“As a kid, I would have signed up to end my career with a Champions League match against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu”
Gianluigi Buffon received a standing ovation from the crowd at the Santiago Bernabeu. After an illustrious career, one which has seen him cement himself as one of greatest to grace the game, he had earned the applause from the those fans inside such an iconic football stadium.
However, it was not in the circumstances that neither he nor anyone else would have expected. The Juventus goalkeeper had just received his marching orders, filled with rage he stormed off the pitch without a second thought as to what was happening in the stands. The praise being expressed toward him would not have even registered; he did not get to enjoy a special moment.
Gigi is renowned for his cool, calm and calculated persona. The Italian goalkeeper is well spoken, respectful and shows objectivity in a game where few are able to detach themselves from the football hyperbole.
It had to be an extraordinary set of circumstances to push a man of Buffon’s standing over the edge, it was. Three goals down from the first-leg in Turin, the Bianconeri were faced with attempting to achieve a feat that has never been accomplished in the Champions League era.
Juventus were on the brink of history, the un-imaginable had – in the space of 90 minutes – become a very realistic possibility. The Old Lady were stunning the football world, it was not possible to do this in Real Madrid’s back yard but two Mario Mandzukic goals and a third from Blaise Matuidi had Juve level. Then came stoppage time.
It was pure football theatre, the rollercoaster of events that had taken us up to that point were nothing in comparison to what was about to un-fold. Ronaldo leapt above Alex Sandro to head a back-post header into the six-yard-box, Lucas Vazquez looked set to score the decisive goal and then Medhi Benatia stepped in. In a desperate attempt to prevent the goal, Benatia made contact with the Real Madrid attacker and Vazquez collapsed in a heap. Referee Michael Oliver did not stop to think, with no hesitation he pointed to the spot. The decision caused instant mayhem.
The Juventus players surrounded referee Oliver to remonstrate with him, the timing and magnitude of his decision generated an eruption of emotion. Gigi charged towards the English official, in a desperate attempt to make his point he got too close.
Buffon’s anger was evident, he never used his hands to push the man in charge but there is contact and the Italian keeper clearly bumps him. A straight red card is lifted above the Juventus captain’s head; the referee did not attempt to resolve the situation and dismissed Buffon. In the eyes of the law and with respect in mind, did Buffon take his appeals too far? Absolutely and that makes the red card warranted. However, sometimes in football perspective is required.
Michael Oliver had lost control of the situation, so much so that he did not even send off the player that committed the initial foul, despite it being a red card offence. Put yourself in those player’s boots, the sheer intensity of that moment is enough to provoke a serene man to explode. The reaction is understandable, the passion, the desire to win and the possibility of a crushing defeat after giving everything you have is something that anyone who has experienced football can relate too.
With that in mind, perhaps Mr. Oliver could have taken the sting out of the situation with a caution but the simplest way was to remove the culprit. The expulsion is cruel but has foundation and as for the Italian goalkeepers meltdown? It does not need justification; it was a natural human reaction that he paid the consequence for.
The storm did not pass after the final whistle; the post-match interviews produced equal levels of controversy. It is here where, on reflection, Buffon may look back in few days time and think that for once, his words failed him and he spoke out of turn. The goalkeeping legend went on the attack and had a scathing message for the man that sent him packing. Buffon commented “Clearly you cannot have a heart in your chest, but a garbage bin. On top of that, if you don’t have the character to walk on a pitch like this in a stadium like this, you can sit in the stands with your wife, your kids, drinking your Sprite and eating crisps”.
The veteran did not stop there and although he conceded Real Madrid deserved to progress he continued to vent his fury over the decision. Claiming Oliver had “Ruined the dreams of a team” and he will not “Accept that a referee is in charge of a game like this with two such high-profile teams and doesn’t have the character, courage or ability to make calm decisions”.
Buffon was seething; he did pause but only for a warm embrace with the passing Cristiano Ronaldo. The outburst was out of character; does it tarnish his image within the game? In the short-term, potentially, but Buffon is a man of principle and stood up for what he believed in.
For the neutral, it is easy to sit on the side-line and preach about what is right and wrong, lambasting Buffon for his actions without looking at the context of the situation is short sighted. As football fans we are quick to complain about players that don’t show pride in wearing the shirt, don’t fight for the colours or show they care. So on the biggest stage, for a player coming to the end of his career and who is attempting to keep a dream alive, don’t be hasty in passing judgement.
We do not want condone these types of actions and turn football into a weekly frenzy or a witch-hunt of officials. The decision makers are there to be treated legitimately but in isolation incidents happen and are comprehensible.
Gigi “Superman” Buffon made a light-hearted remark last year when referring to his retirement “Maybe I’ll close out like Zidane, giving someone a head-butt”. While he did not quite do a Zidane, the 40-year-old exited one of the world’s biggest football competitions swinging and despite another excellent goalkeeping performance, his last Champions League match will live long in the memory for another reason.