Commentary

Referee is a Homo-sapiens: A look at the Michael Oliver penalty decision

Last week an incredible miracle in the Champions League was about to materialize but did not due to a whistle by an English referee. Two Italian teams, Rome and Juventus, were about to eliminate two of the best teams in Europe, Real Madrid and Barcelona.

On Tuesday, the first of the two miracles did materialize, the third-place team in Serie A, Roma, eliminated Barcelona the leader of the La Liga and moved to the semifinals. On Wednesday, Juventus was so close to eliminating Real Madrid -– last year’s Champions League champion –- in Bernabeu. Los Blancos was losing the game 3-0 in their own field to offset their win 3-0 in Turin.

Everybody was expecting an overtime when the English referee Michael Oliver blew a whistle for a penalty kick at the closing minutes of stoppage time. Gianluigi Buffon was sent off for bumping or making physical contact with the referee -– and Cristiano Ronaldo converted the ensuing penalty kick. Real Madrid advanced to the semifinal. What is interesting is that Italian soccer (ranked 20th in FIFA rankings) which seems to be on a decline was about to have two teams in the semifinals of the most prestigious league in the world and Spain (ranked 8th in FIFA rankings) would have none.

There were a lot of arguments about the decision that hampered an unbelievable comeback story. The soccer world divided into two about the decision even if you exclude the Spanish and Italian fans. So let us look at some facts.

Michael Oliver is a young (33 years old) very talented UEFA Elite category referee from England. England did not send any referees to the 2018 World Cup, but I am sure that Oliver will be one of the top candidates to go to the World Cup in 2022 representing England. Whether the decision to assign Oliver -– the first year Elite referee in UEFA -– to this game which seemed an easy game — because of the first-leg score –- by the UEFA referee committee was a wise decision is not the topic of this article. In the UEFA referee grading system, points are deducted if a referee makes a black and white (very obvious) error in a key match incident (KMI). Black and white decisions are decisions on which nearly 100 percent of the soccer community will agree on. KMIs are decisions like goals, penalty kicks and red cards which affect the outcome of the game. Although the last minute penalty-kick was a KMI, it was not a black and white decision. So the observer (Alexandru Deaconu of Romania) will most probably support the decision of the referee and will not deduct points. What is interesting is that even if there was a VAR application in the game, most probably the VAR would not have intervened since it was not a black and white error. Looking at similar controversial but “correct” decisions in the past UEFA will keep Oliver away from important games for a few months just to “protect” him. 

I said “correct” decision in quotes because it is a correct decision according to the Letter of the Laws of the Game (LOTG). A direct free kick offense committed by a defender in his/her penalty area is penalized by a penalty kick. That is what the LOTG says. I have read many social media comments from fellow referees like “a penalty kick can be awarded at any time; the first minute or the last” or “if a direct free kick foul is penalized by a DK outside the penalty area the same foul should result in a penalty-kick if it is in the area”. That is how I thought 20 years ago. It is true according to the letter of the LOTG; true in the grassroots games. But when we talk about industrialized soccer like the Champions League it is naïve and a bit unrealistic.

I have written a few articles (a) (b) in Soccer America explaining the change in modern refereeing.  At the highest level of the game, the referees are expected to make decisions not only according to the letter of the LOTG but also according to “what football expects”. “What football expects” means what does the soccer community in general expects. I have been arguing that we need two sets of rules one for the grassroots and one for the professional game, so that the gap between the letter of the LOTG and the practical application can be narrowed. 

In the Real Madrid-Juventus game, definitely the soccer community did not expect a gray — non-obvious — penalty kick call at the closing minutes of the game. Everybody — except maybe for Real Madrid fans — was expecting an overtime to be played. Michael Oliver blew his whistle for a “correct” call that “football did not necessarily expect.” What Buffon has done after the call is not excusable from the perspective of the LOTG. Buffon bumped and made physical contact with referee after the call and got a well-deserved red card. This was or might have been his last European game. The whistle brought an end to Juventus’s hope for a semifinal spot in the most prestigious club competition in the world as well as a smooth farewell to one of the best goalkeepers in the world. The same decision in the 15th minute of the game or the same foul outside the area with a direct free kick being awarded would have been in the boundaries of “what football expects.” But I believe this specific one was not.

You might disagree with me but that is “what football expects” and hence Oliver’s decision although “correct” is unfortunate. Unfortunately, this fact and the concept of “what football expects” is not properly being disseminated by the global football authorities to the public. 

Let us come to the crux of this conundrum. Would Oliver blow his whistle for the same foul in the same minute committed by a Los Blancos player in his penalty area? That whistle would have allowed Juventus to be the second Italian team advancing to the semi-final. (Naturally with the understanding that Juventus will convert the ensuing kick.) I do not know the answer. Neither does Oliver most probably.

I know that referees are homo-sapiens and like all homo-sapiens they are affected by their surroundings in their decision-making processes. The better referees are less adversely affected. Home team Real Madrid, team with the most number of Champions League titles and fans in the Bernabeu stadium, are very strong influencing factors in the decision-making process for most referees.

Let us roll back the tape from 12 months ago and go the second leg of the quarterfinal between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich at Bernabeu. The game was refereed by Victor Kassai and his crew. Kassai is one the best and most experienced referees in the world. Just watch him and his crew during the last year’s quarterfinal game and decide for yourself the decisions of Kassai in KMIs. Now go and question yourself whether Oliver would have called the same penalty kick against Real Madrid with a few minutes left in regulation time.

Referees are homo-sapiens not robots. They are affected by their environments. So I have a gut feeling that both Kassai’s and Oliver’s KMI decisions were made under the influence of the environment. What is interesting if you ask them, they will deny it, because even admitting this fact to oneself is very difficult. The solution is unfortunately in finding psychological tools and methods to develop resilience when a referee meets a “hostile environment”. “Hostile environment” can be defined as an environment that makes it difficult for the referee to make fair decisions under the circumstances. 

Unfortunately, many times my fellow referee administrators never question this aspect of refereeing. They question the call from a technical perspective. Where was the referee when the decision was made and how did he interpret the LOTG? That is it. Especially if the KMI decision is a gray one they support the referee. If you attribute all KMI errors to technical details you are not really helping the referee. This does not help the referee to question his own conscience for the critical decision even though he will never admit it to anyone. It gives him a false sense of security; by the way Kassai is not invited to the 2018 World Cup!

Referees are homo-sapiens and we should treat them like that. The influence of the environment and the pressure exerted by it on the referee should not be underestimated or ignored. This fact should not be swept under the rug on the contrary should be dealt with diligence.

Ahmet Guvener (ahmet@ahmetguvener.com) is the former Secretary General and the Technical Director of Turkish FA. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in Austin, TX

14 comments about "Referee is a Homo-sapiens: A look at the Michael Oliver penalty decision".
  1. James Madison, April 20, 2018 at 10:42 p.m.

    I am a retired referee and assessor and not a fan of either Juventus or Real Madrid.  My European teams are Liverpool, Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund.  INMO, to maintain credibility as a CR in high level, high pressure games, Oliver had to call the penalty he did.  The foul charge from the back denied at least an OGSO, if not a goal.  On the other hand, while the clip does not show whatever Buffoni may have said, it does not show a bump worthy of the name until Buffoni seems to head-butt Oliver after he had been sent off.

  2. William Gerstmyer, April 21, 2018 at 8:29 a.m.

    There are fans of both teams interested in any call (and I am not a fan of either club involved here). In the dying minutes, fans are hoping for a miracle that allows their team to succeed. Each is hoping that if an offense against their team occurs, it will be duly awarded. RMA fans would agree with this call as it was a real foul and “owed.” Juve fans not so much. To imply that all soccer fans fall into the category of “what soccer expects” insists on a subjective system that is a slippery slope and leads to outside forces determining games. 
    As well, the author here insists that the crowd played into Oliver’s head as an outside force and I disagree - rather, I think he is holding to his own creed as a strong book referee which those who have followed Oliver know very well, and when he is assigned to a match teams should act accordingly. We want consistency. 
    When we want to talk about “what to expect,” as a player and coach I am much more interested in what is consistent about each homosapien who is a referee: what do we know about this referee when he works games? That is a legitimate and strategic way to judge and utilize the “humanness” involved in a participant in our game, whereas “what soccer expects” is too arbitrary and not worth creating a new category of standards for. Do not go there. Will Gerstmyer 

  3. Ben Lukas, April 21, 2018 at 11:30 a.m.

    I am so happy that Oliver was the ref, and not Ahmet Guvener. Thuggery in the box gets so boring!

  4. Scott Larson replied, April 21, 2018 at 4:04 p.m.

    What is boring for me is the Real Madrid forward electing to drop to the floor rather than fight though the tackle and demonstrate great skill and score the deciding goal in the run of play!  Penalty Kicks ARE BORING!!!


    I think the game is approaching a "farce" as Leahy put it... with attackers dropping rather than skillfully continuing the attack and possibly performing something truly spectacular.  Furthermore today’s defenders are now required to act like the Washington Generals and jump out of the way of attackers or risk dangling a leg for the attacker to purposefully kick & drop.   


    (I do also agree with Leahy's true point especially on corners that far too much grappling occurs in both directions.)

  5. Kevin Leahy, April 21, 2018 at 1:58 p.m.

    I agree with all the previous comments. The game has become a farce in the penalty area with, all the clutching , grabbing and all. IMHO it was the right call. The defender did not seem to get any blame for losing his mark. There wasn't anyway he could get to the ball.

  6. John Gordon, April 21, 2018 at 2:55 p.m.

    Sorry, Ahmet.  The "thuggery" as suggested earlier is correct.

    Penalty Kick,  We need more referees with guts to make calls.

    I remember something about "more goals needed".  Well, when a team maneuvers itself into a good position, they should get a fair shot at scoring the goal.

  7. Ric Fonseca replied, April 21, 2018 at 8:29 p.m.

    I did not see the game but did see Buffon make physical contact with the Ref.  However, what I take umbrage here is the author's narrow depiction (but not solid definition) between what he termed "grassroots," versus "industrialized" soccer.  To me this sounds like coming from someone who has placed him/herself heads and shoulders above and comes from a position of entitlement and even perhaps wealth, i.e. we're the common folk and he is the upper class.

  8. John DiFiore, April 22, 2018 at 1:39 a.m.

    OH STOP! NOT A PENALTY. 1.  Lucas was not pushed - if Benatia pushed him, Benatia wouldn't have been able to get his foot on the ball.  THERE IS ZERO EVIDENCE OF A 'PUSH'. Again, he can't get his foot on it if he chooses to push him.  It makes no sense to say Benatia pushed him, but still got the ball.  It's either one or the other.  2. Look at Lucas, BEFORE the ball get's to him.  Lucas flops like a fish.  Didn't even try and score.. SO...ONE CANNOT BE DENIED AN OPPORTUNITY IF ONE DOESN'T FIRST TAKE THE OPPORTUNITY AND TRY..  So when you say Oliver is (human)... yes, humans make mistakes in tough moments...as did Oliver the Homo Sapien.

  9. Kent James replied, April 23, 2018 at 11:29 p.m.

    I agree. Angles weren't perfect, but it did look like the defender got around the attacker and got his foot on the ball.  May have been slight contact in the back prior to that, but didn't seem to be sufficient to knock the offensive player down.  VERY tough call (and I understand why the ref made it), but I don't think this was a penalty (and that's where I think the ref should be very sure in the box, late in the game, and something that would decide the game.  So I would not have made the call (and it has nothing to do with being afraid to make the call, but you do want it to be right).

  10. John DiFiore replied, April 24, 2018 at 8:57 p.m.

    Yes Kent.  I agree.  Plus, if the ref doesn't call the PK, Real Madrid has another 30 minutes to PROVE they deserve the win.  It's just not a call you make when the away team scores 3 goals - unanswered...  Let them fight it out 30 more minutes. Very easy so call Real Madrid bias here..  Very tough for non-Real (and Barca, for that matter) fans to rout for their teams.. SHAME.

  11. John Soares, April 22, 2018 at 5:40 a.m.

    I think what the game and fans "should" and do expect is a well/fair called game. In this case. We got one!

  12. Hat Trick, April 23, 2018 at 3:14 p.m.

    Follow the rules-dont give self interpretation of the rules and blow the freeking whistle.

  13. Kent James, April 23, 2018 at 11:36 p.m.

    Ahmet, while I agree that calls should be put in context (part of reading the game), I don't think there should be a categorical difference in what is allowed in professional games vs. amateur/youth games.  I think that's a slippery slope; if both teams want to hack the crap out of each other, should the ref let them?  If everyone would like to see 2 overtime periods (since it's such an exciting game), should the ref not give that PK in stoppage time that will prevent that? The ref is there to enforce the rules, and make sure that teams that play by the rules aren't put at a disadvantage.  Encouraging referees to use their judgment in place of the rules creates conditions under which referees will have too much ability to shape the game.  Rules should help the game be consistent, wherever it is played (as much as possible).  

  14. Chad Moon, April 24, 2018 at 3:07 p.m.

    This article is idiocy. No 2 sets of Laws, and that was a penalty. Buffon was a buffoon and got sent off, like he should have.

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