Tuesday, 6 August 2019

A Bigger and Bigger Grey Area of Relativisation - A week in refereeing that points to a darker future (Law 5 View, 3/3)

Though the 2019/20 season is in its infancy, we have certainly enjoyed an interesting week of European football; also, a rather controversial one too - regarding executive match calls, final appointments, and evaluation of crucial decisions.

In the final of our triadic Law 5 View series, we look at an incident from the recent DFL Super Cup in Germany, and reflect on the changing nature of big confederations refereeing ideology, which has been exemplified in the VAR era.


We should start with the aforementioned incident from Germany, you can find below in this game led by Daniel Siebert (UEFA First), VAR is Robert Schröder (non-FIFA).

In our opinion, this is a clear violent conduct offense - carting out your studs on to an opponent's shin with the ball nowhere, purposefully too, can only result in a red card. Apparently not... Siebert's caution was backed by the VAR, where seemingly there was no explanation for that. But yet, we were not even surprised.

While we disagree with the assessment that this was "not a big mistake", on this occasion we can only praise DFB for not only dictating that this scene should be solved with a Red Card, but that all stamps in such off-the-ball situations should be punished as Violent Conduct.

That a rare moment of absolutism in Germany, where we have seen endless cases of Serious Foul Play ignored by (video) match officials. We would be equally fascinated and worried to hear the reasoning of how this foul did not merit VAR intervention when only a yellow card was shown. Logically, we simply cannot understand how someone can reason that this is not a red card foul.

People may say that this is problem with VAR era, saying something like "there is no consistency" with the technology in operation. We couldn't disagree more. Video Assistant Refereeing is an excellent tool that can - and should - be used in order to achieve greater uniformity; logical reasoning should also support this. One can understand the person without bigger refereeing knowledge who draws the conclusion that VAR is bad from such situations; but in reality VAR has just showcased much better how different associations / confederations want different situations solved - a good case in point is the "new" interpretation of handling in last Champions League knockout season which shocked English media; VAR works like an in-game equivalent of a Referee Assistance Program if you will.

Dr. Jochen Drees, leader of the VAR project in Germany.
DFB is satisfied with the results of his work.

This leads me on to the biggest flaw in VAR protocol which has caused refereeing many problems, which is actually the most repeated phrase of the system - "clear and obvious". I can fully understand why this was conceived as the main principle of the project, and logically it is sound but it is fundamentally misunderstood. Just as √4=2 is clear and obvious, √75076=274 is also clear and obvious - but you can forgive the person that thinks otherwise. Best example is a 1cm offside, in the typical sense this is nothing clear and obvious, but of course goal must be disallowed for that, because that is a clear and obvious offside. Same principle should be used for all decisions computed by VAR, otherwise we close our eyes to logical coherency.

VAR faces the biggest problem when people ignore logical reasoning, and start to look for feelings such as trying to assimilate opinions and requiring a certain numerical value of people to see it as clear and obvious mistake, soundbites such as "what would football want?" or even worse, "no intervention is preferable because it's a final" - but we say it again, VAR just allows us to showcase how confederations want certain situations solved.

Joel Aguilar Chicas sorts out a caution in the Sweden - Korea Republic game.
FIFA's instructions have ordered referees to show cards as infrequently as possible. 

Perhaps you have the impression that the writer of this post is typical aloof absolutist in refereeing who believes that everything is either jet black or achromatic white, but I (Mikael) can assure you this is not the case. A constant and objective reality still allows for a grey area, be sure of that. 

Of course I understand the referee who ignores a clear yellow card for a strong, effective verbal warning or the amateur referee who ignores a clear SFP gives just a yellow card that is the expected outcome by the players / audience because he fears for his safety - what is crucial though, is that referee involved acknowledges that the situation is yellow or red card respectively on the continuum; when we ignore this constant reality and head towards truth relativism is when refereeing is in the process of destroying itself. 

Best example of this is our friends at the FIFA Refereeing Department, and their take on disciplinary control. What is very clear to all viewers - FIFA have instructed their referees to sort out as few cards as possible, and for us it is very clear that this directive has come from well above the department themselves. 

Collina (2018) proved a much better card-cutter than Busacca (2014) - whereas the Swiss just tried to trim as many cards as possible in many areas leading to a total mess and many, many problems, Collina was more nuanced and targeted specific areas where cards could be reduced - he ordered that simulations where you would normally issue a caution, just strongly warn the player.

On dissent, such instructions were much more destructive for referees and robbed them of a valuable tool - one has to feel for Mark Geiger, a good referee (whose formula for success is great fitness and good use of cards), but sent in totally disarmed to the England - Colombia game it was not hard to guess what would happen.

Collina when at UEFA said "protect the players" - he forced his referees to brilliantly execute this mantra. He led the rejection of Busaccaism in 2014 as Chief Refereeing Officer, now he is one of it's advocates.
Since his job change, it would appear he had a change of heart too.

Pierluigi Collina, head of FIFA's Referees Committee since 2017.
Officiating in FIFA under him has been very different to his tenure at UEFA. 

We have a nightmare of what could happen in FIFA refereeing, whose mentality by the way spread even to previously rigorous confederations such as AFC - a totally ad hoc approach to any decision in a match. Best example of this is would be a total absence of missed yellow card in the evaluation of the performance. Missed cautions might not even exist in the future, conceptually. That is very hard idea to grasp, as it should be, but it should also be a very concerning notion that would result in the destruction of refereeing.

Roberto Rosetti says that he has "reminded the referees of their duty (to protect players from reckless and serious foul play tackles as well as violent conducts"; it would appear that the reality is rather different. 

We can already see that, the progression of permissive referees in every single confederation, self-evidently FIFA is working not only to use this style in the present, but to preserve it for the future as well and perhaps make such way of refereeing a constant reality at the top-level.

Massimo Busacca, head of FIFA's refereeing department since 2011.
He can viewed as the founding father of the era of relativisation. 
To draw us to a close, one might be wondering why all this relativisation is happening - answer is very simple. 

Refereeing is used as a means to an end, confederations do not care about treating referees as humans who care about doing a satisfying job - it cannot and does not feel good to walk into the changing rooms having ignored many clear cards - but they are run like businesses. The message is clear and unequivocal, keep eleven players on the pitch at all costs, stay in the background if at all possible.

It seems that they succeeded in indoctrination too: apparently some people really convince themselves that truth realism, big picture refereeing, and progressive relativism is genuinely benefits refereeing - such ideologies should be viewed as nothing more than pseudo-intellectualism, those people do not seem to realise they are just propagating as big confederations want them to. 

Such approaches destroy the referees themselves: it is hard to be satisfied with oneself by executing these instructions, you do not receive good matches unless you carry out these instructions; referees are stuck in a paradox of moral dilemma. 

The future of refereeing points a dystopia where not even an objective reality of red cards, let alone yellow cards or fouls, exists and referees are just there to judge in each situation "what football wants" and officiate in a totally feeling-based and ad hoc way, with an all consuming grey area that makes evaluating any referee's performance totally superfluous. 

Law 5 - The Referee blog hopes that confederations are fully aware they are complicit in a slow and painful disintegration of refereeing; each next relativisation is a further step closer to that dystopia.


  1. Great article, Mikael! You brilliantly expressed what many of us think watching the games handled by permissive referees (only because they want / are instructed to keep all the players on the field at all cost).

    In addition, there is another issue behind the leniency we experience in almost every big game nowadays: players' safety! I fear the big clubs' players already know that the referees are not keen to send them off in the big games and they will perform more and more brutal tackles and sneaky violent conducts endangering the safety and well-being of high-skilled players whose focus is to play football.

    This issue is directly linked with another one: quality of football spectacles. While such leniently refereed games are going to be very tense and breathtaking, the quantity of football deemed rather as playing the ball than kicking opponents will be negligible in these big games -> see WC2010 and WC2014 finals... Do we really want football like this British in the 80s?

    The following passage is alarming and, unfortunately, real: "The future of refereeing points a dystopia where not even an objective reality of red cards, let alone yellow cards or fouls, exists and referees are just there to judge in each situation "what football wants" and officiate in a totally feeling-based and ad hoc way, with an all consuming grey area that makes evaluating any referee's performance totally superfluous."

    1. I fully agree with the article and your comment and I'm glad that, at least, some "important" people will read here (I'm convinced) our opinions...

    2. Chefren since the var is back in the premier league...

      I suggest for top leagues like laliga and premier league...

      You should post referee appointment for the EPL and laliga also....
      So that this page can be busy...

      I don't think posting only international matches will make this page busy as always....


  2. Regarding Drees' statement/relativisation: I think, he wanted to make clear, that this mistake doesn't mean that the VAR system is not working in general or that the VAR system is useless. But instead it is a mistake, which will happen from time to time, because there are humans operating the system.
    However I am convinced that Drees is aware, that such a mistake must not happen.

    Regarding "clear and obvious": In my opinion this term should not be used for e.g offside decisions - or square roots. Those are instead factual decisions, which don't need any interpretation.
    "Clear and obvious" should only be used for decisions, that require the referee's interpretation, e.g. Red Cards. There we or rather the VARs have the important task to find a common application for this term to get a consistent line for interventions throughout a whole competition - or rather throughout all competitions.
    But Red Cards or penaltys never can be as clear as mathematical equations, therefore we have to accept that nearly always there will be a small margin for discussion.

  3. You lost me as soon as you said, "carting out your studs on to an opponent's shin". I don't how you can say contact was on the shin from that video.

    1. But then you got me back again when you started talking about FIFA refereeing of which I happen to agree with most of what you said in this regard.

  4. The issue which Mikael has analyzed so well, is complicated because it has several dimensions: 1. we cannot get FIFA/UEFA and individual leagues to agree about how the rules should be interpreted and, in fact whether they really want the referees to apply the rules. 2. they put the referees in a horrible position, because often an experienced and ethical referee knows what the 'correct' decision is,but he/she must think of what FIFA?UEFA wants, in order to protect his/her career; but what happens if some of our best referee can no longer tolerate that situation? 3. many seem to think that referees are human and the VAR is a 'machine'; but VAR is also a human who is helped by a machine; the VAR official can make a mistake or may not have the courage to intervene in the way he/she should; so one cannot just blame a problem on the VAR system; 4. without the VAR, the differences in interpretations/instructions in different countries could be 'camouflaged' a bit by just 'blaming' the subjective decision of the referee; but now that we have referee + VAR, the differences become much more obvious; 5. VAR changes the traditional philosophy that 'if you are not sure, you do not punish'; so 1 cm offside was not offside because the AR could not be sure; but now if the VAR can see 1 cm, then it must be offside; there are similar issues regarding YC/RC and handball or not; too much!

  5. WC 2014 had some strange referring instructions like stay as close to the play as you can, send off players when really is needed... That lead to the developing of the opinion that Pepe's headbutt was not enough for a red card (for example).
    Fully support the article - there must be unidentified red line as written in Law 12.


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