Everyone on the pitch was unanimous, even the notional offender himself Kevin-Prince Boateng. Minutes before the final whistle in the DFB-Pokal final between Bayern Munich and Eintracht Frankfurt, Boateng fouled Javi Martinez in Eintracht's penalty area. The Bayern players standing nearby protested vehemently. Surely a clear-cut penalty?
Referee Felix Zwayer seemed uncertain. He called for VAR—the video assistant referee—and went to the sidelines to view the instant replay. He returned and awarded Bayern—a corner kick.
A foul seen by everyone but the referee
Zwayer’s inexplicable decision negated Bayern’s desperate effort to equalize the match 2-2 in stoppage time. Kevin-Prince Boateng’s emotions turned from grim dread to elation in seconds. He spoke with commendable candor about the incident on the pitch afterward:
I obviously hit him; you can see it. After that the ref has to decide. I honestly thought he’d award a penalty. Today we were lucky that he didn’t award one. I thought, he has to blow his whistle.
Coach Niko Kovac equally acknowledged Eintracht’s luck, albeit without admitting that Zwayer had to award a penalty: “We were lucky; it could have been awarded.”
Sven Ulreich was particularly livid after the match. In the mixed zone after the match, he told Abendzeitung,
It is hard to succeed against such a passionately playing team like Frankfurt. Then on top of that, there’s a decision by the referee that I cannot comprehend.
Zwayer’s baffling decision made Ulreich go so far as to question Zwayer’s impartiality:
The referee gave out presents on his birthday, but not to us. It’s very bitter. I cannot comprehend how you could decide to give a corner. Sandro [Wagner], Niklas [Süle], and I—we all were standing there and heard the impact: an obvious penalty.
I don’t know what the referee was thinking there—did he want to guarantee that Frankfurt wins the title?! It’s disappointing.
VAR, what is it good for?
The fact that Zwayer went through with a video review and still awarded a corner kick rather than a penalty seemed to pour salt in the wound. The action left the players wondering whether the video assistant referee (VAR), which the Bundesliga introduced this past season, and which will be used at the World Cup for the first time in Russia (but not in next year’s Champions League) should be fundamentally redesigned or even abolished.
Mats Hummels admitted that his faith in VAR had been shaken over the events of the season. Speaking before the Pokal final itself, Hummels said,
People could rethink VAR even more significantly than they perhaps already are. Initially, I was a wholehearted supporter and outright advocate of VAR. Its implementation has to be very heavily refined; there still have been too many wrong decisions. If it stays the way it is now, I’d even be in favor of abolishing it.
Zwayer’s non-call seemed like a case in point, as he later stated:
If I have VAR, I have to use it and make my decision accordingly. Kevin-Prince Boateng hits the Achilles tendon of Javi Martinez, a clear-cut penalty.
Thomas Müller concurred, questioning why Zwayer needed to consult VAR at all:
It's an obvious case. He doesn't hit the ball and hits the foot of Javi Martinez. I don’t understand very well why VAR then is used. I understand that there is pressure to award a penalty here and in the last minute.
What did Zwayer see?
Kicker broke down from the televised broadcast what Zwayer actually saw on the screen as he consulted VAR in the crucial moment. The stunning and baffling truth: Zwayer saw the scene from only a single perspective and not once from beginning to end continuously.
Zwayer initially saw the scene in slow motion, but it stopped at the moment of the foul. Then the scene slowly moved back and forth around the instant that Boateng hits Martinez, and then it played the foul again in short segments as Zwayer was already moving to return to the pitch. In short: the referee did not see even the same replay as everyone watching on television.
The strange episode left Kicker wondering whether the video assistant referees in Cologne had complicated Zwayer’s work by presenting such an inadequate replay. Sven Ulreich said,
If he [Zwayer] takes a look at it, he obviously has to call for a penalty. You hear the impact; he clearly hits him on the foot. Otherwise we can just give up on VAR. That’s not supposed to be an excuse now, but it is simply ridiculous.
Bayern still may not have won the final had Zwayer awarded the penalty. Even if Robert Lewandowski had successfully converted it, the game still would have gone to extra time. But the missed call and apparent failure of VAR sealed the victory for Eintracht. And it leaves Bayern wondering now about two calls were not made in the knockout tournaments they failed to win.
If and how the Bundesliga goes about improving the functionality of VAR remains to be seen. Zwayer, incidentally, will be a video referee for the World Cup 2018.
UPDATE: Zwayer offers an explanation
Referee Felix Zwayer explained the rationale behind his controversial decision to give Bayern a corner kick rather than a penalty in comments to Kicker.
Zwayer initially decided on a corner, but decided to consult VAR because Martinez seemed to have been brought down by contact:
A corner was my original decision, although I saw that had been knocked down. It was clear to me, however, why; the way the duel playedout looked odd. Therefore I consulted the video assistant Bastian Dankert. He told me that the images suggested that there was contact, [and] I should go look at them again myself.
The following is what Zwayer claims he saw:
I saw the contact, but in my view it was not serious contact [intensiver Kontakt], since Martinez put the foot that was hit on the ground without changing its motion and stably before he lifts his other leg, flies forward, and falls down.
For Zwayer, since the contact did not seem serious, or “intense” in his words, he felt he should not change his original verdict. The contact did not amount to a foul in his view:
Not for me, because I could not see any contact in the images that in my view could have caused Martinez to fall. The blow and effect did not correspond for me. In the images, I did not see any contact that convinced me to change my original perception and decision. Even after two days I stand by this decision.