Let’s face it: Zlatan Ibrahimovic shouldn’t have been red carded

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As I watched the replay of Tuesday’s Valencia-Paris Saint-Germain match (because I hit Celtic-Juve first), I was surprised to hear relatively little debate about Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s red card. The PSG star saw straight red and earned the corresponding suspension after this stoppage time challenge:

The two arguments on this:

Ibrahimovic went over the top of the ball, making this a reckless, unnecessary challenge. He made full contact in a way that could have hurt Andres Guardado, therefore making it dangerous. While that may not be a red card every time, referee Paolo Tagliabento was within his rights to show Ibra red.

If that argument sounds dispassionate, it’s because I’m not buying it. This is just Ibrahimovic stepping on somebody’s foot, and while it’s conceivable the game could evolve to the point where this type of cynical foul would be an automatic red, dismissing Ibrahimovic is disproportionate. We just don’t see red cards for that type of foul. There’s no reason for Ibrahimovic, in the moments leading into that action, to believe he’d see red for what he’d decided to do. For Tagliabento to dismiss him for it is unjust.

Within the wiggle room referees get to interpret dangerous plays, Tagliabento’s entitled to his interpretation. It’s not outright wrong, and it’s probably not worth making a big deal about. Even if he is wrong, Tagliabento is entitled to occasional mistakes. Unless this is type of decision is a pattern from the Italian official, it’s better to just chalk it up to the game’s natural variance. Just bad “luck” for Ibra.

Though you could argue Ibrahimovic’s play was dangerous because it could have broken some toes, that interpretation of danger (potential harm) is problematic. There are a number of more common, more dangerous plays that are allowed to transpire through the course of a game – plays that would never draw a red card. Almost any time a player goes to ground, he’s exposing his opponent to more injury than Guardado was exposed to. Then a player is second in the air to contest a header, he’s risks concussions for both himself and this adversary. Even when a goalkeeper goes to punch a ball, he often puts other players at risk with the follow through or his jump.

In each of those situations, players commit to “dangerous” actions because they know they’re allowed to. Game in, game out they play by a set of standards enforced by the officiating community, standards to which they’ve adapted their game. They know what will and won’t bring red cards, and they act accordingly.

Going into today’s match, the game’s conventions allowed for what Ibrahimovic did. At least, they didn’t call for Ibrahimovic to be dismissed for that challenge. At some point before Tagliabento’s whistle, that changed. And now Ibrahimovic will miss the return leg.