The smoke hasn’t yet cleared from last night’s Champions League clash between Barcelona and Arsenal, and a glaring moment of controversy – when Robin van Persie was red-carded for playing beyond the referee’s whistle – has ensured that the dust won’t settle for some time. The decision by Swiss official Massimo Busacca to dismiss van Persie was deemed a ‘total joke’ by the Dutchman, and it is difficult to disagree. At any level, the verdict was deplorable – to look at the magnitude of the event might be to miss the point.
This is not going to be an apologia for Arsenal. Attempting to argue that the Gunners would (or could, or should) have beaten Barcelona with 11 men would be speculative, and possibly futile. The stats don’t back up this hypothesis – Xavi and Iniesta alone completed more passes than Arsenal during the match, and the Gunners failed to register a shot on goal (they owed a wayward header by Sergio Busquets to their equaliser). There is a wealth of raw figures that can verify Barcelona’s supremacy on paper, and the run of play on the pitch compounded their dominance.
Referees have a tough job. The players – many of which earn more in a week than the officials’ annual salaries – regularly put the refereeing team into a compromising situation. Young official James Adcock found out the hard way in his first Football League match how tough it can be to maintain order – in the dying moments of Wycombe’s visit to Macclesfield last month, a 21-man brawl erupted in what has been dubbed the ‘Battle of Moss Rose’.
Unsporting behaviour, diving, and other blatant forms of cheating constantly present the officials with posing questions, and every decision they reach can be scrutinised by the hordes of cameras around the pitch. Showing offside rulings in slow-motion and showing penalty-claims from a reverse angle tend to highlight difficult yet erroneous decisions. Few referees get credit for making the right call. It truly is a thankless task.
The 17 Laws of the Game have limits. Applying the ‘letter of the law’ can be something of a fallacy – the whole point about the Laws is that they aren’t convoluted or overbearing, and they instil a sense of trust in the referee’s judgement-calls. The Laws comprehensively cover the cut-and-dry points such as the pitch dimensions and playing equipment, but they allow a great deal of leeway to the referee in interpreting the spectrum of events that can transpire on the pitch. After all, what kind of behaviour is ‘unsporting’? Is it simply the words, or the manner in which they are said that counts as ‘dissent’? How ‘persistent’ do infringements have to be? All are ‘cautionable offences’, according to Law 12.
There are plenty of high-profile examples of referees making contentious decisions. Phil Dowd was widely criticised after the 2010 League Cup final – he awarded a penalty for a foul by Manchester United defender Nemanja Vidić on Gabriel Agbonlahor, but with merely five minutes on the clock, he bottled the decision to produce a red card even though the ‘obvious goalscoring opportunity’ couldn’t have been clearer for the Villa striker. Players are frequently felled in the box with the referees giving the defenders the benefit of the doubt, and commentators regularly confirm that ‘it’d be a foul anywhere else on the pitch’.
That isn’t to criticise the role of discretion and opinions which are condoned in the Laws. Common sense – known colloquially as ‘Law 18’ – has to apply, because the lines are so blurred between fouls, cautions and dismissals. The simple arithmetic is: two yellows = one red, but bookings have to be distributed responsibly. Two incredibly harsh cautions should never result in a player being sent off – in baseball, the batter is at least allowed three strikes before they’re out. The referee acts as judge, jury and – in the case of Robin van Persie – executioner.
Massimo Busacca came to a woeful call. Van Persie was booked in the first half for catching Dani Alves, but the Brazilian made a meal of it. Alves didn’t opt for his usual triple-pike, but writhing around was a ploy to vilify the Arsenal striker. It was clumsy without being malicious from van Persie, so a reluctant caution was about right.
The second yellow, however, was an embarrassment. The problem with the Laws being so vague means that the spin-doctors can wangle any refereeing decision into being legitimated. Whether van Persie heard the whistle or not is debateable – deafness comes by degrees, after all. But playing-on was emphatically the right thing for the Dutchman to do. Defenders are coached to not take risks and to ‘play to the whistle’ by siding with the utmost caution; similarly strikers have to fulfil their role until they’re sure that play has ceased. Who can blame a marginally-offside van Persie for having a pop-shot, when his team failed to register a single attempt on goal?
With 35 minutes left to play, and a second between the whistle being sounded and van Persie unleashing his shot, it can hardly be deemed time-wasting. Neither was it an act of petulance or dissent. It was an honest effort on goal from a striker feeding on scraps. Producing a red card is not a resolution to come to lightly – it smacked of Busacca acting the jobsworth. Van Persie made a mistake, but it was Busacca that saw the red mist.
According to the rulebook, it wasn’t the wrong decision. But it wasn’t the right decision either. It was just an interpretation of the Laws, and a poor one. Being a Champions League second round tie between Barcelona and Arsenal didn’t make the verdict any worse – if it had been Neuchâtel Xamax hosting Grasshopper-Club Zürich in Busacca’s homeland, it would have still been a terrible call.
We have to maintain our faith in the officials, and that they try to act in the best interests of the game. It will be the death of the game when referees are no longer deemed capable of making calls without partisanship. But like players, the referees will pay for their performances with their reputations. UEFA handpick the teams of officials for their elite competition with confidence that they will be unbiased and act in the spirit of the game. Massimo Busacca will need to prove himself again – yesterday he showed a dearth in basic aptitude that is needed at any level, from Champions League down to Sunday League.