I was watching the Manchester United v Real Madrid match last night while following the #BBCFootball tag on Twitter. It was an okay game, not particularly special or exciting for the neutral and certainly not living up to the hype, even after United got the first goal. Then it all changed, and watching the resulting TwitterStorm there were two things that struck me that I couldn’t explain in 140 characters, so I thought I’d write about it here.

The Incident

The incident in question is obviously the red card for Nani on 55 minutes which changed the game. Like most watching, my first reaction was that it was a definite yellow card and so I was a little surprised when the ref showed the red card instead. Most of the tweets that followed were broadly along the same lines, and I have to agree that I thought the red card was harsh. At the same time, the more I saw of the replays, the more I can understand why the ref produced the red. I’m not saying that I would have made the same call, and since the making of a decision is based on ones own thoughts and opinions, that doesn’t make me right any more than it makes the ref wrong.

I took a look at a few other ‘similar’ incidents including an Eboue tackle for Arsenal (clearly a red for different reasons) and the famous ‘non-red’ for de Jong against Alsonso a couple of years back which also involved studs to the chest. I also flicked through the FIFA Law 12 document (here) and not just the early bits. For me, the definition on slide 64 is key. This is in the part of the document describing red card offences and states “Any player who lunges at an opponent in challenging for the ball from the front, from the side or behind using one or both legs, with excessive force and endangering the safety of an opponent is guilty of serious foul play”.

I’ve now gone back and looked at the replays of this incident, and frozen play at the point of contact, I have to say there is no doubt in my mind that the tackle was dangerous. Both players are in the air and Nani’s boot hit Arbeloas ribs. The ball is at headable height, and if Arbeloa had going to head the ball instead, as he was entitled to do, the contact would have been higher up the chest or possibly the head, and even more dangerous.

It’s interesting that Lee Dixon suggested in post match commentary that if Nani had known Arbeloa was there, and still made the challenge then that would have merited a red card. I find that a curious view since intent plays no part in the rule. The rule has two clauses – 1) was the force excessive and 2) does it endanger the safety of another player. If a challenge meets both those criteria in the eyes of the referee, then by the rules of the game the offender must be sent off.

So really the only question in my mind is whether there was excessive force.  Nani is in the air, jumping forwards trying to reach a ball. He had momentum carrying him, and since he was in the air he had no control. If there were no other players near by, there would have been no problem. The fact there was another player there makes a difference regardless of whether Nani was aware of them. I.e. the definition of what is and is not excessive has to be applied to a specific situation. In this specific situation, Nani jumped into a challenge, with his foot high with studs showing, and without being fully aware of the risks of the immediate situation. Since he had no idea of the risk, I can see why jumping in, studs up and high could be considered excessive in that situation.

I still think it was harsh, and it was in no way the travesty or completely unreasonable decision that many people are claiming. Oh, and in response to those over reacting with statements of “oh, so overhead kicks are banned now are they?”, I give you page 26 and “A scissors or bicycle kick is permissible provided that, in the opinion of the referee, it is not dangerous to an opponent.”.

The Spectacle

The other thing I noted from the TwitterStorm was that many people instantly decided that “the match is ruined”. They clearly weren’t watching the same game I was, since it became a better spectacle for the neutral than it was before. Mourinho was spot on that Real were below par and that United were the better team to the point of the sending off, the net result of which served to balance the game and make it more exciting.

Even after Real took the lead, United had several great chances and on another night they could have still edged it even with 10 men. It took several solid saves from the Real keeper to keep their lead, and combined with some good keeping from de Gea and wasteful shooting from the Real forwards, the United push was good to watch. I’m not suggesting that justifies or excuses the decision, just that for a neutral the game was more engaging after the red card than before it.

I do understand why fans of their team will blame the ref for ruining a chance at further glory – I’ve been there myself many times, and sometimes you have to say that if only from an entertainment perspective, it can make for better viewing.