When Steven Gerrard saw his life’s work slip away, there was a reason that Demba Ba compounded the misery. An hour later, there was a reason that Iago Aspas’ last-gasp corner was intercepted and rolled into Simon Mignolet’s empty net. When Liverpool blew a three-goal lead at Selhurst Park to leave Merseyside title dreams as little more than far-fetched chimeras, there too was a reason.
Rewind a decade to a Vince Vaughn classic, Dodgeball: when Peter LaFleur made his decision to abandon Average Joe’s, quitting just before an historic final with Globo Gym, there was a reason that an encounter with Lance Armstrong would lead to LaFleur returning to complete one of the great underdog victories.
If nothing else, fantasy is good for a heart-warming denouement. Professional sport, though, is no storybook. As an art form, it has the capacity to paint irresistible, sweeping emotion, but sport has a heartlessness to rival the most callous minds. It does not do compassion.
Thus, there was a certain irony on Wednesday night as the continental career of one of football’s great goalkeepers ended so theatrically, his complaints so far removed from sport’s coldness. Of course, Gianluigi Buffon wanted to win. Yet, from his post-match comments – a mixture of deranged, impassioned spontaneity and cruel, slanderous contempt – Buffon, who should know far better, spoke as a man consumed by self-pity.
Make no mistake, Michael Oliver – a superb referee – played each aspect of his part exceptionally. The challenge from Mehdi Benatia a clear foul; a generous offering of a shove in the back and a kick in the chest. The reaction from the usually classy Buffon; a disgrace and one for which he should pay.
Public reaction, typically, has been diverse. Many have seen the incident for what it was – a penalty, a red card, a bit of a shame. The comeback was stirring, and extra-time would have been fascinating. Alas, games are not officiated according to the entertainment stakes – something of a relief for Sam Allardyce.
Nonetheless, Oliver has been attacked mercilessly for preventing the continuation of the Buffon swansong, the suggestion from some being that he should have considered the Italian’s upcoming retirement. There was even a claim that Juventus’ efforts on the night did not merit a penalty against them. In between calling Oliver a ‘murderer’ and a man with ‘a dustbin for a heart’, Buffon found time to argue that a different decision from a different referee in the tie’s first leg should have been on Oliver’s mind.
The backlash against Oliver is the culmination of an increasing theme. Social media has become a platform for people to spew cowardly bile from behind photos of Che Guevara and Paul Pogba – brave enough to insult, but without the courage to attach the words to their identity. On one level, it is deeply disturbing. On another, bloody weird.
Ultimately, they – like Buffon – have missed the point. Oliver awarded the penalty because it was a foul. Sport doesn’t do fairytales.