FK Qarabag’s display of sportsmanship in their Europa Conference League playoff against Marseille on Thursday, when they had a goal disallowed after Ibrahima Wadji admitted that he used his hand to score, was hailed as a « special moment » by UEFA.
French club Marseille, already 3-0 up on aggregate after the first leg at their Stade Velodrome, went further ahead in the tie when Pape Gueye opened the scoring after 12 minutes at Qarabag’s Azersun Arena in Baku, Azerbaijan.
Qarabag then appeared to make the scoreline 1-1 on the night when Wadji rose high at the near post to beat Marseille goalkeeper Steven Mandanda with 34 minutes on the clock. However, replays soon revealed the Senegalese striker had actually used his hand to steer the ball into the Marseille goal, rather than his head. The incident was missed by officials and, with no VAR (video assistant referee) system in place at this stage of the competition, the goal was allowed to stand.
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Marseille players quickly flocked around referee Bartosz Frankowski to protest against the goal for several minutes, indicating that Wadji’s goal had not been scored legitimately, but to no avail.
Eventually, Qarabag coach Gurban Gurbanov took steps to resolve the situation by calling Wadji and team captain Maksim Medvedev over to the touchline. After a brief consultation, Gurbanov instructed his striker to confess to officials that he had handled the ball as he scored. After Wadji returned to the pitch and owned up to the referee Frankowski, the Polish official chalked off the goal and awarded a free kick to Marseille to restart play with the score reset to 1-0.
Marseille, who dropped into the playoff after finishing third in their Europa League, went on to win 3-0 on the night and 6-1 on aggregate.
« It was difficult because I had to speak to my captain, » Wadji told French broadcaster RMC Sport after the match. « I knew that the ball had touched my hand. But it was not an action that I wanted to do. My hand accompanied my head. I spoke to [Medvedev]. I told him that I touched the ball with my hand. When all my teammates asked me, I told them that I touched the ball with my hand.
« Afterwards we spoke with the coach. The coach asked me what I thought, I told him that I touched the ball with my hand. He said to me ‘it’s not good, you have to take responsibility, you have to discuss with the referee .’ The referee canceled the goal. But it was difficult for my teammates because we wanted at least win the game. It’s difficult for them because they wanted the win, and I told the truth.
« Marseille thanked me afterwards. We exchanged jerseys with my Senegalese brothers, Papa [Gueye] and Bamba [Dieng]. »
Qarabag coach Gurbanov said in his postmatch news conference: « Answering questions about the canceled goal will now be the hardest for me, I don’t want this to be discussed a lot.
« I wanted to act like a real Azerbaijani. I asked the player and he said he scored with his hand. Making fair decisions is easy. »
Gurbanov’s counterpart at Marseille, Jorge Sampaoli, spoke of his admiration when asked about the disallowed goal while also confessing that he might not have made the same call were the situation reversed.
« I have never seen such a thing in my life, » he said. « Such a humane decision in a tournament of this level.
« To be honest, if this happened to me, I would not ask the referee to change the decision, but would simply be happy with the goal. This case became an experience for me. »
Speaking before Friday’s draw for the Europa Conference League round of 16, during which Marseille were pitted against FC Basel, UEFA’s deputy general secretary Giorgio Marchetti said that Qarabag’s gesture deserved praise, and described it as « a really special moment. »