Argentina 0 - 1 Cameroon: ‘It was all very honest brutality’
‘That is a classic moment of the World Cup,” says Howard Webb, bursting into laughter. We are watching the opening match of the 1990 World Cup and a sequence of cartoonish brutality as Claudio Caniggia, the long-haired Argentina attacker, evades two attempts by Cameroon defenders to stop his sprint upfield before the giant figure of Benjamin Massing steps across and takes him out with such force that his right boot flies off.
It is probably the most memorable foul in World Cup history and it came in the 88th minute of the shock 1-0 victory by an eventual nine-man Cameroon side over Argentina at the San Siro 30 years ago today. There had never been a sending-off in a World Cup curtain-raiser before. Yet Webb, no stranger to World Cup controversy after refereeing the bad-tempered Netherlands-Spain final of 2010, suggests there could have been two in this incident alone as we review Massing’s attempt to send Caniggia into space.
“That’s nothing, the first one where he has a little nibble,” he remarks of Emmanuel Kundé’s near miss on the halfway line. “The middle one”, however, “is a cynical attempt to bring him down with a high foot” by a player, Victor Ndip, booked already. “In the end, [French referee Michel] Vautrot came out with a second yellow for Massing when it should have been direct red for him and a second yellow for Ndip,” Webb concludes.
The former Premier League referee is watching from his home in New Jersey where he is general manager of refereeing for the MLS. Back in June 1990 he had been refereeing for only six months. “This was the first time I’d paid attention to a World Cup game as a referee because I’d qualified in December 1989. I was 18 and so many things pivoted on this tournament in terms of refereeing.” Fifa had instructed its officials to take a hard line on professional fouls. Within 12 months, the red card for such offences had become law, this lowest-scoring of all World Cups having strengthened the resolve of Sepp Blatter, then Fifa general secretary, to better protect the attacking players.
The sight of Cameroon goalkeeper Thomas Nkono handling the first of 13 first-half backpasses after five minutes highlights another change that followed. “One of the more significant changes to the game was the introduction of the deliberate pass to the goalkeeper rule [in 1992]. That changed the physicality of the game for the referee as well because that was often an opportunity to have a breather which suddenly disappeared.”
What stands out most three decades on is the physical punishment taken by a largely uncomplaining Diego Maradona who ended Italia 90 as its most-fouled player, with 12 here and 53 overall from seven matches (dwarfing the 28 accumulated by his Russia 2018 equivalent, Eden Hazard). After nine minutes Massing is booked for the first hefty challenge on Argentina’s captain. “They’ve been told to be strong on tackles from behind in this tournament and there you go, he’s done his job,” says Webb, though referee Vautrot is more lenient when Ndip, Massing’s defensive partner, catches Maradona with a chest-high challenge after 23 minutes. “Oof, bloody hell. It looks a red card doesn’t it: full frontal, studs up, straight leg. It makes contact with the top of Maradona’s arm.”
Recalling his own decision to show yellow to Nigel de Jong for a chest-high challenge on Xabi Alonso in that 2010 final, Webb continues: “With Vautrot’s positioning, he’s probably looking at it from behind as it’s a quick breakaway and he doesn’t quite appreciate the nature of the contact in the way I didn’t as well. With De Jong, I just didn’t see enough to be able to make a decision. I didn’t get a strong enough gut feeling it should have been red.”
The Cameroon Tribune newspaper accused Vautrot afterwards of a “reverential fear” of Maradona – and of getting Cameroon players mixed up – yet today Massing would have been off the pitch earlier than the 88th minute. “Here’s a late foul that should be a yellow card – right down the back of his Achilles,” says Webb as the defender fells Maradona again early in the second half. Ironically, when Vautrot gives a straight red for André Kana-Biyik’s trip on Caniggia in the 61st minute, the defender is unfortunate. “That is definitely a 100 per cent yellow card… oh, he’s gone red!” Webb exclaims. “The Argentinians have been getting kicked and maybe he was looking for an opportunity to send a message but he’s chosen the wrong one. It’s just cynical – he allows the legs to tangle.”
After François Omam-Biyik’s match-winning header has squeezed under Nery Pumpido in the Argentina goal, Cameroon’s foul count continues its climb towards 28. “I think a modern-day team would have reacted differently than the Argentinians. If they’d taken this much physicality in the second half they’d be in the face of the ref, for sure. It’d get a lot uglier, there’d be miles more confrontation. Things happen these days and automatically you think, ‘That’s a yellow card’. Here nobody bats an eyelid when the yellow card isn’t given. It’s more open and less tactical. It’s just giving out and taking in a much more honest way.”
Only with Massing’s famous late foul do Argentina’s players descend on Vautrot. “You have to be there with the red card before anybody else gets there to say to the Argentinians, ‘Look guys, I’ve got it’,” adds Webb, offering a trick of the trade.
Come the final whistle, Webb estimates that a match with five yellow cards and one direct red would, by today’s standards, have featured “ten yellows and two direct reds – for the high foot by Ndip and for Massing”. Yet in other ways, it was less cynical. “I saw them exaggerate once,” he says of Caniggia’s single act of simulation. “I don’t remember seeing holding in the penalty area, which became the scourge of our sport. It was all very honest brutality. Vautrot went on and got a semi-final, so they obviously liked what they saw. It was a performance of its time.”
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