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  • Writer's pictureCaydn Foley

Nestory Irankunda's youthful exuberance

Refereeing professional sports is a thankless task; when you do your job well, no one will talk about you, but one mistake can force you into the headlines for the rest of the week. Alex King will be the hot topic in the A-League Men this week after he handed Nestory Irankunda two debatable yellow cards in the second half of the Original Rivalry on Saturday night.

Irankunda has quickly become box-office viewing for any A-League Men fan. (Courtney Pedlar)

The first of Irankunda’s questionable yellow cards was after a confrontation with Melbourne Victory midfielder Ryan Teague, where the midfielder instigated the incident but did not receive any punishment.

However, Irankunda’s second yellow card was much less forgivable as the game was coming to an end. The winger was initially fouled repeatedly by Chris Ikonomidis. These fouls should’ve been called at a minimum by the assistant referee on the near side, who had a clearer view of the challenge than King.

To his credit, King has always been one of the best referees in the A-League Men and has historically been highly respected by players and coaches. Derbies as fierce as the Original Rivalry will always have numerous spotfires needing to be put out. On Saturday night, King fell short of achieving this aim.

Shockingly, in his post-game press conference, Adelaide United boss Carl Veart claimed King antagonised Irankunda, which incited the 17-year-old's reaction.

"I asked Alex why he didn't give the free kick, and he goes, 'Because I told him he has to be stronger," Veart said.

"So he's pretty much incited Nestor's reaction, which is not great.

"Referees keep telling us that they're going to protect the good players, but I didn't see any protection for Nestor."

Throughout the Original Rivalry, Irankunda was copping a lot of stick from Melbourne Victory fans, which the youngster has rarely experienced before during his time in the A-League Men. But with a European move likely on the radar, once he turns 18, Irankunda will need to become accustomed to hostile treatment in the stands, as the fan culture overseas is a different, more volatile beast than Australia.

However, one benefit for Irankunda, once he leaves Australia, is that he’s no longer a big fish in a small pond. He may no longer be the centre of attention in the football media sphere, being able to simply put his head down and focus on improving to become the future Socceroos star we all know he can be.

Veart agreed when asked whether the A-Leagues' media and public relations arms have potentially put increased pressure on the youngster.

“I think at times we've maybe put him in front of the media a little bit too much. We have to protect him because he's still learning, and it's important that we're giving him the time to develop,” he said.

“Going there (Europe), he won’t be at the front of the A-League marketing; he'll be a normal player there, so he can sort of be in the background a bit more.”

Melbourne Victory manager Tony Popovic was a fiery player in his own right, and he consoled Irankunda on the touchline after his second booking. Seeing himself in the young winger, he urged Irankunda not to do anything he would later regret.

“It's an emotional game. There's a big crowd, things happen,” Popovic said.

“He got a red card, and I just wanted him to calm down. I've been there. I've been there as a young player; you feel the world's ended in that moment. It's a split-second decision; I didn’t want him to do something he’ll regret.”

Throughout this week, there will be a lot of discourse surrounding this game and Irankunda’s behaviour. But we all need to do a better job of remembering he is a 17-year-old kid hailing from a unique background with immense pressure on him to succeed at the highest level since he made his A-League Men debut at 15.

He is consistently linked to multiple European clubs and is expected to leave the A-League Men when he turns 18. These factors would undoubtedly be playing on the mind of Irankunda, and one hopes it is not in a negative way.

What Irankunda did to earn his second yellow was wrong, and referees deserve to be treated with respect at all times, on and off the pitch. It's also vital to remember professional sports do not happen in a vacuum. There could be numerous external factors in a player's life that fans and officials are unaware of, so we all need to show more empathy when discussing our footballers, particularly young players.

As for King, if what Veart claimed is true, it is an inappropriate comment to make, and he should know better as a referee of his quality. But empathy is also required towards the referee, as officiating derbies as intense as the Original Rivalry is a difficult task, and one where a single mistake can see you lose control of the game.



King lost control and will rightly face the music, at least for a few more days, as the discourse around the league continues to centre around Irankunda's controversial red card. As for the youngster, the incident on Saturday night was undoubtedly a learning curve, and one hopes he takes the time to reflect on his actions and return with increased maturity, likely when Adelaide takes on Western United on November 26.

Click here to read more of FPF's coverage of the A-Leagues!


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