We're only a quarter of the way through this round of the Champions League, but by far the two best ties—Barcelona vs. Manchester City and Bayern Munich vs. Arsenal—are all but technically over. And while neither result is necessarily surprising, it's unfortunate that both matches turned on the controversial red card-penalty double whammy that needs to be changed.
First, let's look at the challenges themselves. Above is the Martín Demichelis tackle from behind on Lionel Messi. This was the more straightforward of the two incidents, as most non-Mancunian spectators agreed that it was a stonewall penalty and sending off. (For you "He was outside the box!" truthers, the tackle did continue into the penalty area and otherwise was so close that there was no way for the ref to have seen it in real time.) But even then, the play wasn't dangerous, which is really the only time a tackle should earn a red.
Next, we have the collision between Wojciech Szczesny and Arjen Robben that had Arsenal's keeper mockingly playing with himself instead of with his teammates. This one was more debatable. Yes, it too was an obvious penalty, and under the current rules Szczesny was justifiably, if a bit harshly, sent off. But this situation makes the rules look even worse. What else was Szczesny supposed to do? A defender's error in the box shouldn't see him red carded just because the attacker is more clever in that moment. In fact, there wasn't too much of a difference between Robben besting Szczesny and Mesut Özil getting clattered by Jerome Boateng for Arsenal's penalty. Getting fooled shouldn't get you sent off.
This is all important because red cards ruin games. Literally the only people happy about the red cards this week are fans of the teams who benefitted. The opposition, their fans, and the neutrals that out-number them all are disappointed that these hugely anticipated games—which, until the decisive whistles, were threatening to live up to the hype—were destroyed by intrigue and shenanigans.
But help could be on the way. A few years back, the FIFA Task Force Football 2014 recommended changes to the current red card protocol. They sought to fix the "triple punishment" problem of a sending off, penalty, and suspension. Here's what panel member Franz Beckenbauer had to say:
A penalty is enough if it is a simple foul or a tackle where you try to get the ball but you are a second late. If you have a violent foul, if it would have been a red card anywhere on the field, then it's a penalty and a red card.
Applied to the Arsenal situation, it seems like the panel's proposed changes would have saved Szczesny, since a penalty was awarded and he was merely late with his challenge. In Man City's case, the ref would have to decide whether Demichelis's challenge was violent or not, but it's very possible that he too wouldn't have been sent off.
Soccer is supposed to be played 11-on-11. Being a man down is such a debilitating punishment—both for the team itself and the audience—that we shouldn't force refs to inflict it except in the direst circumstances. With recommendations like those still percolating and high-profile controversies like these, hopefully someone will finally do something about it.
Photo by Getty