Philadelphia, PA – When two global football giants square off, as they often do in Champions League play, the whole world stops to watch.
Unfortunately, what people saw between Manchester United and Real Madrid over two legs wasn't football at all. They witnessed a robbery.
It is a pitiful shame the tie of the round, perhaps even the tie of the entire tournament, will not be remembered for the exquisite brand of football that both sides have been known to produce, but instead for a pattern of officiating blunders that saw the Spaniards advance to the quarterfinals at the expense of their English counterparts.
The sporting proverb often goes that the mark of ideal officiating is when the referee is not seen, nor heard. That was an impossibility on Tuesday as Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir stole the spotlight from the world's best players by brandishing a red card to Manchester United's Nani with more than 30 minutes to play.
But the injustice did not begin there. United found themselves on the wrong end of multiple decisions from the opening whistle in the first leg a fortnight ago.
Within five minutes of the start of the match at the Bernabeu on Feb. 13, German referee Felix Brych issued a soft yellow card to Robin van Persie for merely grazing Sergio Ramos with an outstretched as the two players challenged for an aerial ball.
It was the first infraction whistled in the contest, and the fact that it came in the early stages begs the question as to why Brych didn't simply give Van Persie the benefit of the doubt and offer the Dutchman a talking-to, especially given the manner in which Ramos made a meal of the "contact."
Ramos invoked another caution of similar ilk two minutes from time when the Spanish defender hit the deck like it was time for a siesta. Antonio Valencia was the alleged perpetrator this time as Ramos' theatrics duped Brych and yielded a yellow card to the Ecuadorian.
It was United's third caution of the night. Real, by comparison, committed 14 fouls to United's 12 but escaped with no yellow cards, not even for persistent infringement.
But the worst decision was saved for last as United had a tremendous opportunity to grab a late winner when the Red Devils won a corner kick deep into stoppage time. The visitors collected the ball and took their positions, upon which time Brych blew the final whistle, defying the common practice of referees allowing play to continue beyond the allotted amount of added time if a scoring opportunity presents itself. United could feel particularly hard- done by the decision given the fact that they had already scored from a corner kick earlier in the match.
Sir Alex Ferguson's side did not dwell on the injustices, instead focusing on the bright side: It would be heading home for the return match at Old Trafford all level and with an away goal in tact. But no one could have predicted that it would get much, much worse.
United enjoyed a steady first half in the return leg on Tuesday, but it was Ramos' own goal three minutes after halftime that really buoyed the Old Trafford crowd.
It was short-lived pleasure, however, as Cakir directed attention unto himself by sending Nani off with a controversial red card to bring United down a man for the remaining 34 minutes.
The Portuguese winger leapt in an attempt to control a bouncing ball but instead caught Alvaro Arbeloa's torso with his studs. There undoubtedly was no malicious intent as Nani kept his eyes fixated on the ball for the duration of the sequence, completely unaware that Arbeloa was even in his vicinity.
Arbeloa tossed and turned on the ground in apparent agony while Ramos besieged the referee in search of a sanction. A yellow card would have sufficed, but Cakir left the Theater of Dreams stunned (except for Ramos, who is well-versed in getting other players booked through protestation) when he pulled a red card from his pocket and handed Nani his marching orders.
Ferguson leapt from his seat on the bench to a height commensurate with Nani's on the "red card offense" to berate the officiating crew for an unjust decision. He had clear cause for rancor as commentators in the booth, pundits in the studios and football aficionados around the globe swept to their respective media outlets to criticize the ejection.
Even Graham Poll, former English Premier League referee, weighed in on the poor decision, describing the challenge in a timely analysis for The Daily Mail as "at worst a yellow card."
Real Madrid went on to get the two goals it needed to advance, and the Merengues deserve full credit for doing so. But the argument can be made that Nani's red card was the clear turning point that aided Madrid's comeback.
United can count themselves unlucky not only for enduring the disgraceful dismissal of Nani, but also for being denied a clear scoring chance late in the first leg which, had they converted, would have leveled the aggregate score and away goals tiebreaker (assuming the second leg played out the same way) to force extra time at Old Trafford.
A lot of hypotheticals, but it does not change the blatant one-sidedness of the officiating over the two legs. And that proved to be United's demise.