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Nani victim of inconsistency

I waited to write this week’s column on the off chance that something of note might happen on Tuesday night at Old Trafford. A good decision as it turned out.

Before we even think about Nani and Arbeloa and Manchester United versus Real Madrid, let’s look back at a rather different contest that took place in the Barclays Premier League at the weekend.

In the game between Stoke City and West Ham at the Britannia on Saturday, Peter Crouch attempted one of those spectacular overhead scissor kicks for which he is famous. This time, he didn’t score and instead ended up kicking Matt Taylor in the head. The West Ham player was knocked out for a short while and had to leave the field in just the 10th minute of the game.

Crouch offered the prone opponent his apologies, explained his actions to Taylor’s teammates and referee Jon Moss and we all sat and watched and hoped would Taylor make a quick recovery. Then the game went on and that was pretty much it. Crouch had clearly not meant to injure Taylor and neither manager had much to say after the game but it really should have come as a surprise to everyone involved that Crouch received no punishment, not even a booking.

Surprising because the laws of the game tell us that Crouch was guilty of “serious foul play” which occurs when you either “use excessive force or brutality against an opponent when challenging for the ball when it is in play” or you make “a tackle that endangers the safety of an opponent”. He certainly meets the second criterion, but there was hardly an outcry about the incident, either on the day or later in our review programming. The Guardian newspaper’s match report simply noted, “Matt Taylor took a boot in the face as Peter Crouch attempted an overhead kick and was down for some time before heading down the tunnel”.

So what is the reason for this mild response? Presumably it is because we have all watched enough football to realise that it was just one of those things that happens in a penalty area. Then there is the “know your players” realisation that Crouch has a habit of taking on shots such as that one. As I remember, there was much more of an outcry when Fabrizio Coloccini booted Demba Ba in the nose at St James’ Park and avoided even a booking from Howard Webb. Yet even then, it was only some time after the passage of play (which saw Ba narrowly miss goal with his brave header) has long ended, that anyone even thought to call for a penalty or a card for the defender.

Fast forward to Tuesday at Old Trafford and it is obvious that referee Cuneyt Cakir applied the “serious foul play” criteria in arriving at his decision to send Nani off.

However there is another offense which might perhaps have been more applicable to Nani’s “crime”. In my opinion, the United winger’s challenge looked more like a case of “reckless endangerment” than anything else. The laws tell us that “reckless means that the player has acted with complete disregard to the danger to, or consequences for, his opponent” and we are also told that “a player who acts in a reckless manner must be cautioned”.

Two former United greats had their say on the sending off this Wednesday morning. Gary Neville said he thought Nani had been trying to control the ball, while Paul McGrath said he has often seen Nani make a similar play in which he looks to acrobatically nudge a ball (even one as high as this one was) past an opponent and then break free. Neither thought it was a red card.

The more spectacular debate had occurred the night before in ITV’s studio at Old Trafford where former United skipper Roy Keane insisted the referee had got it right according to laws of the game. Gareth Southgate and Lee Dixon disagreed, with the latter arguing that anyone who has played the game would know that Nani wasn’t to know that he was endangering an opponent. In support of Dixon’s argument, one only has to look at the reaction of the Madrid players at the time of the challenge to see that none of them expected or demanded a red card.

In my opinion, and regardless of Nani’s intentions, what he did was reckless and dangerous and totally worthy of a caution. However I fully understand why Mr Cakir took the course of action he deemed appropriate.

Had he not shown red but instead applied the “reckless endangerment” argument and given Nani a caution, the referee would have been on solid legal ground and I suspect there would not have been many arguments to the contrary from Madrid, even if they had lost the game.

It strikes me as being fundamentally wrong that there can be such a disparity in the way that different referees in different competitions handle similar episodes. It is wrong, verging on racist, to talk about different cultures having a different perspective on such matters. It is also unfair on Mr Cakir, who is highly rated by Uefa, to suggest he was the wrong man for this game.

It is just bizarre that he might have been able to make a decision in a high profile game that actually reduced a stadium and an international audience to shocked silence. A referee will always be able to please or infuriate us with his decisions but surely he should not be able to surprise us.

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