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Johannesburg – On Tuesday evening I watched on television two football games, taking place thousands of kilometres apart, but with a distinct similarity: a referee’s decision decided the outcome.
First it was Mamelodi Sundowns against Moroka Swallows at Loftus Versfeld, with the Birds triumphing through a penalty by Siyabonga Nomvethe.
There’s no question the penalty – awarded by Lwandile Mfiki after Method Mwanjale had hacked down David Mathebula in the box – was legitimate, or that the referee’s decision to also send off the Sundowns defender was the correct application of Fifa rules.
With victory secured, Swallows coach Zeca Marques could afford a smile at the end, praising the referee. His counterpart, Pitso Mosimane, also had no problem with the decisions taken by Mfiki, except that he called for consistency in such decisions.
On another day, however, it is possible that Mfiki – or any other referee – may not have given that penalty. It is probable that another official might have waved play on, or worse, accused Mathebula of diving and booked him.
At Old Trafford, the Champions League match between Manchester United and Real Madrid was marred by refereeing controversy when Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir sent off Nani, a decision that severely influenced the outcome of the game with Real overturning a deficit to win 3-2 on aggregate.
The truth is, Cakir’s decision seemed harsh, even to those of us who do not necessarily swear by Man United, but it was another illustration of the power of the man in the middle. He can annoy and delight all the same. No doubt, the decision to send off Nani will be applauded in Madrid for years should they go on and lift a 10th Champions League title.
But as much as the rage over that decision continued, it has to be accepted that such decisions will even themselves out in the long run. No sooner had United fans moaned about Cakir and branded him a cheat, than some football fans had dug out old video clips which showed how United themselves benefitted from refereeing decisions that could have gone either way.
On the Telegraph website, a fan posted a link with a video depicting how United did not protest when Emmanuel Eboue, then with Arsenal, was sent off at Old Trafford for an almost similar offence as that of Nani several years ago.
There were other examples cited, such as earlier in the season after Chelsea’s Fernando Torres was red-carded for alleged diving against United when he clearly had been fouled, and Chelsea lost 3-2.
Actions from referees go a long way in deciding who bags a title, who goes home happier and who has heartache.
As we await the biggest Soweto Derby in years this afternoon, we have to hope that by the end of the match, we do not have a situation where – as was the case after the Real-United game – fingers of blame are pointed at one man.
To their credit, referees who have handled recent derbies have not made too many blunders which could have influenced the game in favour of one team or the other.
This is precisely what is required because today’s derby has plenty of consequences. As much as Roger De Sa and Stuart Baxter, the respective coaches of Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs, have maintained that the Absa Premiership title won’t be decided this afternoon, the ramifications of failure or success are sure to rankle beyond this weekend.
A win for Chiefs would leave them with one hand on the trophy, while Pirates have to get all three points to stand a chance of defending the title they have won for the past two seasons.
With so much at stake – and De Sa could be left scanning the job market in case of failure – it would be sad if post-match bar and shebeen talk was dominated by what the referee did or didn’t do.
Players and coaches’ tactics – not referees – should decide the outcome of games.
*Follow Matshe on Twitter @Nkareng