Case Study: Everyone Was Ball Watching

Referee Cuneyt Cakir found himself embroiled in controversy after his decision to send off Manchester United midfielder Nani for a high boot to the side of Real Madrid defender Alvaro Arbeloa.  In fact, so distraught was Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson that he skipped the required post-match press conference.

I find it quite helpful in these situations to go back to the basics and ask: What do the Laws of the Game say?  We’ll review the incident step-by-step, and then I’ll share my opinion.

Case Study # 9-2013
Date 5 March 2013
Competition UEFA Champions League
Fixture/Result Man Utd 1 – 2 Real Madrid
Referee/Badge Cuneyt Cakir (TUR), FIFA, UEFA Elite Group
At Issue Was the referee’s decision to send off Man Utd’s Nani in the 55th minute correct?

The first decision to be made is whether or not there is a foul.  On this point, surely we can all agree that Nani is guilty of kicking an opponent.

While this match was contested under the authority of UEFA, the USSF publication “Advice to Referees on the Laws of the Game” is still instructive.  In section 12.1, “What Is A Foul?”, the publication notes the following:

[box]Except for a handling offense, it is not necessary for the player’s action to be considered “deliberate” in the sense that the player intentionally set out to kick, push, trip, hold or otherwise foul the opponent. If that were so, the referee would have to be capable of reading a player’s mind. Under Law 12, the referee makes a decision based upon what he or she sees a player actually do—the result of the player’s action—not upon what might be in the player’s mind.[/box]

In the media, we’ve heard a lot about how “Nani is clearly watching the ball”.  What bearing should this have on our evaluation of the possibility of misconduct?  Based on the guidelines from USSF referenced above, it is clear that the fact that Nani was “watching the ball” is not a factor that should be considered.  Furthermore, it is clear that Arbeloa is also watching the ball.  Since Arbeloa was watching the ball and Nani was watching the ball, does this mean that the mutual ball-watching cancels each other out?

Keeping this in mind, we must next evaluate whether the player is guilty of any misconduct.  The criteria we use to evaluate whether a foul also includes misconduct are deciding if the foul was careless, reckless, or used excessive force.

[box]“Careless” means that the player has shown a lack of attention or consideration when making a challenge or that he acted without precaution.
• No further disciplinary sanction is needed if a foul is judged to be careless

“Reckless” means that the player has acted with complete disregard to the danger to, or consequences for, his opponent.
• A player who plays in a reckless manner must be cautioned

“Using excessive force” means that the player has far exceeded the necessary use of force and is in danger of injuring his opponent.
• A player who uses excessive force must be sent off

Source: “Interpretation of the Laws of the Game and Guidelines for Referees”, page 111, FIFA, 2012.[/box]

I believe we can safely remove “careless” as a potential option here, leaving us to determine whether the foul was reckless or involved excessive force.  A significant distinction between “reckless” and “using excessive force” is that the latter states that the offender is “in danger of injuring his opponent.”

A studs up challenge at the height and force applied by Nani in this case clearly presents the danger of injury to his opponent.  Damage to internal organs would not have been out of the question in this case.

Based on a clear headed analysis of the facts and the guidelines issued by FIFA, I believe a send off decision is supported by the Laws of the Game.

I understand why so many English fans are upset at the decision.  The English game is well known for being physical (“no blood = no foul”) and I believe that the same incident in a domestic competition could likely have been sanctioned with a caution.  But, the notion that Nani had his eyes on the ball and therefore cannot be guilty of serious foul play has no basis in the LOTG.  Keeping eyes on the ball only speaks to the intent of the player (he was watching the ball, therefore he intended to play it, not to hurt the player), and as we have been instructed, we are not to consider the intent of the player, only what they actually do.

Furthermore, this was not a domestic competition, but a UEFA competition, and so it should surprise no one that “continental” referees are likely to take a much dimmer view of this type of physical contact than their English counterparts.

In summary, I believe a strict interpretation of the LOTG supports the referee’s decision in this incident.

35 responses to “Case Study: Everyone Was Ball Watching”

  1. Although I understand the point made in the article, namely that injury could have occurred, I still can’t justify excessive force resulting in an automatic ejection. I still see reckless, warranting a yellow card. I guess this is truly itootr.


  2. If you make contact with another player with studs up, and worse catch them above the waist, and the contact is significant, you should consider it a gift if you are not sent off. At any level.


  3. totally agree with this. it was cleats up in the opposing player’s chest. what else do you want? all of the announcers kept saying “there was no intent.” it does not matter what the player intended to do – he did what he did. he stuck the bottom of his boot into the other player’s chest. i totally agree the red card was OK.


    • Intent certainly matters when juding misconduct. Consider US Soccer’s emphasis on SIAPOA:

      •Speed of play and the tackle
      The faster the tackler is moving, the greater the force and likelihood of endangering the safety of the opponent. Additionally, speed also equates to less control of the challenge and the less likely the attacker can cleanly win the ball.

      The intent of the tackler. Was the tackle intended to send a message or to cleanly win the ball?

      •Aggressive nature
      Did the tackler lunge for the ball with one or both feet? Consideration should be given to the distance between the attacker and the tackler at the time the tackler leaves his feet. The further the distance, the less control the tackler has of his actions and the less likely the tackler is to play the ball. Are cleats up and exposed to the opponent?

      •Position of the tackler
      In particular, his legs (height of the tackler’s leading leg and the follow-up action by the tackler’s trailing leg).

      •Opportunity to play the ball
      Was the ball within playing distance? Or, was the ball already past the tackler at the time the tackler’s feet came in contact with the opponent. Tackles from behind and from the side (outside of the peripheral vision of the attacker with the ball) increase the likelihood contact will need to be made with the attacker prior to playing the ball.

      •Atmosphere of the game
      Referees must consider the overall temperature of the match and the player in question. Has an aggressive attitude been displayed to that point? Is frustration amongst or between the players evident?


      • Jim,
        You make a great point about SIAPOA. Nice catch. It would be nice if that was included in the ATRs under misconduct.

        I’m not sure it changes my opinion, especially considering the the items under “Aggressive Nature” and “Position of the tackler”.

        Still, SIAPOA needs to be considered in these types of incidents.



  4. A yellow card would be in injustice to the LOTG which state “If the foul involved the use of excessive force, totally beyond the bounds of normal play, then the referee must send off the player for serious foul play”. This was excessive. It was beyond the bounds of normal play. The referee MUST issue the red card.


  5. Here’s what I tell a player: If you want to swing your legs, expose your studs, flail your arms and tackle wildly, that’s your choice to do so. And as long as you do without jeopardizing anybody’s safety I’ll allow it. But as soon as you do and somebody could be injured from it, whether you realized they could or not, it is my job to deal with your actions as directed by the Laws of the Game. So be aware of where you are and who’s around you because it’s your responsibility, not mine.


  6. I disagree. At this level of the game, this is not a red card, and that is evident by the number of professional players and ex-referees who said this should not have been a red card. First off, you need to look at who initiated the contact and clearly both players did in an attempt to play the ball. If you look very closely Nani’s leg was extended in an attempt to trap the ball, done by many players at this skill level, so it was not extended after contact. This is just simply two players vying for the same piece of real estate. The game has evolved and we as referee’s need to keep up. IN this game a yellow card should have been warranted, not red. Just my 2 cents. I think the referee made a decision that was incorrect and ruined a great contest.


    • You can’t just say “Incorrect” when it is demonstrably correct in the book. Also how many of those referees that commented on this play are at the top level of the game? Were they in the current meetings of the UEFA? This is an instruction that referees are receiving now, just like Howard Webb who a month ago gave a red card for nearly the exact same play. He’s a premier ref notorious for not giving red cards, do you think he got confused or was he following UEFA instruction?

      The fact is that a red card is absolutely defensible so I don’t understand how you can sit there and say that a red card is flat out wrong. You are not god, the evidence is in dispute and you are allowed to dispute the evidence and the interpretation you are not allowed to state flatly that everyone that disagrees with you is wrong sir.


  7. Nani didn’t kick an opponent. Are referees going to start issuing Red Cards when a player is looking at the ball in open space, a challenger comes in to that space and attempts to claim that ball, and the players collide?

    If a player has a high boot within playing distance of an opponent – give them a yellow card for dangerous play.

    How many times do we see a player at local levels go in for a ball that their opponent is going to win – only to have that “running in” player get injured by colliding with the foot/knee/whatever of the player who is going to “win” the ball? And then, when the injured player needs treatment, the coach is screaming, “See, my player is injured!”

    There is a difference between being tripped by a player, and tripping on a player. And Arbeloa took that risk. Good on him for not making a meal of it!

    The Red Card was also not in keeping with the rest of the referee’s decisions up to that point. Both teams could have had red cards – Giggs: for his tackle from behind – and Lopez: for his two fisted punch of Vidic’s head… among others.

    Keep up the good work on the site!


    • I’ve reviewed the video several times, and both players arrive at the ball at precisely the same instant. I don’t think that Nani has a greater claim to the ball because his leg is extended, while Arbeloa is trying to play it off his chest.


      • Arbeloa made a meal of it. Did you see the picture of his bruised torso when he lifted up his shirt? He was hit with great force, anyone who has played the game or has taken a physics class can see that.


  8. Whether or not you agree with the decision or the rationale that led to it, I applaud the referee for having the courage to act on what he felt was right given the stakes not only to the players but to his career. Referees at this level know the stakes, know the “moment of truth” in every match. This referee should be applauded for having the courage to do what many would not, even if they do agree it was the right decision.


  9. Whether or not you agree with the decision or the rationale that led to it, I applaud the referee for having the courage to act on what he felt was right given the stakes not only to the players but to his career. Referees at this level know the stakes, know the “moment of truth” in every match. This referee should be applauded for having the courage to do what many would not, even if they do agree it was the right decision.


  10. I agree that the referee showed courage and model demeanor, both positive traits. I have not heard anyone mention that after the initial contact of boot to ribs, Nani then appeared to make a secondary kick to Arbeloa’s arm which spun him. Perhaps it is this “second effort” (at game speed) which informed the referee’s decision making?..


  11. The referee has issued 36 yellow cards and three reds in just eight club games since mid-January. He’s in over his head. The controversy surrounding this incident proves it was the wrong decision. In this match, he wasn’t consistent with his calls – and cards – or lack, thereof. I doubt we’ll see him in another Champions League match again. Hey, every referee makes mistakes… we just hope they’re not ones that change a match severely.


    • I wouldn’t read too much into his card count. Some referees use cards heavily to manage a match and some don’t; it’s more a matter of personal style than anything else.

      Take, for example, Martin Atkinson of the Premier League. He is one of the best referees in England but issues a lot of cards. Chris Foy issues very few cards but is not a FIFA referee. So, card count really isn’t correlated to the capability of the referee.


  12. As I posted in another thread, I believe the initial contact was reckless and warranted a caution. That said, I hold that the subsequent kick to Arbeloa’s kidney area (at full speed or slo-mo) was serious foul play and warranted the send-off. I believe the referee’s decision was correct, but not for the same reason.


  13. Robert – You first said that it was simply a collision over a 50/50 ball with contact initiated by both players. I won’t argue that if that’s how you saw it. However, you then said that it was a foul which warranted a yellow card. If it’s a foul, it wasn’t an equal collision – you’re saying that the offender was being careless. Further, if it’s cautionable, you’re saying the offender was being reckless. So I believe your two assertions are in contradiction. Finally, if, as many people say, it was a reckless challenge deserving of a yellow card, I would argue that it MUST then be a red card. The reckless challenge became excessive and serious when exposed studs were raised to chest height with risk to another player.


  14. My last word on this (aren’t you glad) – If the red card was warranted: Why so much disagreement throughout the soccer world? Players, coaches, commentators, officials…

    Really enjoy this site. Mike, keep up the good work!

    Thanks, Chris


    • I think because of the perception that the decision “ruined a good match” and because it was a borderline decision. As I said, I don’t think any BPL referee shows red for that, because of the different style of the game in England.

      Chris, thanks for the kind words and for your contributions to the discussion.


  15. Dangerous Play leading to a reckless challenge maximum should of been a caution. No kicking motion by the United player he extended his leg in the attempt to bring down the ball as the Real Madrid player and he came together. Great sell for the call. But I’m bias!


  16. Question – Would there be any question that this was a red card if this was a youth level game? It seems to me that one way to analyze this is how one would justify only a yellow card given the potential for a retaliatory play of the same type, and given there is serious risk of injury. For a youth game wouldn’t the safety of players take precedence and require a red card for serious foul play? I’m an inexperienced ref and would welcome your thoughts. The discussions I have seen at the website have been most insightful. Thanks for all the postings.


  17. To me – if this exact play happened in a youth game, and there had been no hostilities among players throughout the match; I would still give a Yellow Card. But I would have an incredibly firm talk to the “Nani player” – demonstrating with my voice, arms, etc., that this isn’t acceptable at this level of play – making the gestures “large enough” for the sidelines, and other players, to see. I think having a “feel” for each match is what’s important. It’s like the players put out a vibe that can be sensed if you’re in-tune with the game. And, yes… safety is most important.


  18. Great analysis , but in the pictures sequence you can clearly see Arbeloa is coming from Nani’s blind side. Even when Arbeloa is watching the ball as well , Nani is in front of him and , eventually he can see his presence. That’s why he went to challenge that ball. From pic#3 to #5 he can clearly see Nani.Nani can’t see him. Arbeloa can avoid him if he think he was in danger.
    Nani definitely fouls Arbeloa but Arbeloa set-up the situation for that!
    Nani didn’t know that was a player there. Arbeloa knows a ball and a player was there.
    Manchester players played fair until then. The red was too much and help more to Real Madrid team and didn’t help at all to control the game. Actually wen a little out of control after that


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