Back in the dark prehistory of football, before the introduction of video officials, referees sometimes had to make important decisions using circumstantial evidence.
Take for instance Rudolf Kreitlein’s decision to send off Argentina’s captain Antonio Rattin for dissent in the 1966 World Cup quarter-final. The German Kreitlein hadn’t understood a word of what Rattin had said to him in Spanish, but “the look on his face was enough”.
These old refereeing arts have apparently been lost. Football can seldom have seen a guiltier look than the one on the face of Fabinho after he planted his studs into Evan Ferguson’s Achilles five minutes from the end of yesterday’s FA Cup tie.
Fabinho’s usual response whenever he commits a foul is to smile benignly at the referee. This time he got up from the challenge looking like a man who just realised he has accidentally reversed over his neighbours’ dog, and also that the neighbours’ kids have seen the whole thing.
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It was plainly a bad mistake from referee David Coote to miss both the seriousness of the foul in real time, and then the elaborate display of apologetic shame from Fabinho that constituted a virtual admission of guilt. But no matter, that’s why we have VAR: the video replays showed clearly what had happened and the video assistant Neil Swarbrick would surely intervene to recommend a red card for Fabinho.
Yet Swarbrick saw no reason to get involved. It was only the victim, Ferguson, who would play no further part in the match. The 18-year-old would eventually leave the stadium on crutches, with Brighton manager Roberto de Zerbi saying it was too soon to say whether he had suffered an “important injury”.
Ferguson had walked off the field after receiving initial treatment, but so had Virgil van Dijk after Jordan Pickford crushed his knee at Goodison Park in 2020. (Coote missed that one too.)
[ Evan Ferguson is a natural – the soft first touch, the sureness, the strength, the speed ]
Football has always had miscarriages of justice but there is an extra dimension of mind-bending absurdity when you can see them being played out in slow motion from multiple angles and the referees still don’t seem to see anything wrong.
It’s hard not to see the Fabinho-Ferguson fiasco in the context of what Howard Webb had to say last month as he became the new chief refereeing officer of Professional Game Match Officials Ltd (PGMOL). Webb, of course, wrote his name into the history of refereeing at the 2010 World Cup final, when he famously failed to notice Nigel de Jong studding Xabi Alonso in the heart.
“Hand on heart, it never, ever crossed my mind that this was a red card,” Webb wrote six years later in his autobiography. “In that instance, on that pitch, I was utterly convinced it was a yellow; not one per cent of me thought otherwise.”
Only at half-time did he see the foul back and realise how bad it had been.
“I felt gutted beyond belief. It looked like I’d missed a red card offence in a World Cup final.” [Looked like?] “What a f**king nightmare.”
[ Evan Ferguson limps off as Mitoma winner dumps Liverpool out of FA Cup ]
With that error being the defining moment of Webb’s career, it’s no surprise that he professes himself “a strong advocate for VAR” – the system promises a world where no referee would have to feel like that ever again.
Yet since Webb has taken the top job his main aim appears to be to reduce the role of VAR, which he believes should only get involved where “clear and obvious” mistakes have been made.
“I think we’ve seen the best implementations across the world with the ones that interfere the least,” he said in December.
“It sits in the background and only steps in in those circumstances where the vast majority of people would agree a clear and obvious error has been made . . . The training we have to give to the officials is over consistently identifying when a clear error has happened.”
The implication of this policy is that every VAR intervention becomes a reproach to the referee, a kind of public accusation of incompetence: not “here’s something potentially important we think you might have missed” but “we believe you just made a major mistake”.
Webb often reminds us that referees are human beings. In that case, let’s not pretend they’re any less sensitive to public professional embarrassment than the rest of us. In a marginal situation, does the VAR take the obnoxious step of calling out their on-field counterpart for a mistake, or do they keep silent and pretend they also thought it was fine?
An extra layer of complication has been introduced by the increasingly relaxed attitude towards fouls, summed up by ex-referee (and current video assistant referee) Mike Riley in his Daily Mail column earlier this season: “Referees are under orders this season to let games flow as freely and legally as possible and that cannot happen when they’re blowing for free-kicks all the time. Innocuous stoppages prevent fans from seeing a free-flowing game of top-flight football.”
You know what else prevents fans from seeing a free-flowing game of football? Fouls. Fouls can break up the flow of the game just as efficiently as stoppages, and if you decide you’re not going to punish fouls the one thing you are sure to get is more fouls.
At different points in the Brighton-Liverpool game Ferguson, Mo Salah and Alexis Mac Allister were all pulled down while on the attack with no fouls given.
Mac Allister had been running through on goal when Ibrahima Konate knocked him to the ground – and there was a strong case for sending off the already-booked Liverpool defender – but Coote waved play on, perhaps inwardly congratulating himself that he was “letting it flow” in accordance with the wishes of his bosses.
A tackle from behind that endangers the safety of an opponent was made an automatic red card offence in 1998; but 25 years later referees are waving these tackles through.
So Andy Carroll can jump into Christian Eriksen and walk away without a booking, while Fabinho gets just a yellow for studding Ferguson’s Achilles. Eriksen and Ferguson are victims of a refereeing culture that is more concerned about avoiding potentially unpopular decisions than protecting players. Never mind the casualties, feel the flow.