There’s this thing you learn in life as you get older. There are no clear and obvious situations (well, maybe some, but usually not); you can’t always control the world with dignity and flowers. Sometimes you have to do a little wrong to do a lot right.
In stoppage time of the match between the New York Red Bulls and Orlando City, Tyler Adams – his team up 3-1 and cruising to victory – started trash-talking to Orlando’s new signing Yoshimar Yotun, and OCSC midfielder Cristian Higuita didn’t like it. Next thing you know, there are 12 players crowded together and Kaká has his fingers in Aurelien Collin’s mouth. The impromptu facial didn't get past Video Review and Kaká was soon walking away with a red card courtesy of referee Jorge Gonzalez.
When you watch the interaction between Kaka and Collin on replay, both players are clearly smiling and laughing. You can’t watch the play and think there was malicious intent.
It was a playful moment between former teammates. Let’s think about how rare those moments are today, too. At a time when the stakes resemble Big Oil more than a “children’s game,” we rarely see players let their guard down. There was something nice about watching two guys on the field… smile… at each other.
It was frustrating, for sure, to see Gonzalez look past such an obvious human moment. The rule certainly must have an unwritten clause, “unless both players are laughing and joking.” Every rule should have some human element, right? Maybe not. As I said, sometimes a person’s gotta do a little wrong to do a lot right.
While seemingly oblivious to the context of the moment, Gonzalez decided to follow the letter of the law. He made the situation predictable. The rule says touching another player’s face warrants a red, so he provided the red.
Players might groan about the specific decision, but, in truth, players want nothing more than predictability from referees.
There are matches in which players walk off the field feeling that a different ref would have led to a different result. I hated nothing more than to lay in bed after a game and feel that it wasn’t my hard work or my own faults that decided a game, but rather an arbitrary decision – one that might have gone a different way on any other day. I worked tens of thousands of hours over my life to win every tiny detail. I didn’t want to live in a world where an unpredictable decision from a referee decided a game.
Gonzalez’s decision to send off Kaká was a frustrating one for me to watch. For the specific moment, I would argue it was probably the wrong call. But for the good of the game, he did the right thing.
We shouldn’t leave a decision as important as a red card to whether a referee can interpret the type of laugh and smile on a person’s face (if I wasn’t very good at anything else, I had mastered the fake smile at a referee). The face touching didn't escalate the situation this time, but who knows how a player will react in the 93rd minute of a game? A player shouldn’t escape a red when his studs up tackle doesn’t hurt someone; it’s a precedent that should follow down the line.
Kaká touched Collin’s face. When a player touches another player's face, it’s a red card. One can only hope that all decisions continue to be as clear.
Others might want romance, but players want wins. Kaká’s red is a decision – and a precedent – about which we scream at the TV in the moment, but sleep better at night.