Sitting in the airport, I was unable to catch Sunday’s La Liga matches and therefore initially missed Real Madrid’s evening clash against Malaga. For those who can commiserate with the indiscipline of not being able to resist checking the headlines before catching the match later, I salute you.
“From Angel to Demon” read the Marca headline, a poor reference to the Dan Brown novel that first described Cristiano Ronaldo’s two strikes (the second of which was sublime) and then his ‘codazo’ (elbow thrown) into the face of Danish left-back Patrick Mtiliga, breaking the defender’s nose. The headline and match report implied a fit of petulance by the Portuguese international, a violent outburst that came after one particularly physical challenge.
After all, Cristiano does have a reputation for such childish dismissals. During his time at Manchester United, he picked up four red cards: one in 2004 against Aston Villa and two against Manchester City - the first for a high lunge on forward Andy Cole during a 3-1 defeat that was mostly seen as a malicious act of frustration and the second for a clear hand ball, which was allegedly caused by a violent push in the back in jumping for the ball, causing Ronaldo to bring his hands up to defend his face.
But the most notable remains his last sending off in a Red Devil shirt when in the 2007–08 season, Cristiano was shown a red card for a head-butt on Portsmouth’s Richard Hughes, for which the Man U star was punished with a three-match ban. Much was made of that expulsion and although Ronaldo outwardly spoke that he had "learned a lot" from that experience and would no longer let opposing players "provoke" him into reacting in the future, such offences are rarely forgotten and Cristiano’s hot-headed reputation took hold.
In the first week of December during a match against Almeria, a brilliant Ronaldo won a penalty kick (although he missed the spot kick that Karim Benzema would clean up for the goal) and scored a goal himself on a Gonzalo Higuain cross. But after his strike, the ecstatic Portuguese stripped his shirt and flexed his muscles for a photo that would have looked better in one of his Armani model shoots than on the football pitch - if only for the reason that it earned him a yellow card. Four minutes later, after a series of forceful challenges against him, Ronaldo lashed out with a vicious kick on Almeria’s Juanma Ortiz, an offence that earned him his second yellow card and his first sending off in a Madrid shirt (no pun intended).
The Santiago Bernabeu is not a place known for its ability to forgive. It demands its players to comport themselves with class and humility a la Zidane, Raul, and Kaka. But every player is entitled to one stupid mistake and with Ronaldo’s apology in the press immediately after his rush of blood to the head, the outburst was forgotten - or in light of CR9’s immense talent - swept under the rug.
The initial readings of the Spanish press reports seemed to indicate that Sunday’s ‘codazo’ was a relapse of the same impulsive behaviour, but upon watching the match myself, Cristiano’s flailing arm looked like more of an attempt to fend off Mtiliga (who was very clearly pulling CR9 back) than a malice-driven strike at the face. The contact looked incidental instead of intentional; in other words, it looked as if Ronaldo was trying to play football.
A few years ago, Ronaldo had a reputation as a diver. A fast player with a slight build, the Portuguese winger would shy away from contact and very often try to simulate for the referee. Sometimes such Oscar-winning performances would win him penalties and other times yellow cards, but in both instances, it earned him a bad reputation among both fans and the zebras [referees].
But after much coaching by Sir Alex Ferguson and a good deal of work in the gym, a physically and mentally stronger Ronaldo began to ride challenges, fight through fouls, and fend off defenders, relying instead upon himself rather than the referee’s judgment. During some matches this season, Ronaldo can even be seen giving disapproving looks toward to the referee for calling a foul rather than allowing the advantage to be played for Madrid to continue their often-lethal counterattacks.
Upon being held back by a defender, the Ronaldo of a few years ago would have stopped playing, thrown his limbs up into the air like a fish, and flopped onto the pitch with an incredulous shout and pleading look in the direction of the referee. But against Malaga, CR9 fought through the challenge in an attempt to play football and was penalised with a red card when his arm struck Mtiliga in the face. Ronaldo, himself, spoke afterward about the incident saying that if Mtiliga had been taller, his flailing arm would have connected with the defender’s chest. If anything, the Dane should have been punished with a yellow.
It seems that Cristiano has a point. Interestingly enough, an eerily similar play occurred the week before in Barcelona’s La Liga match against Sevilla, a match the Blaugrana won 4-0. The incident in question occurred when Sevilla defender Marc Valiente attempted to hold up Barca star Lionel Messi by grabbing the Argentine by the waist, shirt, and arm in a manner similar (albeit more extreme) to Mtiliga's pullback of Cristiano Ronaldo.
Instead of going down and simulating the foul, Messi, as he always strives to do, attempted to fight and free himself from the taller defender's grasp by pushing him off with his right arm, his elbow lashing backward at Valiente's chest and face. In Messi's case, no foul was called for the Argentine's wild flailing and Valiente was booked for his mugging. All the while, the only difference between the two incidents (made clear by a video released by sports daily AS that juxtaposes the two events) appears to be the fact that Ronaldo is half a foot (0.17 metres) taller than Messi - or that Mtiliga is nearly half a foot (0.12 metres) shorter than Valiente (it's all relative), and that Ronaldo’s arm inadvertently came into contact with Mtiliga’s face while Messi's arm did not make contact.
Ron seeing red for the first time in white
Since CR9’s sending off and subsequent two-match ban by the Spanish Competition Committee (Madrid will reportedly appeal the punishment with the hope of reducing it to one match), which will force Los Blancos’ best player to miss next weekend’s match against Deportivo La Coruna at the Riazor, where they have not won in 19 seasons, murmurs of conspiracy theories are abound in the Spanish capital. Instigated by the video that compares the similar plays of Messi and Ronaldo and the very dissimilar outcomes, Madridistas are beginning to elevate their whispers of ‘Villarato’ to louder volumes.
'Villarato' is not a real Spanish word, but a term coined by Spaniards to describe the close relationship between Barca president Joan Laporta and Spanish Federation president José María Villar (also the vice-president of FIFA and the third vice-president of UEFA), which implicitly means the Liga directors hold some favouritism toward Barca. Talk of such a conspiracy was playfully entertained last season as Barca marched on to win the Triplete on the back of some admittedly questionable calls by referees. But this season, the outrage and accusations have grown further as calls like the erroneous penalty called against Espanyol in the Barcelona derbi or Ronaldo’s recent red-card in light of Messi’s pardon show some suspect decisions.
Entertaining such theories is a very tall accusation and, to be quite blunt, it is pure rubbish. Referees are human and they do make mistakes. As Ronaldo put it, it was simply bad luck that his flailing arm happened to connect with Mtiliga’s nose and, despite the fracture, Mtiliga admitted that Ronaldo did not intend to cause harm. It seems, instead, that the Portuguese's red card and subsequent two-match ban came as a result of his action rather than the intent behind it. Should Messi have broken Valiente’s nose or caused a similar injury, perhaps he would have been sent off as well and we would not be having this debate.
But this begs the question as to where to draw the line when it comes to punishing a player for the results of his actions rather than intent behind them. For those who saw Deportivo La Coruna left-back Filipe Luis’ horrific ankle injury in scoring a goal against Athletic Bilbao (if you haven’t, don’t Youtube it; it truly is sickening) one has to wonder: if the ball had not nestled into the back of the net, would Athletic keeper Gorka Iraizoz have been sent off, banned for a number of matches, and a penalty awarded? Despite the fact that he did not intend to cause Luis any harm, does the fact that he shattered the talented Brazilian’s ankle, ended his season and dreams of playing in the World Cup with Dunga’s Brazilian national team, and put his career in jeopardy merit a punishment?
The simple answer is no, simply because that would be absurd. Football is a sport in which athletes run, jump, kick, and slide and these activities are inherently dangerous. One tries to minimise injury, but inevitably accidents do happen and players will get hurt. It is a simple fact of the game and a known risk. A referee’s job is make sure no player attempts to purposefully injure an opponent or puts himself in a position that could significantly compromise a player, but sometimes that line can become a bit hazy and that is where referees must use their own judgement.
However, in the case of Cristiano Ronaldo’s red-card and two-match ban, I would be hard-pressed to admit that the punishment is warranted. A yellow card? Sure. A red card? Doubtful. A two-match ban? No. As for Cristiano, the way the incentives seem to have aligned through this entire debacle point to one message: next time a player tries to hold you up, don’t try to fight through the foul and play the ball. Dive. Sometimes the sport benefits if one just lets the players play.
Do you think Cristiano’s red-card was justified? Is a two-match ban excessive, just right, or not enough? Goal.com wants to hear your thoughts.