not aware of the close proximity of his immediate opponent.

Note that referees cannot speculate what a player subjectively wants to do to his opponent, i.e. the “Sorry-ref-I-didn’t-intend-to-injure” apologies do not cut mustard. Referees are not mind readers and therefor don’t judge accordingly; they only judge the external bodily actions of players executing their challenges on the field of play, and they judge what those flailing arms/hands, outstretched legs, exposed studs etc. did, or could have done to an opponent.

I mentioned above  “criteria” to judge serious foul play. Before we get to these criteria/factors specifically and what they entail, a quick sidenote to illustrate that malice, or deliberateness to harm, is but only one of the criteria to take cognisance of in judging the seriousness of dangerous play and hence a possible dismissal under Law 12: Fouls and Misconduct (serious foul play)

To debunk the camp of football followers that believe the “absence of player intent to harm (malice) should imply no send off whatsoever” we have to pose the following two-fold pertinent questions:

(1) Should player malice be the only factor/criteria in assessing possible excessive force and thus serious foul play?

(2) If not, should player malice be the most important criteria in deciding if a player played with excessive force/serious foul play?

Answer: Absolutely not. To both posed questions. Why? Below is a graphic sequence of events for those that hold  the viewpoint the malice factor should be the only, or most important, criteria for a dismissal under serious foul play.

Incident (No Malice):

We have a player in the above clip doing a bicycle/scissors kick, and we can see he is, most probably, not aware of the close proximity of his opponent. And if he was aware of his opponent, it can be argued he was trying to play the ball only and not kick his opponent senseless in the execution of his overhead kick.  Thus, no malice on his part — or deliberateness — to injure his opponent can be made in this incident.

As can be seen in the above clip, he kicks his opponent, in the face, 6-7 feet off the ground. Are we now to reason that there was zero danger to the safety of his opponent? Or to reason that the above kick did not, or could not have, endangered his opponent’s health seriously because one criteria is absent, i.e. zero malice/intent/deliberateness on the player’s part? Of course not.

Therefor, referees cannot look at player malice as the sole defining criteria of potential dangerous challenges. Referees have to appraise additional criteria, the seriousness thereof, and assessing whether such challenges use excessive force. These additional criteria, according to Fifa’s instructions, are

*** Angles of player movement–[right angles potentially more severe injury]
*** Extended/stiff leg(s)– [Potentially more force used]
*** Launched off the ground– [gives greater speed and potentially harder impact]
*** Actual point and/or height of contact– [more vulnerable/exposed body parts]
*** Speed/intensity of contact — [increased danger the faster the speed of players]
*** Possible malice present– [judged by player’s body language/movement]
*** Atmosphere of match? [bad-tempered, highly contested match or played in good spirit w/ good sportsmanship]
*** Opinion of the Referee– [view/angle to incident and what he is aware of, or believe to have seen]

Lastly, Fifa’s instruction in a recent seminar I attended: if the referee has any doubt, aka as “orange card” incidents: Start with red card/dismissal, and find compelling reasons to not send the player off.

Are we now so sure Mr. Turkey made such an abysmal and clearly wrong decision given all above criteria to be considered, as mandated by Fifa? Could the referee rather have decided that non-malice -and possibly the match atmosphere – be the  overriding criteria?

Did the referee attach more weight to the other factors mentioned above? Obviously he did. Nani was dismissed. The Law empowers him with the words: In the “opinion of the referee” in conjunction with the FIFA instructed criteria for a dismissal under serious foul play.

Turkish Fifa Referee Cüneyt Çakir: EUFA had "no problem" with the dismissal of United's Nani for serious foul play (excessive force).
Turkish Fifa Referee Cüneyt Çakir: EUFA had “no problem” with the dismissal of United’s Nani for serious foul play (excessive force).

It is not such a watertight, black and white, open-and-shut case as the football media has made out to be with Nani’s dismissal, and so eagerly trumpeted as such. For one, the social and news media, including most football pundits, certainly don’t inform their readers on all pertinent criteria, as instructed by FIFA, as to how referees should assess these incidents under serious foul play/excessive force. Non-malice is but one factor in the referee’s appraisal and decision-making process.

A degree of judgement, how critical you might think it is, referee Cuneyt Cakir did exercise, as empowered by Law 12 and the relevant mandated FIFA additional serious foul play criteria, and for that reason UEFA’s Referee Committee did not disagree with his dismissal decision made, overseen by the watchful eye of none other then Pierluigi Collina, present at the stadium on match night.