The giggling began at about half past 10 as the news came through. Word raced 'round the Carranza stadium where Cadiz were playing Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey. Fans peered at their phones in disbelief, eyes widening as they saw the social media storm approaching, passing on the news with a nod, a wink and a grin. It was time for a singsong in a region of Spain, down on the southern-most tip of the peninsula, that loves a singsong almost as much as it loves a laugh. And so they started.
A chirigota, they call it: a satirical street song, the soundtrack of carnival there. "Benitez, look at your Twitter," Cadiz's fans sang. "Benitez look at your Twitter, look at your Twiiiiiter! Benitez look at your Twitter!"
Had he done, he would have seen what they had seen. No one had realised it at kick-off but now they knew: Denis Cheryshev, the man who had scored Real Madrid's first goal in a 3-1 win, should not even have been out there, and because he was, Cadiz would end up winning no matter what happened in the match.
Cheryshev had picked up three yellow cards, and thus a ban, at the end of last season's Copa del Rey while at Villarreal, and that ban had carried into this season's competition. He was not allowed to play but there he was playing. Madrid had fielded an ineligible player. The last time a team did that, it was Osasuna and they were kicked out of the Cup. The punishment is firm and the rules are clear. Madrid won Wednesday night but on Friday, confirmation emerged that they had been expelled. Cadiz were going through.
Cheryshev had been named in Madrid's squad a day before, but no one had clicked. The news had broken not long after kick-off when a referee had rung Cope Radio station to say that Cheryshev was banned and could not be included. He said he had tried to contact Madrid to warn them but they had not responded. He had called and sent a fax, he said. Alerted now, everyone was checking it out, and yes, there it was in black and white. A list of players with bans and the name Denis Cherychev among them.
Cadiz's fans thought this was hilarious. Back in Barcelona, so did Gerard Pique. He didn't utter a single word but really, he didn't need to: nine laughing emoji did it for him. The songs continued.
Benitez could not look at Twitter, but others did. On the bench, Madrid's delegate Chendo cast a forlorn look, staring in disbelief at his phone. Emilio Butragueno, the club's institutional director, left the directors' box early toward the end of the first half. One of his counterparts from Cadiz had warned him. An emergency crisis meeting was held, frantic conversations whispered in passageways. What were they going to do now? How were they going to explain this one? How were they going to limit the damage?
One thing was for sure: Cheryshev had to come off even though that meant bolting the door long after the horse had ridden into the distance. Madrid made a show of taking him off. Instead of just making the change during the halftime break, the second half began with him on the pitch before they took him off barely 30 seconds later. Or maybe they really didn't know until after the break. Footage shows Chendo at the side of the pitch as they prepare the second half, muttering, "Just in case." Benitez called Mateo Kovacic from the bench and the change was made.
Either way, it was too late, even if it did show willing. The fans were laughing their heads off. More chirigotas. "Benitez, bring on De Gea!" they sang. "Benitez, stay!" "I love you Cheryshev!" Isco claimed that he only realised halfway through the second half; Lucas claimed that he didn't know at all until the end. He had assumed that the giggling songs were something to do with Cheryshev having scored -- nothing more serious than that, he said.
But this was serious. This was a mistake, not willful cheating or an act committed in bad faith in the hopes of gaining an unfair advantage. Sure, Cheryshev had scored the opening goal but this was the first leg and Madrid had left a load of usual starters behind -- Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo among them. But it was still a mistake and one that has proven costly. The question was: Whose fault was it? The player? The manager? The match-day delegate? The sporting director? The club secretary? The institutional director?
At most clubs, keeping on top of suspensions is a job for the delegate. In Madrid's case, that would be Chendo. At others, it is the sporting director. In Madrid's case, that would be ... well, no one. Madrid do not have a sporting director. At Villarreal, the club Cheryshev was playing for when he received the ban, there is a particular department that deals with this kind of issue.
Madrid could only hope, but the hope did not last long. At the end of the game (which Madrid won), Cadiz's president confirmed "with pain in my heart" that his club were going to make a formal complaint to the Federation as application of the regulations was "what the fans want." On Friday, the club issued a statement expressing regret for how things were resolved. But when Cheryshev left Wednesday's game, their fans serenaded him once more.
"No one told us," Benitez insisted. That was the line and they were sticking to it. That was Madrid's defence, but it was no defence. It might have been a mitigating factor, another demonstration that they had not intentionally broken the rules (and why would they in this case?), but it was no defence. It is true that they did not know, and elimination from the competition may seem like a severe punishment, but that's what it is. When it was handed down to Osasuna, they were not happy but they accepted it. They had little choice.
Butragueno said that Madrid had received no notification. No one told us, he said: not Villarreal, not the Federation (the RFEF), not Cheryshev (who didn't know), no one. We did not get the fax, he said. It was not our fault, he said. But it was their fault, even if perhaps not only theirs. It may have been understandable. After all, no one else noticed either. And having been at Villarreal last year, it was more natural that it should slip minds in Madrid. The system may not be perfect -- pretty much nothing the RFEF does is -- but it was still their fault.
The RFEF had sent confirmation of the suspension on March 6. On July 27, a fax went round, reminding every club of the list of suspended players. Funnily enough, every club received it, including Villarreal. It is not Villarreal's responsibility to tell Madrid; it is Madrid's responsibility to know. Athletic Bilbao's manager Ernesto Valverde had joked even before Madrid's game with Cadiz, saying he was not going to play Raul Garcia unless they wanted to get kicked out, as Garcia was suspended. (He had not been at Athletic last season, incidentally).
So every club got it, bar one. Only Madrid had not received it, or so they said. Even if it is true that they really didn't receive notification and it's not just an attempt to shift the blame and save face, it is their responsibility to be contactable for the Federation and keep up to date with the correct numbers. It's up to them to have a fax machine that actually works.
It is Madrid's responsibility to ensure before each game that all their players are eligible to play, and besides, even if they have not been informed, it is not hard to check. The RFEF is notoriously difficult to get hold of, but the list of suspensions is available on the RFEF website. It's your team, you check.
Afterwards, as Butragueno attempted to explain how this was someone else's fault, he was asked if Madrid had hacer el ridiculo. It doesn't translate that well but the sentiment is clear: to ridicule yourself, to do something ridiculous, to embarrass yourself, to hold yourself up to ridicule.
"No," Butragueño said. "Madrid never hacer el ridiculo."
Perhaps not but things haven't always been brilliantly handled of late. Like when the David De Gea deal collapsed. We never got the fax, Butragueno said Wednesday night. Sound familiar, Manchester United fans? "They're not very experienced in these things," president Florentino Perez had said, rather patronisingly, back then. That comment reads a little differently now.
Or when Perez called a press conference to say that "no matter what happens," Ancelotti was staying and it was all the fault of the media. When he called barely four months later to say Ancelotti was going, during which he was asked why he was sacking Ancelotti and replied: "I don't know?" Or when he used those press conferences to talk about a plot against him and insist that the fans who were angry during the Clasico were just a few ultras?
The next day didn't help much, either. Perez appeared before the media the following day, and not for the first time, he appeared oddly divorced from reality, digging deeper and making matters worse. An honest mistake could have been treated as such, with mitigating factors offered up, an appeal made. Criticisms could have been made of the system; perhaps a request for the mechanisms to be clearer and the punishments lighter. But that didn't happen. Instead, it became anybody's fault but theirs. Again.
Perez insisted that Madrid had not received notification of the ban and confirmed they would appeal following the RFEF's decision to kick them out of the competition. He said that two articles in the rules proved Madrid right; however, it didn't take much to discover that they proved Madrid wrong.
One article was not applicable to Cheryshev's suspension. In the other, Perez highlighted Article 41, clauses one and two, in which it says that if bans are not "personally" conveyed to the player in question, they are not effective. The problem was that Article 41 has three clauses, not two, and the clause Perez chose to ignore makes it clear that informing the club is, to all intents and purposes, the same thing.
"We did not field an ineligible player," Perez said, but they did. They just didn't realise they had until the songs started.