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.
Drama, drama, drama!
Here's another look at the penalty decision in stoppage time and the red card to Gigi Buffon. pic.twitter.com/BJHJd7rP08— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) April 11, 2018
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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