Irish Times, Saturday 14 April 2018, Keith Duggan
It only appears for a second or two but the look of shock on Michael Oliver’s face is unmistakable. He is completely alone right then, the only neutral in the Bernabéu stadium, all eyes on him in the 93rd minute of an enthralling game between two European giants. He is also being eyeballed and screamed at by Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.
The Italian is 6ft3in and a gigantic figure in world football besides and lost, it would seem now, in his rage over the penalty Oliver has just seconds earlier awarded to Madrid against his Juventus side. Buffon is 40-years-old and it’s most likely going to be his last Champions League season– a prize which has eluded him in a glittering career.
And it has already been an absurdly dramatic football week across Europe, with Guardiola’s Manchester City sent into a deeper tailspin, exiting 5-1 against Liverpool while in the Stadio Olympico, Roma have achieved the near impossible by eclipsing Barcelona 3-0 at home to go through 4-4 on aggregate thanks to the away goal.
The Madrid-Juventus tie was expected to be the least dramatic, with the Spanish side needing only to defend a three-goal lead at home. Yet here were Juve poised to complete a seismic reversal, on the verge of extra-time after silencing all of Madrid with three unanswered goals.
Everyone in the stadium and millions watching around the world were settling in for the hyper-drama of extra time and even penalties. Maybe deep in his mind, Buffon, too, was beginning to mentally steel himself for that prospect.
Back in 2003, he had saved two penalties for Inter in the all-Milanese Champions League final penalty shootout but still finished on the losing side. The magnificence of Juve’s comeback here; the character and toughness it required surely demanded a magnificent closing act.
Then a collective lapse; a far post cross; a sensational moment of elevation from Cristiano Ronaldo to head the ball with perfect weight for Lucas Vázquez and when Medhi Benatia lumbers into the scene, a split second too late, untidy as his huge frame engulfs the slender Madrid winger, who crashes to the ground, the night is suddenly done.
Oliver’s whistle is instantaneous and the Juve defence is transformed into a fireball of protest and rage. And ,of course, Buffon’s heightened emotion in that moment is understandable. Anyone other than Real fans wanted the night to continue and whatever about the satisfaction of deciding such a contest on penalties, a last second penalty to the home side felt like an anti-climactic finish. The spirit was robbed from the game.
The problem was: it was more than likely a penalty.
It was that perceived killing of spirit which Buffon later channelled in his post -match interviews when he essentially rubbished Oliver’s moral character with a series of incendiary insults. And it was in those moments, after he had emerged from the changing room and stopped under the glare of the television cameras to deliver his verdict, that Buffon set about tarnishing his illustrious reputation.
It’s one thing to respond to a refereeing decision in the heat of the moment – in the 94th minute of a physically and emotionally draining game.
Buffon must have known, with 20 years of elite football to call upon, that he had the gang on his side even as he confronted the English referee; that he held all the emotional cards. He was the mighty Buffon, Oliver an official of minor reputation. The Italian is sufficiently aware of his own aura and status in the game to refer to himself in the third person without a hint of irony.
By the 94th minute, the tie had been reduced to a battle of supremacy between Italian and Spanish football; it’s easy to imagine the volleys of outrage and incantations and curses filling the skies across Italy at that moment, too, regardless of club affiliations.
Buffon bore down on Oliver with the emotional weight of his club and country behind him, incandescent that this irritation of an Englishman had now stepped in to destroy his vision of how this game, this gladiatorial contest, should be decided.
He must have known that the penalty call would not be reversed but probably didn’t wager that Oliver would have the gall to double down on his decision by issuing the red card that may well signal the end of his European career.
Buffon probably couldn’t have known that, a few years back, Oliver was criticised for not red-carding Joe Hart in the Manchester derby when the goalkeeper closed in on him in with similar aggression – and that experience may have prompted the referee to complete Buffon’s misery by reaching for the card in Madrid.
Through all of this, Ronaldo stood with the ball, ignoring the jostling and verbals from a series of Juve players. He was like a doctor standing grimly with his needle waiting for the child to exhaust his tantrum so he could administer the vaccine. The least discussed aspect of the build-up to the penalty was probably the most important; that headed pass from Ronaldo, an act of exceptional athleticism and power.
As Ronaldo waited for Buffon’s fury to spend itself – and for him to leave the field – it wasn’t so much a question of whether he would score the penalty as how he would score it. And if ever there was a moment for Ronaldo to underplay the moment, this was it, because he handled the tension and menace of the interlude with grim focus. The hope was that after scoring he would resist the temptation to whip the top off and bathe in his own glory, that he would, just this once, play it cool. But no.
All that was left, then, was for Buffon to offer his verdict on the decision with words that strayed far beyond what was acceptable. His logic as to why Oliver should have resisted whistling the foul was muddled at best but his evaluation of the person behind the official was unforgivable. The phrases were strikingly dramatic and the translations from the Italian clearly loose. But the contempt was unmistakable.
“Clearly you cannot have a heart in your chest but a rubbish bin. You have to be a murderer to make the last two decisions the referee made.
“And especially you need to have personality to referee a game like this. If you don’t have the character to walk on a pitch like this, in a stadium like this, then you can sit in the stand with your wife, your kids, drinking your Sprite and eating crisps.”
Leave aside that the latter observation inadvertently betrays a sort of inherent sense of superiority over fans in general, the tone of Buffon’s insults gets to the heart of the referee’s lot.
Part of the referee’s role requires a kind of anti-charisma, to remain steadfastly neutral and unmoved by the pyrotechnics and fabulousness of the superstars around him. On his best nights, nobody notices him.
The ironic thing is that it took huge character for Oliver to show Buffon a red card even as half a dozen Juve players circled him in anger. It took courage. Buffon’s initial anger, his tantrum at the frustration of the moment is forgivable.
But to then emerge after the fans had left and further trash a man’s character; to dismiss the worth of another person because he made a decision in a football match, well. It was a low moment in a high career that is going to make the Italian hero feel small and ashamed, later if not sooner.