Heartfelt sympathy is extended to Gianluigi Buffon, of course, railing with much of Italy against the referee Michael Oliver’s last-minute penalty decision which wiped out Juventus’ marvellous three-goal Champions League second-leg comeback against Real Madrid. Oliver, remaining intently officious while the Juventus players circled him in disbelieving outrage, then met Buffon’s excessive protests with a red card, sending the great, giant goalkeeper off in the last match of his epic Champions League career.
It would take a cold heart, maybe, not to support Buffon in his passionate reaction and forgive his outbursts afterwards against the referee. Perhaps, as Buffon said so floridly of Oliver, it would take a rubbish bin for a heart. But then again, maybe not.
When Buffon and Juventus reflect, on even so enormous a sporting disappointment, perhaps he might find it in his own heart to apologise. His human response was understandable but his protest on the field was over the top, and his comments afterwards about Oliver were insulting, bordering on abusive.
This most pressured football drama was the highest of tests for the time-served football rule drilled into children when they first pull their socks up: never argue with the ref. Buffon failed it after the penalty was awarded. As wise old coaches tell their young players, he was only letting his own team down.
Arguing with the referee is necessarily an offence in the rules; Buffon, bawling and pawing at Oliver, had to go. His post-match comments to the media, about Oliver having a rubbish bin for a heart, not knowing “shit”, and having no personality, were unworthy, the Champions League equivalent of waiting for a referee in the car park after a disagreement on the public parks.
That, most importantly, is why Buffon is in the wrong. It is legitimate to question how far famed sporting giants are, or should be expected to be, role models to the millions watching them, but in their conduct towards referees, they do set standards. There are very important reasons why those standards should be decent; why, whatever the stakes, the referee’s decision has to be final and why the stars – and managers, and pundits – should maintain respect: because in the real world, abuse of referees is rife, accompanied by the visceral threat of physical violence.
Only last year in Manchester a young referee, Ryan Hampson, 18, organised a strike of amateur referees in protest at the violence and abuse infesting amateur matches. Hampson said he had been headbutted, spat at and punched during his four years as a referee, and knew many other referees who had suffered the same.
A helpline set up in response by an organisation, Ref Support UK, reported 70 calls in its first month, including two physical assaults and a referee who had been told he would be killed.
This has been happening for decades, before and after the English Football Association unrolled its “respect” plastic tape and ringed the public pitches with it. An experienced referee in Manchester told me years ago that the lack of respect shown by star players and managers on television set the tone for what happened on the parklands, where there is no spotlight or protection.
Human error is an integral feature of refereeing – which is why it does not actually matter, when discussing Buffon’s reaction, whether Oliver’s decision was technically right or not. However skilled they are, referees are necessary, a precious part of the game. On the parks just having a referee, somebody who turns up wearing black kit and wielding a whistle, establishes the authority of the rules, of the sport itself. Experience tells that without a referee, thuggery is less restrained, and it is understandably a struggle to have enough people willing to do it.
All of football feels for Juventus but Buffon was wrong, as Pep Guardiola was the night before, to confront the referee. The icons of football need to set a better example, remember what they were told as children and live by it at the galactic heights they now inhabit. Buffon, as penance, should be made by Uefa to do a season’s refereeing, on the mud baths of Manchester.