Champions League final supports argument for weak refereeing

Official's decision not to brandish red cards in Champions League final ultimately led to more entertaining showpiece for Uefa

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 June, 2013, 11:53am

Do you prefer your tea or coffee to be strong or weak? Similarly, in soccer, is it reassuring for the refereeing to be strong or weak?

The answer to both is a matter of personal taste. You are likely to favour strong refereeing if you are a purist and true aficionado, otherwise it will be many shades of weak for those who simply enjoy living the moment and have no desire to ruin the surrounding ambience by analysing too deeply.

The best referee is one who has the courage to make decisions even when it would be easier not to

There are strong referees and there are weak ones, each with merits and demerits. But which is better? Sometimes, the answer may be surprising, depending on which teams are playing.

For instance, consider last season's relatively muted Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. Despite initial low expectations, the match turned out to be an exciting and absorbing spectacle with plenty of flowing entertainment. Nevertheless, this unglamorous all-German affair did not garner as much worldwide interest as would, say, a glitzy Manchester United and Barcelona final, or even a dream El Clasico final. And because of this relative lack of global appeal, it seems the weak officiating by Italian referee Nicola Rizzoli escaped the attention and scrutiny of the world's media.

Rizzoli made some major mistakes that were quickly forgotten in the aftermath of Bayern Munich's expected triumph. He missed red cards for two Bayern players, which would have altered the nature and spectacle of the match.

The first occurred in the first half, with the score at 0-0. Bayern's Frank Ribery raised his arm and intentionally smashed it against the face of Dortmund's Robert Lewandowski. Rizzoli had a clear view, but decided to do nothing. A strong referee would have sent off Ribery for violent conduct, while weaker ones would have cautioned him.

In the second half, with the favourites leading 1-0, Bayern's Dante caught Marco Reus around the groin area with his studs. Rizzoli was correct in awarding a penalty, but wrongly decided not to award a yellow card for the unsavoury challenge. This would have been Dante's second caution and the Brazilian should have walked. Some would even argue that Dante's exposed studs warranted a straight red.

If a strong referee had shown red cards for these incidents and Bayern went on to lose the final, no doubt their supporters and critics who care little for the rules would be complaining loudly that officious refereeing decisions had ruined the match.

Instead, the reality shows that the weak referee ignored - whether intentionally or not - these contentious incidents, and subsequently the match turned out to be a fine spectacle.

The danger and dilemma is that a referee has got away with a weak performance because the entertainment value and expected result are more important than applying the laws of the game. Does entertainment override the importance of justice?

Consider the round-of-16 second-leg match between Manchester United and Real Madrid last season. Turkish official Cuneyt Cakir, a strong referee who follows the rules in an exacting manner, sent off Manchester United's Nani for exposing his studs at Real Madrid's Arbeloa.

Subsequently, there was a deluge of controversy and debate regarding this critical game-changing decision. Would a weak referee have been the preferred choice here, too?

Up until that critical moment, this absorbing match was delicately balanced, and had a weak referee permitted Nani to stay on the pitch, it is likely the entertainment value would have skyrocketed. Is there then a case for having weak referees?

In his day, Pierluigi Collina, Uefa's chief refereeing officer, had a reputation as a strong referee. He even said: "The best referee is one who has the courage to make decisions even when it would be easier not to."

Therefore, it is no secret how he prefers his crop of elite-category Fifa referees from Europe. This is why so much support was given to Cakir for making his courageous decision against Manchester United. It was a statement from Collina himself about what is expected of refereeing standards in Uefa's top competition.

This is why Rizzoli's weak performance was so puzzling. In fact, his appointment to referee the final was a surprise to many observers because throughout the season, unlike Cakir and other strong referees, Rizzoli did not demonstrate any strong decision-making.

This season, Cakir had been one of a few standout performers, and Collina showed up at Old Trafford to assess and consider him for the final. Therefore the question remains: does the beautiful game require strong or weak referees?

Agree or disagree? Contact Rational Ref at rationalref@gmail.com