The first four referee appointments of this season's Champions League knockout-stage have been unveiled and undoubtfully, the circumstance that four top-class referees have been chosen to oversee these matches underlines the high power density of the clubs fighting for the eight quarterfinal tickets. There is not any unimportant or decided match and this fact makes this year's Round of 16 more exciting than in previous years. However, there is another subtle but equally striking finding when reflecting one appointment and bringing it in line with what we have seen and experienced in the last one or two seasons.
|Andrea Stefani will attend Arsenal FC - Bayern München © The Third Team|
Andrea Stefani has been appointed as assistant referee no.1 in Nicola Rizzoli's team that will take charge of Arsenal FC and Bayern München, the duel of Premier League's no.2 and Bundesliga's no.1 and very probable champions of 2013/14. And this is remarkable considering his performances in this Champions League season. In Paris, Mr Stefani wrongly allowed an offside goal. Crucial mistakes can happen and are no big problem for assistant referees, if they do not happen too often. But you all surely remember what happened in Gelsenkirchen last December. In the match between Schalke 04 and FC Basel, the Italian assistant referee missed that four Schalke attackers were in a clear offside position when a free-kick was taken. All the players were very close to the penalty area line that should have helped the assistant referee as an orientation. Despite his adequate positioning, he wrongly let the flag down and allowed the subsequent goal. Practically that was more than a mere crucial mistake but a disappointing error.
Spotlighting one special match official in a critical way prior to an important match is not my basic intention. Therefore I would like to make clear that I am accepting and aware that referees and assistant referees make human mistakes in the dynamic of a football match. I have often enough stressed that simply and immediately replacing assistant referees after one mistake is psychologically the worst possible scenario. There is a but though.
Before expressing my main thoughts on this matter, it is important to emphasize that, starting in the 2013/14 campaign, it is UEFA and their referee committee that have the duty to appoint assistant referees for matches. In former years, they only chose the referee and had the opportunity to influence the selection of the assistant referees who were supposed to accompany the referees. This competence was however pre-dominantly belonging to the national associations' repertoire. Therefore, it is at least good to know whom to address in this analysis: nobody else than some responsible men in UEFA's referee committee.
De facto, they frequently applied a strategy or policy that can be flowery circumscribed as "conquer or die - stand or fall". Either you fulfill the expectations on the pitch, or you are out. We were able to observe many paramount examples where this was the case. After Gábor Erös had made way too many crucial mistakes in the past two seasons, there was a point when UEFA obviously lost the faith in this official and changed Viktor Kassai's team - it is remarkable that he was not invited to last year's course for assistant referees preceding the current season, did not get any match (instead a young assistant referee, Vencel Tóth, took his place), but was still in Kassai's team on the prospective list of referees for the FIFA World Cup. It's probably more than speculation when presuming that the decision to drop Erös was taken by a higher authority inside UEFA and that Kassai still wanted to have this experienced official in his team at Brazil though, where he won't go - as we know today. This AR change was maybe hard but in a way legitimate, because it clearly followed the performance principle and gave the assistant referee concerned more than one chance to correct some mistakes by performing well, which he did not manage.
Another example is the situation in Slovenia: Damir Skomina's first assistant referee Matej Žunič had his nightmare in the most important match of the referee team's career: in the World Cup play-off between France and Ukraine in Paris. He wrongly disallowed one goal for an alleged offside position and, only three minutes later, missed a clear offside position prior to a goal. Well, even though it has turned out that Skomina would not have attended the World Cup even if his assistant referee had performed on expected level. But at any rate, Matej Žunič did not appear in Skomina's team at the last Champions League group stage matchday and did not run his line in a Cup final match in Saudi-Arabia. Instead, Bojan Ul and Jure Praprotnik went there. So it seems as if Skomina himself agreed on the absence of Žunič and has thrown him out his team, or he had to accept this as a decision of higher authority which is equally possible. At any rate, it seems as if the youngest assistant referee ever participating in a European Championship and a good teammember in most of Skomina's matches has been dropped due to one match. The question what will happen in Champions League is very interesting as well - Praprotnik is very young (1985) and only international since last year. He would celebrate his CL debut in the K.O. stage, which is difficult to imagine but surely possible. Or Skomina will be assisted by Ul and Kokolj, with whom he did not work often in his career. Or there is again a mixed team like in Matej Jug's case, who was assisted by Austrian Roland Brandner in the first half of the season. Or the Slovenian team is out of the entire K.O. stage. It is difficult to say, anyway, there seems to have been a switch-over due to two human mistakes by a young and very promising assistant referee.
Craig Thomson lost his assistant referee Alasdair Ross as a consequence of that famous offside goal scored by Borussia Dortmund against Málaga CF in last season's Champions League quarterfinal. Ross had missed two clear offsides in the same situation taking place in the last minute of the additional time. In the heat of events, the Scottish assistant was apparently not able to cope with this pressure by keeping a cool head. For sure, assistant referees must be able to stay concentrated even in extreme moments. But what UEFA did after this match, maybe even Thomson himself, was far away from a human dealing with human errors. The message was clear: perform or die. It's a common phenomenon, also in modern economy, that managers have a deep miscomprehension of what performance principle means. Yes, very good performances must be rewarded and the subject that shows these very good performances must be chosen over other subjects with worse or less good performances. The performance principle does however not exclude the existence of human mistakes. In particular in refereeing, this should count. It does not mean that you must punish a human for a mistake, it does not mean that you have to destroy what a match officials has built over months and years because of making a clear mistake within one or two seconds.
Naturally, this is easy to say. The committee has also the duty to guarantee the best refereeing possible which requires reliable match officials, the best match officials possible. For this reason, the line between treating assistant referees unfairly and in a not that human way on the one side and ensuring the best refereeing squad possible for widely commercialized Champions League football is thin. In addition, it is proven that suspensions or sanctions can be form to increase the performance of organisms. If a subject knows that it will get a certain reward or positive effect whatever he does (certainly, this does not count for very good marks in UEFA referee observers' reports...), his performance will incrementally decrease. This psychological effect is called overjustification and is common in lots of facets of the everyday life. So, as a referee, but also as a player, you must of course know that being appointed for future matches or getting into the starting line-up requires a good performance. Otherwise, you could be out. That's trivial and belongs to sports and other parts of life.
But now I come back to the beginning and reason why I decided to write this text. If Collina and co. are strict in punishing clear, human mistakes that led to a lot of medial attention, then they should spare no-one. Roughly said, I must ask the questions: Why did Alasdair Ross have to go, while Andrea Stefani is AR1 in Arsenal FC - Bayern München? Why does UEFA not guarantee the best assistant referee possible for a match of this format? Okay, here you can argue that Rizzoli is forming a World Cup trio with Stefani and Faverani, so that it would be senseless to separate them before the tournament. But then I must ask: Why is this team appointed for the very likely most important match of this K.O. stage round? Please don't misunderstand me. I am not against appointing this team for that match, as it is one of the best European teams considering the past years and their achievements. I am only asking why there are two measuring tapes for the same pool of match officials.
As written above, it is only welcome that UEFA does not sanction every obvious and immense human mistake with the maximum penalty. And of course there is no relation to the fact that we are talking about an Italian assistant referee belonging to one of Collina's most favourite trios... In every organization that is built upon the basis of the performance principle, the following phrase must count: "Idem Ius Omnibus" - "The Same Right For Everyone". Surely this quote rather means political rights...and it is of course far away from reality. Referring to George Orwell's Animal Farm, it seems as if all match officials are equal in UEFA's committee. But some are obviously more equal than others.