Manchester United was leading Real Madrid 1-0 in the 56th minute of the marquee game of the UEFA Champions League Round of 16, when Nani jumped into the air with an outstretched leg.
The Portuguese winger was hoping to control a high ball with his foot, and his eyes were firmly fixed on it. He didn’t see that Alvaro Arbeloa was closing in on him and had jumped for the same ball. The studs of Nani’s cleats met Arbeloa in the chest, sending the Real Madrid defender to the ground in a heap.
After consulting with his assistants for one minute, referee Cuneyt Cakir showed Nani a red card. United players, staff and fans were naturally furious about the decision, as it had grave implications for the rest of the game. Madrid grew in confidence and overturned United’s advantage with two goals in 13 minutes. The Spanish club held on for a 3-2 aggregate victory over its English opponent.
United manager Sir Alex Ferguson chose not to speak to the media after the game. UEFA could very well fine him for doing so, but however much they dock him might be less than any sanction his comments (had he made any) would have warranted. Instead, United assistant manager Mike Phelan spoke to the media on behalf of the club, according to the BBC.
“It’s a distraught dressing room and a distraught manager,” Phelan said. “That’s why I am sitting here now. I don’t think the manager is in any fit state to talk to the referee about the decision. It speaks volumes that I am sitting here now rather than the manager of this fantastic football club.”
“We are extremely disappointed and wondering what has happened and why it has happened.
“Referees are there to make decisions but there is also an element of doing the right thing. All the media and a television audience watching all over the world will have an opinion on the decision but it was a disappointing one and it spoiled the game.”
The BBC reports Jose Mourinho was diplomatic in his assessment of Cakir’s decision.
“I can say for certain Arbeloa did not feign contact,” the Real Madrid manager said. “It was quite strong and he was shown a red. It could have been a yellow. Playing with a man down for such a long period of time is going to change a lot. When we were against 10, we played very well for 10 minutes. We gave them a new problem they couldn’t solve.”
Cakir’s call has divided opinion among players, pundits and fans. Many have been quick to weigh in on the matter — without consulting FIFA’s laws concerning serious foul play. Some say that since Nani didn’t “intend” to make contact with Arbeloa, he should not have been sent off. But the FIFA law does not mention intent, leaving the referee to decide if excessive force was used to commit a foul. It has three
“A player is guilty of serious foul play if he uses excessive force or brutality against an opponent when challenging for the ball when it is in play … Excessive force means that the player has far exceeded the necessary use of force and is in danger of injuring his opponent.”
Had the referee thought Nani acted “recklessly,” he would have been cautioned. Instead, Cakir decided that the United attacker used “excessive force” against Arbeloa and dismissed him. The Turkish official didn’t need to face the media after the game, so there’s no way to know how he came to that conclusion. The debate over Nani’s red card rages on and will continue to do so into the future.
Here is your chance to weigh in. Did Nani deserve that red card? Check out an animation of the incident and vote in our poll below.