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Did Michael Oliver exhibit courage or buckle under pressure at the Santiago Bernabeu?

Saturday 14th April 2018

The Champions League return leg match between Juventus and Real Madrid had gone beyond expectation. The Italian giants had followed the example set by fellow Serie A side, Roma. 

Against all odds, Roma knocked Barcelona from the competition with a commanding 3-0 second leg win. La Magica gave a magical performance. The Catalan side was left in shock. When the fourth-best team in their division has pulled off such a feat, the dominant Zebras had to feel challenged

It was a spirited performance at the Santiago Bernabeu. English referee Michael Oliver had no big decisions to make in regulation while Juventus roared back from 3-0 down to level the tie. As added time passed, the anticipation of an additional 30 minutes took hold.

That all changed in the 93rd minute. Oliver pointed to the spot after Medhi Benatia appeared to have pushed Lucas Vazquez from the back in the six-yard box. The Real Madrid player was about to drill in the ball home from a Cristiano Ronaldo header. Pandemonium exploded. Juve’s goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon was deemed by the referee to have gone beyond the limit. He was issued a straight red card.

Cristiano Ronaldo subsequently dispatched the penalty, sending the holders to the semifinal. Opinion is divided on Oliver's call. Many have used the incident to justify the decision to leave English officials out of the World cup in Russia. Former Tottenham manager Tim Sherwood accused the referee of buckling under pressure from the home crowd. Martin Keown praised the Englishman for his bravery.

I'll leave Juventus and Real Madrid fans out of it, for obvious reasons. From an objective viewpoint, Michael Oliver’s decision exemplifies the inherent difficulty in officiating. If he didn’t give the decision, the same accusations would be levelled, only from opposite sides. Keown would be saying he lacked the courage to make the call. Sherwood would say he had shown brave restraint. Referees can never win. Doing the job with no concern for outside opinion is what raises the top-class officials above their peers.

Law number 14 in FIFA's “Laws of the Game” stipulates a penalty kick is awarded when a player commits any of the following offences in a manner considered by the referee to be careless, reckless or using excessive force:

  • Kicks or attempts to kick an opponent
  • Trips or attempts to trip an opponent
  • Jumps at an opponent
  • Charges an opponent
  • Strikes or attempts to strike an opponent
  • Pushes an opponent
  • Tackles an opponent
  • Holds an opponent
  • Spits at an opponent
  • Handles the ball deliberately (except for the goalkeeper within his penalty area)

Video review demonstrates Benatia committing every action on the list save the first and last two. Oliver must then decide whether those actions were careless, reckless, or excessive. Admittedly, that can only be a subjective interpretation. Some referees may not have made the call.  

It should be noted, though, that the rules do not support Buffon's post-match rant that an official's subjectivity should be extended to the moment. If Oliver would have called a penalty in the 13th minute for that play, he is bound by impartiality to do so in the 93rd. All the good work Juventus had done leading up to that point had no bearing. All that matters is whether the play was a foul or it was not.

So, what if the referee deems Benatia's tackle a penalty? Can we accept that as his decision without reading in any unnecessary meaning? Emotions interfere with our ability to do so. They certainly interfered with Buffon's self-control. But our inability to leave emotion out of the process is the very reason Michael Oliver exists.

Martin Keown is right. It takes tremendous courage to make what you believe is the right decision when you know it will be heavily criticized by millions regardless.

Emmanuel Odey

Emmanuel is a freelance football journalist who lives and breathes the round leather game. He is a contributor on several platforms. You can follow him on Twitter for more.


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