German referee Wolfgang Stark is receiving it in the neck after Barcelona’s 3-2 win at AC Milan for his string of decisions on the half hour. The criticisms began with the award of the penalty decision itself; in which Alberto Aquilani sent Xavi crashing to the turf with a feather-light touch on the Spaniard’s shoulder.
According to Marca, “Aquilani grabbed Xavi inside the box but the contact was not enough to topple Barca brain.” (Interestingly Italy’s reporting of the event was less conclusive, as Thursday’s edition of Corrirrie Dello Sport referenced the penalty award as “hotly contested,” while Gazzetta told their readers Barcelona won “a generous penalty award.”)
With the initial decision against Aquilani already in doubt, what happened next was truly bemusing. As if visually challenged, referee Stark followed up the spot-kick decision by issuing a yellow card… to Alessandro Nesta!
Consensus opinion is that Stark simply got his long-haired Milanese footballers mixed up. That was lucky for Aquilani, who was already walking around with one caution to his name.
Marca labelled Nesta’s booking as “an error” and just “wrong,” Sport reacted by diplomatically flagging up the “confusion,” while Corrierre Dello Sport branded the booking “inexplicable.”
Perhaps the biggest moment of controversy though was still to come, as Lionel Messi was booked for scoring a paradinha against Milan keeper Abbiati. While such spot-kicks are regularly allowed all over the planet, on this occasion Messi not only had his effort chalked off, but moreover he collected a booking for unsportsmanlike conduct.
It’s worthwhile highlighting that according to the strict letter of the law the paradinha penalty can be construed as illegal. The rule book states feinting in the run-up to take a penalty kick to confuse opponents is permitted as part of football. However, feinting to kick the ball once the player has completed his run-up is considered an infringement of Law 14 and an act of unsporting behaviour for which the player must be cautioned.
With that said, having seen the likes of Fred getting away with penalties like this in the past, it seems bizarre that Messi was hauled back for his spot-kick.