Watching the incident on Wednesday night where Raheem Sterling was awarded a penalty for Manchester City against Shakhtar Donetsk, my initial reaction was surprise.
I was not surprised that Sterling didn’t own up to the fact he’d not been touched, but rather that as experienced a referee as Viktor Kassai had made such a terrible error.
On the first point, you can’t expect players like Sterling to go running up to officials telling them they’ve made a mistake. Those days are long gone – if they ever really existed at all.
Yes, we had Robbie Fowler telling Gerald Ashby not to award a penalty in 1997, and Paolo Di Canio stopping the game so that Everton’s injured goalkeeper Paul Gerrard could receive treatment, but those are extremely rare cases.
In the main, referees need to rely not on players’ honesty but on being in the right position to make the correct call.
Kassai, who is one of the best refs around, singularly failed to do this yesterday. His vision of the incident was impeded by players in front of him, and then he did something that referees are told never to do: he guessed.
When he realised he didn’t have a good enough view he should have consulted the rest of his team. But then the official stood behind the goal is a waste of time and this underlines that. While he’s not allowed to make a signal visually, he has got a communication link and I’m amazed he couldn’t help the referee here.
When you’re operating with additional assistant referees, you’re looking for the official behind the goal to step up. But between him and the referee they made a complete mess of it.
I’ve been asked as well whether Kassai should have looked at the players’ reaction to see whether Sterling really had been fouled.
There are often times when body language from players will help you as a referee. But this tends to be for things like a corner kick or goal kick when you can delay your signal until after you’ve gauged the instinctive reactions of the players. The same for throw-ins when for instance there’s been a couple of ricochets and you can see which player has gone to fetch the ball.
Ultimately, the Sterling penalty was awarded because of human error, which once again demonstrates how we need VAR. Rather than having an assistant behind the goal wasting everyone’s time, VAR would have got this one right.
Even officials as good as Kassai will make mistakes from time to time.
Keith Hackett is a former referee and his ebook, You are the Ref, is out now