When referee Francisco Jose Hernandez Maeso blew the full-time whistle at the Bernabeu, the Almeria players ran straight towards him to complain. On the bench, some of their substitutes and members of coaching staff threw their hands up in the air in indignation.
Real Madrid had just beaten La Liga’s bottom-placed team 3-2, but it had been far from straightforward.
Three controversial decisions had gone Madrid’s way — supported by VAR — sparking anger from Almeria and from other sectors of Spanish football. Midfielder Gonzalo Melero claimed “the game was stolen from us” while Barcelona coach Xavi suggested it would cause them reputational damage.
Before that, it looked as if winless Almeria might hold on for an unlikely victory at the home of the 14-time European champions. They scored after 45 seconds through a Largie Ramazani strike following some poor Madrid defending and then made it 2-0 just before the break with a stunning long-range effort from centre-back Edgar Gonzalez.
Then, as Madrid began to pepper the Almeria goal, the controversy started. In the 57th minute, the VAR Alejandro Jose Hernandez Hernandez alerted his on-field colleague to a possible penalty for handball by defender Kaiky as he battled for an aerial ball with Joselu.
Referee Hernandez Maeso consulted the monitor and awarded the spot-kick, which was dispatched by Jude Bellingham. But Almeria complained that he had not taken into account a potential foul from Joselu on Kaiky as he rose for the header — which would have seen a free-kick awarded to Almeria.
Four minutes later, Almeria launched a fast counter-attack and went 3-1 up through the Madrid academy graduate Sergio Arribas. Again, however, Hernandez Maeso was told to consult the monitor. This time, he disallowed Arribas’ goal because of a hand in Bellingham’s face from Dion Lopy in the build-up.
Those on the Almeria bench pleaded with the referee, arguing the contact had been minimal. The former La Liga referee and now-pundit Eduardo Iturralde Gonzalez later suggested Hernandez Maeso had followed the rules of the Spanish Technical Committee of Referees (CTA), which state that all such fouls should be called, even if they are minor.
Then, in the 67th minute, Hernandez Maeso awarded Almeria a free-kick after Vinicius Junior appeared to score with his arm — one angle from behind the Brazilian forward appeared to show the ball coming off his shoulder, while another seemed to show it was his bicep. Hernandez Maeso was told to go to the monitor once again.
“I recommend an on-field review so that you can see the no hand, the possible no hand,” Hernandez Hernandez told him. Conversations between on-field referees and the VAR have been made public in Spanish football from this month in a joint move between La Liga and the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF).
“Perfect, he hits it with his shoulder and it’s a valid goal,” Hernandez Maeso replied. “I’m going to signal a goal, there’s no offence.”
🗣️ AUDIO REVISIÓN VAR
🗓️ Jornada 21 | Primera División
— RFEF (@rfef) January 21, 2024
By that point Almeria were fully unsettled and the team’s coach, Gaizka Garitano, was sent off for his protests. Madrid completed the comeback in the 99th minute through Dani Carvajal, sparking wild scenes at the Bernabeu. Fans started chanting “Asi, asi, asi gana el Madrid” — “That’s how Madrid win” — a song which is often also used by Madrid’s opponents to criticise refereeing decisions that go against them.
Almeria right-back Marc Pubill was quick to call out what he perceived as an injustice as he left the pitch. “The team played a great game, we went in front, and I believe somebody decided that we could not win today and the game ended as it did,” he said.
A few minutes later, Edgar and Melero voiced their frustrations in the mixed zone.
“It’s a feeling of impotence, of not knowing what’s going on,” Edgar said. “I understand that one team is Madrid and we’re another, but this competition should be fair for everyone and sometimes it’s hard to see that.”
Melero, Almeria’s captain and a former Madrid youth player, was even more forceful. “We leave with the feeling that they stole the game from us,” he said. “We are light years away from being the best league in the world.”
Spanish refereeing already finds itself in a difficult place. Earlier this year, it emerged Barcelona allegedly made payments totalling €7.3million (£6.3m; $7.7m at current exchange rates) to the vice president of Spanish football’s refereeing committee, Jose Maria Enriquez Negreira. Alleged payments Barca made between 2001 and 2018 are being investigated for possible corruption in a case brought by the Spanish public prosecutor’s office. Madrid have often been the strongest critics of referees on their official TV channel, Real Madrid TV.
Garitano, who had become increasingly irate before his sending off, said that decision had been correct but continued in a similar vein to Melero.
“I don’t usually talk about referees but everyone has seen this game and it’s not the first time this has happened to me here,” the Almeria coach said.
The Madrid view was rather different. Head coach Carlo Ancelotti said he “understood” Almeria’s complaints given they “competed a lot and played a very good game” but that “if we look at the three decisions, they are correct”. Carvajal, meanwhile, addressed Melero’s comments.
“If Gonzalo looks calmly and objectively at the controversial plays he will see that this is not the case,” he said of the midfielder’s claims Almeria had been robbed.
On Real Madrid TV, they were full of praise for Hernandez Hernandez’s interventions from the VAR room — despite previously attacking his officiating.
“That’s what the VAR is there for, to ensure justice is done,” one pundit said. “We are not used to it doing justice. It’s what we always ask for, what we always demand.”
It did not stop there. Almeria posted a message on social media referencing the situation. “Don’t expect us to publish the match report,” it said. “Everything is more than clear.”
And even Madrid’s arch-rivals Barcelona weighed in when Xavi, in his press conference following his side’s 4-2 win against Real Betis, said he agreed with the words of esteemed journalist Alfredo Relano on the radio station Cadena Ser. “These three points may be worth a league title for Real Madrid, but they create an enormous reputational damage,” Relano had said.
Luck certainly seemed to go Madrid’s way as they turned things around on the pitch, but there was no escaping the feeling this would only add to the sense of controversy around refereeing in Spain.
(Top photo: Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP via Getty Images)
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