In the wake of the superheated first leg of the Champions League tie during which Fernando Torres was sent off for being a monument to stupidity, Atleti players and coaches had some things to say about Luis Suarez and favoritism.
Diego Simeone observed that there were “more than three” Suarez incidents. (The three most notable are here.)
Club official Miguel Marin added, “We want the same rules of play. If Torres was a sending off, they must apply the same criteria to Suarez. Football cannot be a dictatorship of the biggest.”
But Filipe Luis was the most scathing in his comments after the match:
“Barcelona are protected. When you play against them you realise that they are a very powerful club.
“You realise the fear when Barcelona could get knocked out. It would hurt UEFA a lot.
“Fernando, two fouls, two cards. The referee has not seen many Madrid-Barcelona derbies. There would be eight red cards.
“I don’t don’t know what [a Barcelona player] has to do to get sent off.”
We have all heard the UEFAlona conspiracy theories before, naturally, but what is most interesting about this latest batch is that they are equivalent of the class bully complaining about being punished for being a bully. When Atleti plays against Barça, like many teams, they use fouls. Consistent, constant fouling in an effort to disrupt the match. In La Liga, because of the appalling standard of officiating, so much of that is allowed. In Champions League, things are different.
A player has the responsibility to tailor his match to the officiating standard, and only a fool doesn’t understand this. With a ref who has a quick whistle, there are things you don’t do, or things you would do differently against a ref who is known to “let them play.” There are also sneaky things players do, off the run of play or off the ball, that they try to get away with. Some we see, and scream bloody murder. Others we miss.
Torres was stupid. Both of his challenges were out in the open, at the point of attack, intended to do nothing except hack down the player. He might have received a warning for one or the other had there been any interest whatsoever in going for the ball. There wasn’t. Those challenges are a yellow in any league in the land, and they are sure as hell yellows in the Champions League, where violence of that sort isn’t tolerated.
Here is how The Guardian’s Simon Burnton described the second Torres foul:
Busquets was on the ball, on the halfway line. Torres closed him down, and Busquets turned away from him. Undeterred, Torres ran right into his left calf, kneed him in the buttock, and bundled him over. Textbook booking. Total idiocy.
Even more damning is that Felix Brych had been calling a tight match, even as Atleti was getting away with their usual quantity of aggression. Torres had to know, because no athlete is that oblivious, that he was going to get tapped. Some often think after getting a card that the ref will want to keep all 11 players on the pitch, so there is an extra degree of carte blanche.
Filipe Luis got a yellow for attempting a shirt exchange with Suarez while the match was still on, Suarez got one for shoving him to the ground. Suarez kicked at Juanfran, and there was an official in clear view. No call was made. Was it UEFAlona, or a bit of petulance allowed in the context of a physical match (fouls were 16-19 at the end).
Discretion is the problem, the thing that gives Filipe Luis a soap box to stand on. A foul is a foul, whether in the 10th or 75th minute, but not always. An official has to weigh the offense, the outcome and context. Might Torres have received a warning had he gone for the ball instead of the player? Almost certainly. But he didn’t. The larger question asked by Filipe Luis’ post-match comments is about what a team can do to stop a team that they can’t play against straight up and what should be allowed in the man code that runs in the background of things, like a machismo continuo.
When Suarez kicked at Godin, he didn’t make contact. When he shoved the other two players, it was part of the argy-bargy that goes on in the box. There were incidents where Barça players were shoved as well, and nothing was called. The standard had been established for the match, and it isn’t malleable just because it’s their striker and our striker, so why was ours punished? The naivete present in the post-match comments would be stunning if they weren’t mostly the same kind of ploy that Jose Mourinho used to try against Barça, a way to influence the officiating before the next meeting.
Barça plays football. Rare is the team that can play straight up against the Catalan giants and come out ahead. Most times the field must be leveled, and physical play is the way to do that. During a fluid run of play that might result in something dangerous, foul. Neymar scurries, cut him down, as Atleti did repeatedly. When Messi rushes into the box, get the ball, give the man a little something extra to think about. Niggle and shove at Suarez in an effort to provoke him into being Bad Luis. During the Champions League match, one broadcast commentator referred to these things as the “black arts,” as if they are to somehow be celebrated.
They are illegal. Aggression isn’t an acceptable way to bring a footballing side down to your level, even as in Liga, that sort of stuff is allowed. It isn’t that there is UEFA favoritism, but rather a different standard in Champions League, as there should be. No team should let Barça pass, scurry about and bang in goals. But if you kick early and often, cards are going to accumulate. The ref has to apply discretion.
One example of this is the foul that stopped Neymar running clear on a break. He had the ball just past midfield, and the last Atleti defender cleared him out. Many believed that could have been a red cardable offense, but Brych decided on yellow, and a stern glare. Was it the right call? Depends on what side of the stadium you were sitting, but discretion was applied. When Augusto Fernandez went in hard on a scissor challenge, studs showing, could that have been a red? For some officials, yes. Dudgeon generally works when there is something to be outraged about.
Could Suarez have been sent off for his offenses? Yes. And in a match called that tightly, Atleti lose two more players for red cardable challenges. Suarez scored the two goals that claimed the victory. But in that perfectly just world with Suarez off, Atleti is playing Barça 10 v 8. What are the odds Barça would score more than a few?
There aren’t different rules applied. Barça doesn’t kick, and would prefer to play football. Are there times when the rules are transgressed? Absolutely. Mascherano received a deserved yellow, as did Busquets. Then you adjust your behavior, because what other option is there. Torres didn’t, and that was stupid.
Violence isn’t acceptable when you can’t play a team straight up, nor should it be. The ridiculous code of machismo, of “how else are we supposed to stop them” shouldn’t ever be applicable. It is vile that any credence whatsoever is given to the bleating of a player whose team plays in a way that takes advantage of the rules, and officials discretion. In another match with a less-lenient referee, Atleti could well have finished with eight on the pitch just as Suarez might have seen an early shower.
The only conspiracy is against violence in a competition that is intended to showcase the best football teams in the world, the European elite. If you are among that elite group, and make the Champions League quarterfinals, you got there by virtue of your football and if you attempt to kick a better footballing side down to your level and get caught, that isn’t a conspiracy. It’s the rules being applied.