Uefa must cut out the slapstick and play straight role in helping referees

Paul Doyle
Uefa must cut out the slapstick and play straight role in helping referees | Paul Doyle

It would be a great service indeed if Uefa ditched the Champions League anthem for the remainder of this season’s competition and replaced it with Dance of the Cuckoos, the theme tune from Laurel and Hardy. The players could still line up and listen to it with awed reverence, of course, because that would provide an amusing and instantly shareable meme for folks wishing to illustrate the contrast between what the competition purports to be and the farce that it often is.

The quarter-final between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich was trailed as a high-brow duel that would offer the thrills of a blockbuster and the substance of an art-house classic. Instead it risks being remembered as a goofy skit splattered with decisions so spectacularly wrong as to provoke a physical workout, being at once breathtakingly, eye-poppingly and thigh-slappingly rum.

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The game was afflicted by so many significant distortions – such as Artur Vidal’s unearned red card and Cristiano Ronaldo’s bogus goal – that Real’s victory belongs in the same category as Barcelona’s tainted comeback against Paris Saint-Germain, which might not have happened if not for rampant diving by the players and decisions made by officials who performed as if freshly graduated from the School of Rough Guesses.

Real’s victory came on the same night as their neighbour, Atlético Madrid, progressed to the semi-final by beating Leicester City 2-1 on aggregate, the first goal coming from a penalty awarded for a foul outside the box. That, too, was a significant distortion, although at least Marc Albrighton was not sent off, unlike Andreas Beck, who was dismissed during Besiktas’ defeat to Dynamo Kyiv in the group stages for a challenge made outside the box – and made on him, to boot.

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Whether or not we agree with Arsène Wenger’s suggestion that Arsenal might not have lost to Bayern Munich, let alone by 10-2, if the right decisions had been made when it came to red cards and penalties, it is clear that this season’s Champions League has been devalued by a succession of flamboyantly wrong decisions.

It is not just the Champions League, of course. On Sunday, Ross County were able to nick a late equaliser against Celtic thanks to a penalty awarded when Alex Schalk’s audition for the RAF Falcons parachute display team was mistaken for a foul. And earlier this month the referee Keith Stroud was given a 28-day suspension for awarding a free kick to Burton Albion instead of ordering Newcastle to retake a penalty after encroachment by Dwight Gayle.

Stroud’s case is different to the other examples because he was punished for not knowing or momentarily forgetting the law he was supposed to be enforcing, the law being an ass is no defence, although an ass it certainly is in this instance – why, after all, should a team be allowed to retake a penalty kick after encroaching? In the other instances the referees could plausibly claim that any mistake they made was due to more pardonable shortcomings to do with the difficulty of seeing every movement precisely when trying to keep track of several bodies and a ball all at once.

There is no error that a human cannot make. That, basically, has been the excuse of football’s governing bodies for decades. It has been years since that excuse has been acceptable. For a long time the refusal to use technology to help eradicate mistakes amounted to a suspicious dereliction of duty. Why would the authorities choose to leave matches so exposed to human fallibility when they know that that also leaves matches more vulnerable to human venality?

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Anyone who has watched football for a while is likely to have seen decisions even more blatantly incorrect than the one made by the Ghanaian referee Joseph Odartei Lamptey during November’s World Cup qualifier against Senegal, when Kalidou Koulibaly had a penalty given against him for handball even though it was obvious to most onlookers that the ball had hit his legs. Fifa gave that referee a life ban last month but has yet to explain fully why. We could try to guess but what we are after is accuracy and transparency.

So let us be thankful that soon there will be more clarity in refereeing thanks to the increased use of technology. Following successful trials, such as in the recent France-Spain friendly when correct decisions were made on two goals following referral to an official watching replays in a truck behind the stand, video-assisted refereeing will be introduced in several competitions next season, including the FA Cup and the Bundesliga. And Tuesday’s fiasco at the Bernabéu has even got Uefa to thinking that it should finally be seen to do its utmost to ensure accurate decisions are made in the competition it trumpets most loudly.

Technology should ensure that more correct decisions are made but is no guarantee of perfection. Earlier this season the HawkEye system used in Serie A led to a goal alert being wrongly sent to the officials in charge of the Sampdoria-Genoa match after the ball hit the crossbar and bounced down well short of the line. Media reports blamed a short-circuit.

Several weeks later in France something similar happened in the Bordeaux-Rennes match – a representative of the manufacturer, GoalControl, was later quoted in Le Monde explaining that the machine may have malfunctioned after being confused by the goalkeeper’s fluorescent yellow jersey. Fortunately on both occasions the contraptions were over-ruled by the referees, who had their wits about them and struck blows for justice and the most old-fashioned of devices, the human eyes. But we don’t want to keep relying on them alone.

Video-assisted refereeing would limit the number of slapstick routines in matches and reduce the chances of every Champions League game descending into another fine mess.

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