Italian football earned back some pride in Europe this week with Roma’s magnificent comeback and Juventus were about to repeat it 24 hours later. Leading 3-0, they certainly deserved to go to extra time and it was heart-breaking to see it all end on a debatable spot-kick 30 seconds from the final whistle. Unfortunately, what followed is tarnishing the memories of this performance.
You can’t help but feel for Gigi Buffon in what may well be the final Champions League match of his career, getting a red card for protesting a debatable spot-kick. He’ll probably readjust his views in the morning, when the red mist has passed, and recognise his comments about referee Michael Oliver were over the top.
I do find it utterly ridiculous for some to compare this with Zinedine Zidane’s last career contribution, a red card in the World Cup Final for France. Saying the referee should be in the stands eating crisps is really not the same as head-butting an opponent in the chest. I get the feeling quite a lot of that rage was held over from Italy’s World Cup exit to Sweden and, like any repressed feelings, exploded in an uncontrolled fashion.
What we’re seeing is the way people use borderline incidents to fuel their existing narrative. Was this a stonewall penalty? No, from one angle it looks as if Medhi Benatia clearly gets the ball and knocks it on to Lucas Vazquez’s chest. From another, it seems as if he goes through the Real Madrid player to reach it. Was it a scandalous decision to award the penalty? No, at first glance I certainly thought it was a foul.
Juventus President Andrea Agnelli called for VAR to be introduced in the Champions League, but considering the way fans, pundits and even former referees have described the incident, there would still be no clear-cut interpretation everyone could agree on even with a thousand replays.
The reaction has been along party lines, as more or less everything seems to be in this polarising age we live in. You’re either with us or against us, that’s how people want it. Nuance goes out the window and interpretation travels along existing narratives, whether it’s sport, music or politics. You are not allowed to go against your tribe.
You can’t say that was a clear-cut penalty and anyone who says otherwise is in the pocket of Big Juve, buying into the media conspiracy that favoured the Bianconeri for over 100 years. Equally, it’s wrong to suggest those who thought it was a foul are ‘haters’ just trying to tear down the most successful Italian club.
There is tremendous irony in the way both sides of the debate have reacted, mainly in the way they accuse each other of irony without realising their own shortcomings. Other Serie A supporters laugh at Juventus for implying the referees have damaged Italian clubs in Europe and expressed fury at a debatable decision. They fail to notice this is precisely how they behave and would’ve done in the exact same situation.
Juve fans complain that “losers seek excuses” when a dubious Serie A decision goes against them, yet are replicating that response right now to a perceived wrong. Real Madrid, and before them Barcelona, are the Juventus of Europe, the club all others assume are on the end of favourable treatment because they are more powerful. If you carry prestige and power, you’ll get the benefit of the doubt most times. That’s not bribery, it’s just human nature.
It hurts to mount a comeback like that and see it disappear 30 seconds from extra time. It’s understandable to be upset and to say this wonderful tie should not have ended that way. It’s not a robbery, nor is it just desserts. It’s just football.