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Schalke’s denial of two penalties against Bayern Munich proves that VAR still has ample room for improvement

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The Video Assistant Referee remains a work in progress in the Bundesliga, as two curious situations in Gelsenkirchen amply demonstrate.

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Football and Technology

Football’s cooperation with technology has progressed surprisingly quickly since the start of the decade. The debate over whether football should make greater use of technology was heated to record temperatures after two events between the end of 2009 and mid-2010: Thierry Henry’s handball against Ireland and Frank Lampard’s ghost-goal against Germany.

Henry, one of the greatest strikers of all time, used his hand to set up William Gallas’ goal in the last-minutes of France versus Ireland in the World Cup qualifier. In consequence, France qualified for the 2010 World Cup, while Ireland felt cheated out of a ticket to South Africa. After the game Henry emerged from the dressing room and said:

I will be honest, it was a handball. But I’m not the ref. I played it, the ref allowed it. That’s a question you should ask him.

A national team was not denied a trip to the World Cup because of a clear foul that everyone watching the match saw — everyone except for the only man that truly mattered, the referee. The aftermath caused debate, and most managers, pundits, and players all agreed that such blatant errors were a problem that football needed to solve.

Months later, Frank Lampard scored a goal that would change football forever. Lampard’s disallowed goal against Germany, and the controversy that followed, almost forced FIFA to introduce goal-line technology for the next World Cup in 2014.

VAR and the new handball rule

Five years later, one of the game’s newest innovations arrived in the form of Video Assistant Referee or VAR. In theory, this technology enables match officials to make better decisions as concerns goals, penalties and various infringements.

VAR has been used in the Bundesliga, rather successfully, for the last two seasons. Like any radical changes to the beautiful game, VAR has naturally sparked debates. Many were unsure of its involvement in the 2018 World Cup for example, although, after the tournament, VAR received a fair amount of praise.

This season, however, VAR has yet again sparked controversy, especially in the English Premier League where it is being used for the first time. The dizzying combination of VAR and a newly implemented handball rule in football has caused confusion and criticism.

The new rule states that even an accidental handball by an attacking player will be penalized. Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus had scored potentially a last-minute winner, but the goal was ruled out on account of a debatable handball decision that VAR called on Aymeric Laporte. On their show Match of the Day, Alan Shearer and Gary Lineker had a very interesting discussion about the decision. Shearer criticized the decision by stating:

Something very similar was canceled out last week between Leicester and Wolves. That handball law is just ridiculous. It is ridiculous. There is not one player on the field who appealed. Hugo Lloris, for instance, was laughing about it.

Gary Lineker responded:

I think it’s fair to say it’s not VAR’s fault. It’s the new law and it’s put VAR in a position without leeway to make nonsensical decisions.

The handball rules have led to criticism in Germany, as well. Werder Bremen striker Niclas Füllkrug was furious after one of his goals was ruled out in his side’s 3-2 loss to Hoffenheim. The striker thought he had equalized, but VAR intervened after the ball touched his arm.

Bayern vs Schalke: two non-calls?

Whether there will be further tweaks to the rules of the game is yet to be decided. What happened in Gelsenkirchen, however, is an entirely different problem. Schalke 04 claimed they should have received two penalty kicks against Bayern Munich for handballs. The ball clearly hit Benjamin Pavard and Ivan Perisic inside the Bayern Munich penalty area on two separate occasions. Head referee Marco Friz, however, declined to award penalties without even going to check the situation in the review area.

Former referee Thorsten Kinhöfer wrote in a column for Bild am Sonntag where he criticized the new laws and the usage of VAR:

What upsets me is that there is a difference between handball by a forward and handball by a defender. That’s causing discussions without end.

After the game, Schalke coach David Wagner was baffled as to why his team did not receive two penalties against Bayern:

Let’s be honest: I’m just looking forward to the explanation because I do not understand that for the moment.

Marco Fritz defended himself by saying there was a brief consultation with Cologne (where the VAR referees sit in front of their computers), but he did not receive a signal that there had been an error from video assistant Bastian Dankert.

Luiz Michael Fröhlich, the German soccer federation’s head of referees, admitted later in an interview with Kicker admitted that Fritz should have at least checked in the review area:

For plausibility and appearance’s sake, it would probably have been best if he’d formed his own picture.

Conclusion

VAR is a new technology in football, and it should prevent situations such as Thierry Henry’s handball from ever happening again. It will nonetheless be interesting to see whether FIFA will tweak the new handball rules in light of the controversy they have created. The recent episodes in England and Germany prove that VAR and the newly implemented handball rules have caused anger and confusion for those playing and watching rather than create clarity.

In fact, the non-calls in Schalke’s 3-0 loss to Bayern Munich has now been handed over to the police to investigate. After the game, a Schalke supporter filed an allegation of fraud against the referee and the video assistant. The Nordrhein-Westfalen police tweeted that they are investigating the complaint and that the facts will now be given to the prosecutor for examination.