Rage, confusion, and disbelief: fans, players, coaches, and former referees are united in their criticism of the Bundesliga’s video assistant referees after another weekend of questionable decisions in Germany’s top league.
“We’re totally on the wrong path. We have to take two or three steps back to get back to the football,” Freiburg coach Christian Streich said. “Everyone thought everything would be fine with technology. But behind the technology are people. It can’t go on like this, it’s crazy. The whole game is not the game it should be anymore. It’s not football anymore.”
The previous weekend’s games had already shone the spotlight back on the unpopular addition to the league, with Borussia Dortmund coach Lucien Favre complaining that players would have to cut off their arms to avoid conceding penalties after Julian Weigl was penalized for blocking a shot from close-range in the side’s 4-2 loss to bitter rival Schalke.
“The biggest scandal in soccer in years,” Favre complained.
Freiburg bore the brunt of a questionable penalty decision last weekend that allowed Leipzig to grab a 2-1 win. It was then awarded a dubious penalty of its own and also had Janik Haberer harshly sent off in Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Fortuna Duesseldorf.
“It’s not a foul in the penalty area just when there’s contact, but when there’s a foul. That’s the first thing. That’s the way it always was and that’s the way it should be,” Streich said. “It’s handball when a clear goal chance is stopped or when the hand is up there where it doesn’t belong. Otherwise it’s not handball.”
Streich refused to criticize the referees, however. “The referees are being driven crazy because they don’t know what they should do. They’re coming under such pressure that you nearly couldn’t blame them for what’s happening,” Streich said.
Prior to this past weekend, statistics showed the highest number of penalties for handball since the Bundesliga began in 1963. Twenty-nine had been awarded, well over the average of 11.7 and already more than the previous high of 23 from the 1967-68 season, with three rounds of games still to play.
VAR, or the lack of its use, has also been felt in the German Cup.
Bayern Munich progressed to the final thanks to a questionable penalty decision in a 3-2 win at Werder Bremen on Apr. 24 when Kingsley Coman went down under Theodor Gebre Selassie’s challenge. Referee Daniel Siebert did not consult replays despite the Bremen players’ furious protests, and Robert Lewandowski converted the spot kick for the win.
Jochen Drees, who oversees VAR for the German soccer federation, criticized what he called a “not correct” decision.
Adding to fans’ frustration with what often turn out to be wrong decisions are the delays that lead to uncertainty, and celebrations with brakes applied.
Lutz Michael Froehlich, the German soccer federation’s head of the referees, defended his officials, saying they were sticking to the rules “consistently and calculatedly. So I cannot understand when people talk of ‘confused’ rule interpretation or even that `no one knows what handball is anymore.'”
But three decisions across games in Munich, Berlin and Bremen on Saturday have renewed the debate and have led many fans to call for VAR to be scrapped altogether. Banners against VAR have been a common sight at games.
Stuttgart players were aghast not to be awarded a penalty when Hertha Berlin defender Karim Rekik knocked the ball away with his fist in their 3-1 defeat. There was no intervention from the video referee watching in Cologne, despite what former referee Markus Merk called the “clearest handball of the last weeks.”
Bayern Munich defender Jerome Boateng was penalized for handball despite being able to do little about it after being struck from close range in his side’s win over Hannover. This time there was an intervention from the video referee.
And later, when the ball hit Mario Goetze’s arm during Dortmund’s 2-2 draw at Bremen, VAR intervened – no penalty, despite the home side’s furious protests.
“In the context of this season it was a glass-clear penalty,” Bremen coach Florian Kohfeldt said. “I’m not making any accusation against the referee. They themselves don’t know any more what they should be whistling.”
Later, Drees acknowledged that Stuttgart should have been awarded a penalty, but said the incident was missed by video referee Guenter Perl, “one of the best we have.”
Drees said Boateng should not have been penalized and that the decision not to penalize Goetze was correct.
Kohfeldt would not have wanted a similar decision going against him, said Dress, who acknowledged difficulties policing the handball rule. He asked for understanding for his staff. “They’re people, not machines.”
But patience is running out. “The more it’s talked about, the more uncertain the referees get. People always say these things balance out over the season. I don’t believe it anymore,” Bremen sporting director Frank Baumann said.
There could be more complaints next season with VAR set to make its debut in the second division, too.