SEVILLE: Penalty or no penalty? It is one of the oldest, most contentious debates in football, and though the referee's decision very late in their game against Valencia helped Real Madrid in their quest to win yet another Spanish league title, it was much less helpful to the megaclub's reputation within Spain's football-obsessed borders.
Spanish football used to be about Real vs Barcelona, but the equation has been evolving. The Real-Barcelona rivalry will always carry historic and linguistic tensions, but in purely competitive terms, the rivalry that is beginning to matter most is Real vs Valencia.
Valencia have been to two Champions League finals in the last five years. They overcame Real to win the Liga last season, and Valencia were only two points behind Real in the league standings before kickoff in Madrid on Sunday night.
Real held that slim lead because they had yet to drop even a point in a league match in Santiago Bernabeu this season, but when Valencia's rugged central defender Roberto Ayala outjumped the much taller Ivan Helguera in the 74th minute and headed his first league goal of this campaign, Valencia led, 1-0.
Into added time, Valencia still led, but Real never quite began going through the motions. Though their creative director Zinedine Zidane, who missed this game because of suspension, had already been escorted from his seat to avoid the postmatch commotion, the commotion on the field was not over.
With less than a minute remaining, Raul and a Valencia defender, Carlos Marchena, jostled for position in the penalty area under the last, long, high pass of the evening.
Raul leaned back. Marchena hooked his left elbow around Raul's right shoulder and eventually thrust his left leg between Raul's legs. Raul twisted and tumbled to the ground; Marchena broke free with an apparently clear conscience to chase the loose ball. This tussle, after all, did not look different from the tussles he and Real's strikers had been having throughout the evening without hearing a whistle.
But the referee, Tristante Oliva, about to become much more of a household name in Spain, blew the whistle this time to award Real a penalty kick.
Luis Figo calmly converted it, stroking the ball into the lower right corner of the goal. It was the only time that Valencia's stellar goalkeeper, Santiago Canizares, guessed wrong all night, and as the ball rolled past him, several of his Valencia teammates looked at Oliva and applauded.
When time, and Valencia's chances of assuming the Liga lead, quickly ran out, their players were immediately in Oliva's face. He defended himself as best he could. Yellow card for Amedeo Carboni, Valencia's 39-year-old Italian defender. Yellow card for their quick and clever midfielder Vicente Rodriguez.
There would surely have been much more yellow on display if Oliva had heard all that was being muttered or shouted.
Real's influence have been the topic of the week in a country whose prolific and competitive sports press makes sure that there is always a topic of the week.
On Wednesday in Seville, Real advanced to the final of the King's Cup after a raucous second leg against Seville.
Late in the first half of that game, Zidane was ejected for slapping defender Pablo Alfaro in the face after being elbowed.
Zidane has spent a career being hacked and disrupted by lesser talents, and he occasionally boils over. But this was his first complete loss of composure since he joined Real in 2001, and Real's normally smooth sporting director, Jorge Valdano, reacted by losing his composure, too, heading below at halftime to berate the referees in the tunnel outside the locker rooms.
Such interchanges are forbidden in countries such as France, but they are merely frowned upon in Spain, and there was plenty of frowning in Seville.
Valdano apologised and was fined US$2,550, by the Spanish football federation, and Zidane was suspended for one game (he could have missed four). But that did little to allay suspicions among Real's rivals that some clubs remain more equal than others.
I feel sorry for the team that has to play them in the final, Alfaro said.
On Sunday, it was Valencia's turn to play them, with Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar, a self-professed Real fan, sitting next to the Real president Florentino Perez. There was not much to cheer for until the debatable final minute.
Listen to Valencia coach Rafael Benitez: You could watch 100 games and never see that penalty called.
Or to Valencia midfielder David Albelda: Until today I believed in the impartiality of the referee, but this was the last straw.
Or even read the front page of Monday morning's Marca, the sports daily based in Madrid that sells a lot of papers to Real fans: No penalty.
Even the beneficiaries hardly sounded sure: I don't think we robbed them, because we didn't deserve to lose, said David Beckham, a Real midfielder. They got the goal, but we kept battling until the end. I'm not sure whether it was a penalty.
Raul said it was but then hemmed and hawed. I wasn't pulled, he said. There was contact. In a match, there are a thousand situations like that, and the referee is the one who has to make the decisions in an instant.
And then hear about it for the rest of the season, or perhaps longer if Oliva's work ever takes him to Valencia. IHT