Did El Clasico aura overwhelm referee Alejandro Hernandez?
Typically, when one club has won the title while the other is playing for pride, the atmosphere surrounding a match is not expected to be feisty. That rule does not apply to El Clasico.
In a game many felt was a dead rubber, Real Madrid and Barcelona faithful were having none of it. Nor were the players, but the referee seems to have stolen the show.
Eight yellow cards and a red were dished out at the Nou Camp. Alejandro Hernandez Hernandez, who is not from New York City, made some contentious decisions in the process. His performance begged the question whether he was competent to handle such a match?
Football is so low scoring that a referee's call can have far greater influence than in other sports. Mr Hernandez’ decisions on the night affected the outcome. It’s not easy to officiate a high profile game. El Clasico is near the summit when it comes to high profile. Real Madrid and Barcelona are national, continental, and global rivals. Add in the political tensions and you have the most contentious rivalry in football. There will be fireworks.
The man in the middle must be well equipped to handle the job; there is a lot involved. How many strong personalities are there to keep in check? Lionel Messi. Cristiano Ronaldo. Luis Suarez. Sergio Busquets. Sergio Ramos. Gerard Pique. Karim Benzema. Zinedine Zidane. Then there are the 97,000 personalities in the stands. Any human being is apt to succumb to such pressure. Those are the conditions in which the 35-year-old Spaniard was expected to function.
Hernandez had issued six red cards in his last nine games. That speaks to his tolerance levels but also to the sadism of the league officials who assigned him.
No one with an objective mind will argue the decision to off Sergi Roberto. Purposely striking an opponent in the face is not permitted under any circumstances anywhere in sanctioned football. It’s always a straight red. But perhaps the referee had encouraged by failing to punish Jordi Alba for pushing Luka Modric and grabbing him by the neck.
Modric did not respond in kind. He hasn't the temper of Sergio Ramos or Diego Costa. Still, no player has the right to grab another by the neck. The referee needed to issue a yellow card in that instance. He invited worse behaviour by not doing so.
Beyond sportsmanship, Hernandez also had issues enforcing the rules of play.
Barcelona’s second goal came after Luis Suarez clearly fouled Raphael Varane. The striker kicked the defender’s left leg, taking him off-balance, sending him to ground. Surprisingly, the referee allowed play to continue. The Uruguayan took the ball, squared an assist to Lionel Messi, who fired home to give Barca the lead. After the match, Suarez admitted he had fouled Varane and was surprised at the referee’s non-call.
Hernandez then declined to book Gareth Bale for a studs-up challenge on Samuel Umtiti. It was a similar challenge to Marcos Alonso’s on Shane Long in the Premier League for which the Chelsea defender received a three-game ban.
Perhaps the worst decision of the night was Hernandez's refusal to award Real Madrid a penalty in the 76th minute. Jordi Alba clearly kicked Marcelo as he made his way towards goal, inside the box.
The referee's decisions may not have come under scrutiny considering the match had no bearing on the title. Regardless, it was not a good advertisement for Spanish football.
It’s easy to make the right decisions when the match is progressing smoothly and there is no pressure. Professionalism and competence are only revealed in the most strenuous conditions. Maturity and experience are required to handle such moments. Hernandez was found wanting for both.
It’ is the league's responsibility to put the right man in charge. Hernandez may be a promising talent in officiating but he is not yet prepared to handle El Clasico. As the saying goes, a cooler head would have prevailed.