It gave Sebastian Giovinco a free shot at goal from 12 yards out, pushed Toronto FC ahead of Club América less than 10 minutes after the opening whistle at BMO Field and in the words of América head coach Miguel “Piojo” Herrera, “conditioned” the way the rest of the first leg of their Concacaf Champions League semifinal clash played out.
And for Herrera, to borrow a famous phrase from Mexican soccer’s recent past, no era penal. (“It wasn’t a penalty.”)
“Tonight, Toronto took advantage of the mistakes we made. The penalty was not actually a penalty; I took a look at the replay and it was not a penalty,” said Herrera, a colorful character who’s made headlines throughout his career for his words and actions in the technical area as well as in front of the microphones. “That conditioned us from the beginning of the match.”
Giovinco earned the spot kick by dribbling at Edson Alvarez at the tail end of a TFC counterattack, drawing the América defender into an awkward two-footed challenge that prompted Costa Rican referee Henry Bejarano to point to the spot. Giovinco then stepped up and beat goalkeeper Agustin Marchesin down the middle to give the home side an early lead en route to their 3-1 victory.
Herrera – who also accused Toronto police of assaulting three members of his squad during a halftime fracas in the tunnel between the field and the locker rooms – lambasted Bejarano and his crew at length in his postgame press conference, for that decision as well as their general conduct on Tuesday, calling them “clowns” who weren’t up to snuff for a match of that magnitude.
“They influenced us from the beginning,” said Piojo of the referees, speaking via a translator. “When they came into our locker room to check our players [pregame], they said they had to change the color of the underpants [tights] because they were black. So I had a feeling that from the start, they were conditioned by the referee, who in my opinion was not of the level of this semifinal.
“When you see that the referees act like clowns, it conditions the game. They do not come with the sense of whistling evenly … When there are Costa Rican referees, there are no good vibes, they come with an arrogance, it does not fit.”
However, one veteran of plenty of CCL clashes – recently retired MLS defender Bobby Boswell – claimed that the alleged pregame requests of the América players were far from out of the ordinary:
Max, I can't tell you how many times we were told by Concacaf officials to change our sliders/underwear before the game. They would literally tell us it was going to be a forfeit if we didn't change. It's their way of initiating dominance before the game starts.— Bobby Boswell (@bobbyboswell) April 4, 2018
Herrera also felt that TFC striker Jozy Altidore should’ve been cautioned for persistent infringement, adding that “hopefully there will be no unfair penalties” in Leg 2 at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City next week, which will be overseen by Uzbek referee Ravshan Irmatov as part of an exchange initiative between Concacaf and the Asian Football Confederation.
“We have to pay more attention,” said the former Mexican national team coach. “In tonight’s game Altidore did eight or nine fouls [note: Altidore was credited with six fouls on the boxscore] and there was no card. And my player Guido [Rodriguez] was very frustrated and gets a yellow card. I hope for the second game the referee won’t make those questionable calls and that he will be a little bit more impartial.”