Manchester City penalty against Shakhtar highlights need for VAR | Paul Wilson | Football
The first thing to say about the Raheem Sterling “penalty” incident that caused so much amusement and embarrassment in Manchester City’s 6-0 rout of Shakhtar Donetsk at the Etihad is that Viktor Kassai, the Hungarian referee who immediately pointed to the spot, was directly behind the chasing defender and probably thought a foul had been committed.
The second thing to say is that his two assistants in that part of the field, the linesman and the extra guy behind the goal-line, had no such excuse. All three are radio linked and can communicate with each other, and for a mini-committee of officials to ratify such a bizarrely incorrect decision was mystifying and shaming.
As things stand, exactly the same could happen in a Champions League final, with half the world tuning in on television. Imagine the outcry were such an injustice to affect the result of a major showpiece game. City were so superior to a disappointing Shakhtar team on Wednesday the controversy over their second goal hardly mattered in the end, though Uefa should consider it a warning.
This foolishness with five officials on the pitch and none able to spot a blatant mistake has to stop. VAR is available, it worked perfectly well at the World Cup and it should be introduced without further delay. Like now, even if we are midway through a competition. The alternative is to risk being a laughing stock all over again and possibly to see a deserving team lose a tie through refereeing incompetence, as happened with Chelsea when they infamously came up against Tom Henning Øvrebø in 2009.
That particular game highlighted the fact that while the Champions League is supposed to showcase the best Europe can offer in terms of football talent, its officials are sometimes plucked from backwaters of the game so sleepy that they find it hard to keep pace with elite level competition.
That is not particularly true of Kassai, who has refereed a Champions League final and at a World Cup – indeed in the Club World Cup in 2016 he became the first official to award a penalty after consulting a video – but the perception remains that Uefa needs to up its game with referees if it wishes the Champions League to be considered the height of excellence.
Kassai was in charge of a game between England and Ukraine at Euro 2012 when a wrongly disallowed goal first suggested goal-line officials would not solve the problem – Sepp Blatter immediately called for goal-line technology to be introduced – and six years down the line it appears nothing has changed.
Whatever one’s objections to VAR, if any remain after its usefulness in Russia this year, it simply cannot be any worse than getting things wrong in the bumblingly amateurish way demonstrated at the Etihad.
Sterling apologised to the referee after the game, when it really ought to have been the referee apologising to him, or at least to Mykola Matviyenko. The City player has been pilloried in some quarters for not holding his hands up and telling the referee no foul had been committed, though to a large extent that is simply because his name is Raheem Sterling.
Not many other professionals would have acted any differently, bearing in mind that even Robbie Fowler was told to go ahead and take the penalty at Highbury in 1997, and that the referee has no obligation to change his mind once he has pointed to the spot. Sterling did not do anything wrong, either in seeking a penalty (he did not), appealing for a penalty (he did not) or not taking the opportunity to dispute the referee’s decision. What City as a collective could have done had they wished is deliberately missed the penalty or simply rolled the ball to the goalkeeper from the spot, but that would not be Sterling’s decision either.
Professional sportsmen are not generally in the habit of surrendering an edge or an advantage, however it comes about. There are occasional examples of sportsmanship unexpectedly surfacing, though they are very much the exception rather than the rule. In most cases it is better to take the decision out of the competitor’s hands and leave it to a competent arbiter. Now, more clearly than ever, that means VAR rather than Uefa’s present system of three blind mice.