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Tommy Conlon: Rules are rules but justice is justice - and Michael Oliver got the penalty decision horribly wrong

thecouch@independent.ie

Juventus players complain to Referee Michael Oliver. Photo: Paul White/AP Photo
Juventus players complain to Referee Michael Oliver. Photo: Paul White/AP Photo

Tommy Conlon

It was a foul all right, in the Bernabéu on Wednesday night, but just because it was a foul doesn't mean it should have been a penalty. The history of soccer is littered with examples of penalties not given for tackles which elsewhere would have been straightforward free-kicks.

What is black-and-white outside the box has long been 40 shades of grey inside it. The reason is obvious: it is the quantum leap in punishment between one and the other.

A free-kick is awarded, nothing happens. A penalty is awarded, a goal usually happens. A push in the back inside the centre circle, say, usually has no consequences for the offending team. The exact same offence in the penalty area will usually be punished by a goal. It is a disproportionate tariff for an otherwise innocuous breach of the laws. And it is based not on the gravity of the offence but on its location. You concede a goal for essentially a geographical rule.

And it is why there is a long tradition of referees not strictly applying the law inside the box. It has never been officially acknowledged in the legislation but custom and habit have ingrained it deeply into the culture of game management as practised by referees.

We see examples of it almost every weekend, challenges unpunished in the 18-yard area that are penalised elsewhere. Referees have a dread of the decision because they know all too well its consequences. If they get it wrong and the penalty is converted, a team is a goal down and it's on their head. So they will usually err on the side of caution and get it wrong the other way, by not awarding the penalty when they should have.

Maybe, ideally, there should be some sort of middle ground between a free-kick and a penalty: an amber light, a more finely calibrated sanction between giving away a foul and giving away a goal. In the absence of such, referees over generations have developed their own system of interpretation. In theory every rule is applied objectively and universally; in practice the application is dependent on the circumstances. The upshot is that penalties are harder earned. A blind eye is routinely turned to all the grappling that precedes a corner kick. A handball in the box is forgiven. A defender's contact with a forward is deemed legitimate.

Supporters will howl in frustration when they don't get the decision. Then they'll sigh with relief when the other crowd don't. Likewise the players on either side. They are all locked into this arbitrary and precarious dance between the referee with all his multiple pressures, and the rule book with all its abstract certainty.

According therefore to the accumulated weight of all this cultural practice, Michael Oliver should not have awarded Real Madrid the penalty that ushered them into the semi-finals of the Champions League. The offence simply wasn't obvious enough to justify a penalty. There wasn't enough force in the push in the back that sent Lucas Vazquez sprawling to the turf. There just wasn't enough in it, full stop. And it begs the question, would he have given it if Madrid were away from home, playing in front of a baying Juventus crowd?

In any event, the consequences were grotesquely disproportionate to the foul. This wasn't the first minute of the first leg. It was virtually the last minute of the second leg, with both sides teetering on a 3-3 tightrope. Oliver was making this decision without any safety net underneath.

A penalty awarded in any circumstances is often a seminal moment. But this was a whole different level of irrevocable. The referee's decision is final, but if the penalty is scored here, the decision is not so much final as terminal. There is no coming back from it. Juventus are out and Madrid are through. Cristiano Ronaldo duly spears the penalty into the top right corner and the deed is done. The consequences become reality.

Michael Oliver is now a wanted man in Turin. But he is entitled to the sanctuary of the rule book; he is entitled to vindication by statute. He applied the rules strictly and therefore did his job.

But, to repeat, a foul in the box is not always a penalty because penalties extract such a high price. Custom and tradition have long established that they are not awarded cheaply; a run-of-the-mill challenge is not usually an adequate downpayment. It has to be a foul and a half, a foul and a quarter, something with more force, more obvious cause and effect.

It helps if it's blatant; if it's not, the referee can take refuge in the grey zone. He has permission to shake his head and wave play on. It is a form of game management, unofficially licensed but almost universally accepted.

If it was technically the right decision, it was terrible game management. Rules are rules, but justice is justice, and waving play on would have been the right thing to do. Juventus were morally entitled to extra-time. They had poured their heart and soul into a monumental performance at the home of the champions.

"Every referee knows well," wrote Francesco Ceniti afterwards, "that there are moments in which your whistle has a different weight and so you only punish (or should punish) obvious fouls." Ceniti is an Italian journalist and can hardly be described as impeccably neutral.

But when it comes to penalties, the referee's whistle has always had "a different weight". Mr Oliver blew it far too lightly at a moment when the consequences have rarely if ever weighed so heavy.

Sunday Indo Sport

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