A little-known Turkish insurance man has wrought a global sports miracle. He has made it possible to feel sorry for Sir Alex Ferguson. It is almost beyond belief.
The referee Cuneyt Cakir not only forced a ludicrous dip into the reservoir of sympathy for the foremost coach or manager on Earth, a man with 12 English Premier League titles, two European Champions League titles, four European Champions League final appearances, five FA Cup titles and four League Cup titles. He somehow engendered compassion for a sometime bully.
The sometime bully started down out of his seat to protest and, boom, the brain tripped into compassion.
It sent the brain spiraling.
On another dramatic night in Europe, the stadium dubbed "Theatre of Dreams" proved it could stage farce, too. In one zany swoop at 56 minutes as much of the world watched a Champions League round-of-16 match of titans between Manchester United and visiting Real Madrid, Cakir also managed to treat humanity to one of its most treasured occurrences, a pivotal officiating blunder. The world will buzz for days about the malfeasance. How exciting for so much of the world.
Before Cakir banished Nani for an unintentional high boot into Alvaro Arbeloa, Manchester United looked sound and steady and bound for the quarterfinals. After Cakir banished Nani for what should have been a yellow card or no card at all, Manchester United looked as if it had 10 men, which in fact it did. Before Cakir banished Nani, Ferguson's glaring omission of Wayne Rooney from the Manchester United lineup looked like the manager's usual acumen. After Cakir banished Nani, Ferguson's insertion of Rooney 20 minutes from time seemed a necessary gasp.
Soon even Jose Mourinho, the Real Madrid manager, chimed in with his bound-for-fame condolence that included the passage "the best team lost." And after Luka Modric scored a 20-yard beauty off the right post at 66, and Cristiano Ronaldo scored a poke-in from Gonzalo Higuain's excellent cross at 69, the world gathered around its TVs will never know if those two gems could have transpired 11-versus-11.
To that, the winning manager gave expert witness: "I doubt that 11 versus 11, we win the match."
He said that in the press conference, and there came another shocker: Ferguson did not attend. He declined a chance to grouse. Cakir took a 71-year-old manager who had seen just about everything and left him mute, unless you count the berating during the match and the pointing just afterward.
"It's a distraught dressing room and a distraught manager," assistant manager Mike Phelan said to the reporters in Manchester. "That's why I am sitting here now. I don't think the manager is in any fit state to talk to the referee about the decision. It speaks volumes that I am sitting here now, not the manager of this fantastic football club."
Just a word: Wow.
Recent years had dredged various feelings for Ferguson with respect, impression, anger and incredulity taking various turns. One day at a seminar in Doha, Qatar, he even answered questions and shared stories with such amiability that the whole occasion took on an uncle-by-the-fireplace motif. Sympathy had never joined the parade. There's no sympathy for Godzilla, especially as Manchester United blows out the English (and Welsh) field this season toward its record 20th English title (seven before the Premier League began).
Then Cakir pulled the red and loosed the pity. Sheesh. Really?
That red did so many things. It tilted the match in a way you almost never see, where a wrong decision becomes the unmistakable hinge. It reminded us all that the most powerful people in the world would have to include soccer referees, who sway emotions in ripples and waves across the time zones. And it took a 36-year-old insurance man and authoritarian ref from Istanbul and lifted him even higher in Champions League lore.
He had lore already. Twas he who, on the momentous night of last April 24, dealt the deserved red card to the dreadful John Terry in Barcelona after the Chelsea defender kneed Barcelona's Alexis Sanchez in the back, even if it took Cakir's assistant to notice the idiocy. And now it's Cakir who gains worldwide fame in a way referees seldom do and never should. Within 11 months, he has reduced Chelsea to 10 men so that it could withstand the game's greatest force to burnish its heroism, and reduced Manchester United to 10 men so that it could not withstand Real Madrid. His first ovation came from the venerable Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand, who celebrated the outcome by walking right up to Cakir and applauding.
That's some legacy already for a referee, but to wring even a rivulet of sympathy for Sir Alex Ferguson? That pushes Cakir into the stratosphere. That's a monumental human non-achievement.