Quick return from break leaves La Liga teams and referees grumbling

Lionel Messi lies on the pitch after being hit by Betis' goalkeeper.


Quite a number of players and coaches in Spain felt ready for a grumble this week, at their early return to work after the Christmas vacation. La Liga has established a tradition of winter breaks that lasts at least two weeks, with the resumption of matchdays well after the turn of the new year. This season the holiday shrunk, contracting the period of rest and recuperation so valued by fitness experts to a week and a half.

It is not just players and coaching staff who appreciate a breather in the middle of a demanding nine months, or 10 months for the many who will be involved in international tournaments in June and July, like the European championship and the special edition Copa America to be staged in the United States in summer 2016. The match officials, who live with their own unique pressures, physical and psychological, are also generally better for having time off, a repose to free their minds of the abuse they hear from spectators every weekend and many midweek evenings; and indeed the nagging and griping they listen to from players.

La Liga’s matchday 17, the first after the mini-break, was not especially edifying for the refereeing fraternity of Spain’s elite division. What’s new, many will ask? Nothing unites the 18 members of the Primera Division who are not Real Madrid and Barcelona like the idea the two superclubs enjoy preferential treatment – not necessarily through conspiracy, but through the heavyweight shadow they cast, the big stadiums they fill with partisan sound – from match officials.

For their part, Madrid and Barca themselves could each fill a warehouse with detailed theories about how their chief rival has systematically benefited from marginal or plan incorrect decision-making during seasons when they have enjoyed success. One of the more disturbing tales to come out of 2015 was the claim from one linesman, maintaining his anonymity, that he had been contacted from within the Spanish Federation’s referees’ committee with a suggestion that, if he were to be selected as assistant referee for November’s clasico between Madrid and Barcelona in Madrid, he should favor, where possible, the home team.

That allegation has not been substantiated. As it was, Barca won the clasico 4-0, the same scoreline they registered in their final fixture of what has been a fabulous, decorated 2015. They had been to Tokyo and back, to win the Club World Cup in between their matches against Deportivo la Coruna, where they drew 2-2 at home, and their comfortable win against Real Betis on Wednesday.

Betis had reason, if not to dispute the destiny of the three points, but for the manner in which they fell behind. They had a penalty awarded against them midway through the first half that mystified the Betis goalkeeper, Adan, and most of his colleagues. Adan, airborne as he stretched to punch clear a cross, landed heavily on Lionel Messi, who was competing to meet the center. Messi fell, without any theater, to the ground, and although Adan had reached the ball cleanly before the collision, the Argentinian groggily got up to see he had been given a penalty. Too hurt, temporarily, to take the spot-kick himself, Messi let Neymar strike it. The Brazilian, having slipped in the final stride of his approach, hit the crossbar, but the unlucky Adan was then beaten when the ball came back off his own defender Heiko Westermann across his goal-line on the ricochet.

To add insult to injury, referee Vicandi Garrido failed to spot that Neymar, in losing his footing, had touched the ball once before he struck the penalty against Adan’s bar: so the penalty was illegal, even if there was no intention by Neymar to touch the ball twice.

Betis head coach Pepe Mel received a red card for his protests and, removed from the technical area, watched his team concede three more goals. Messi, on his 500th appearance for Barcelona, recovered his balance after the knock from Adan, and, combining with Neymar, then registered his 425th goal for the club. Luis Suarez added the other two goals.

Madrid, 3-1 winners over Real Sociedad, had their own good fortune from referee Gonzalez Gonzalez and one of his linesman, who between them awarded two questionable penalties to Madrid, one of which was converted by Cristiano Ronaldo. Gonzalez also missed a plausible claim for a Sociedad spot-kick at the other end. Madrid scored a pair of legitimate goals, too, and Lucas Vazquez’s, from Gareth Bale’s cross, was a thing of beauty.

But they, like Barca, had been given an easier job by poor decision-making. Barcelona stay top, with a match in hand, on the same points as Atletico, and two ahead of Real Madrid. It’s tight enough to stay very compelling going into 2016. And close enough that one refereeing error, particularly in a match involving two of the three contenders at the summit, could end up being interpreted as decisive in the title race. For the sake of peace and justice, it is to be hoped that will not be the case.