June 24, 2006. The city is Leipzig, Germany. The setting is Zentralstadion, known today as Red Bull Arena, the current home of Bundesliga club RB Leipzig. The 2006 World Cup Round of 16 is taking place between the powerful Argentina and Mexico. It has been a hard fought first half. The score is level at 1-1 since the early going. 45th + 1 minute on aggregate; goal kick for Argentina, as we get ready to head to the locker rooms at the half. GK Roberto Abbondanzieri places the ball on the left side of his 6-yard box. With Centre-Back Gabriel Heinze standing straight in front of him on the outside border of the penalty-box, Abbondanzieri touches the ball to him smoothly in an attempt to put together one final attack on the Mexican squad.
As Heinze sticks out his left boot to try and control the keeper’s pass, it takes a bounce off of it and rolls straight in the direction of a charging Francisco Fonseca. As the ball arrives at “Kikin’s” feet, he pulls the ball to his left with his first touch, out of the way of Heinze. The defender, noticing he has no chance to recover on the play, as well as the fact that CB Roberto Ayala has no shot at catching Fonseca, decides to sweep the Mexican’s legs from under him, purposely extending his right leg and driving it straight into Fonseca’s right ankle, which could’ve been severely injured had the impact been more precise. “Kikin” is brought down immediately as he agonizes in pain. Swiss referee Massimo Busaca reaches into his left chest pocket, retrieves the yellow card and shows it to Heinze. The Mexico free kick that is awarded results in nothing, and soon after, half-time arrives.
The real question here though, is why was Heinze only shown a yellow card? Not only was he clearly the last man, but his tackle in real-time was more than enough evidence that he had forgotten about the ball and the play completely and tackled Fonseca in a dangerous and careless fashion to bring him down and intentionally prevent him from reaching the ball to face Abbondanzieri on a 1-on-1 goal opportunity. Busaca clearly signaled in the direction of CB Roberto Ayala as Mexico gathered to beg for a red card. But, even if he really did believe Ayala would’ve caught up to “Kikin”, was the tackle on the Mexican not justification enough to send Heinze showering early? No ball, all man, completely intentional, very hard and serious injury prone sliding tackle, preventing a clear path on goal to face the keeper 1-on-1. That sounds pretty red card worthy to me.
The game and second half ultimately ended up as a back-and-forth roller coaster of opportunities with various opportunities for both teams to score and take the lead. Argentina even had a legitimate goal called off due to a non-existent off-side. But all of that could’ve had been vastly different, considering Argentina would’ve had to play the entire second half with 10 men and one less defender, potentially forcing head coach Jose Pekerman to sub off one of his attackers, such as Crespo, Saviola, or Maxi Rodriguez even, who would end up scoring that amazing game-winner in extra time, in favor of adding an extra defender to replace Heinze. That would’ve no doubt changed the entire complexity of the game.
That said, Heinze was again involved in a very important play toward the end of regulation. At the 86th minute, Sinha took the ball and ran it down the middle of the field until he reached the penalty box and dumped it off to the left side, where Gonzalo Pineda reached it at the byline. He then faced defender Lionel Scaloni, poked the ball between his legs and crossed the ball beautifully into the box where “Kikin” jumped to meet the ball. As he reached full extension, Heinze equaled his effort and bumped shoulders with him, preventing the Mexican from making solid contact with his head, ultimately sending the ball wide of the goal.
But, had the red card been shown, Heinze wouldn’t even have been there at that moment. Would the replacement defender have done the same as Heinze? Would he have been as focused as Heinze? Would Fonseca have had a clearer shot at the ball? Would he have scored on that header? Would Mexico have found a hole and scored earlier in the half due to less Argentinians on the field? Of course, these are all questions that will forever be left unanswered. But undoubtedly, that red card would have changed every single aspect of the game.
Had Mexico found a way to overcome Argentina, Germany awaited, just as in the previous World Cup, where I again can’t see the Mexicans getting past that all-powerful German squad which now included Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Lukas Podolski. It would’ve made for a very tough Quarter-Final matchup indeed, but to be World Cup champion, you must defeat those top squads. There is no avoiding them. And had Mexico arrived at that point, one never knows what could’ve happened.