The pattern is familiar: a high profile game, a hotly debated decision, pundits grasping loosely for facts in an opinionated world, and irate supporters venting frustration across social media. It was no different on Monday night, as referee Michael Oliver booked Ander Herrera twice inside 35 minutes at Stamford Bridge, in one moment ruining both the spectacle and Manchester United’s chances of retaining the FA Cup. To many United supporters Oliver’s performance was an aberration; to most others, a delight.
The polarised debate following Chelsea’s 1-0 FA Cup quarter-final victory over United is exacerbated by the ambiguity in FIFA’s Laws of the Game, together with the varying interpretation given to them by referees and their national associations. Herrera was dismissed after Oliver first booked the Spaniard for obstruction, and then for persistent fouling. Both decisions appeared to be disputable, with the Laws vague and accommodating of opinion either side of dismissal and injustice.
"The polarised debate following Chelsea’s FA Cup victory is exacerbated by the ambiguity in FIFA’s Laws, together with the interpretation given to them by referees and their national associations."
Social media exploded with part-time referees and self-declared experts. In the era of Google, Twitter and a thousand blogs, the establishment of truth is all too easily debased, reflecting the ability to facsimile information and misrepresent it without call to verification. It is, as some have now infamously appropriated, the era of fake news. Sad!
The impact of that echo chamber is further catalysed when reputable sources follow the same pattern, choosing to hot-take, and copy and paste, leaving aside the once sacrosanct fact check in favour of being first with an opinion, and fitting the facts to the narrative at a later time. In politics the phenomenon has given rise to The Drudge Report, Breitbart News and Donald Trump. In football, an army of those in the know.
Indeed, Monday night’s Twittersphere was replete with erroneous material copied from an ancient United States Soccer Federation guidance document on interpreting the Laws of the Game. Published in 2009, since which annual updates to the Laws have rendered it meaningless, the document is in the mode of, but not the same as, material offered to Premier League referees each summer. It seemingly occurred to few, including a high-profile ESPN pundit, that not only is an out-of-date document all but useless, but that the Federation in question has no jurisdiction over the FA Cup either. One example of many in relation both to Monday night’s game and controversy over the course of the season.
Herrera was first cautioned in the 19th minute, Oliver booking the United midfielder for an apparent obstruction on in-form Eden Hazard. The Belgian forward has demonstrated this season everything that he failed to do under José Mourinho last year, attacking United at a frightening pace, with the ball rarely far from his instep. It was presumably that form which encouraged Mourinho to man-mark Chelsea’s main threat, with Phil Jones following his opponent around the pitch and the Reds committing six fouls on the player over the course of 90 minutes.
It took just another 16 for Herrera to see red following the opening caution, with the former Athletic Bilbao player shown a second yellow for what appeared to be persistent fouling. Herrera’s seemingly innocuous trip on Hazard, brought on by the Belgian’s rapid control and turn, was just the Spaniard’s second foul of the game. It will prove to be costly, with United playing out the final 55 minutes a man short, and Herrera set to miss games against Middlesbrough and West Bromwich Albion in the Premier League.
In the BBC studio the half-time chatter centred around the dismissal, with the panel of Alan Shearer, Frank Lampard and Phil Neville each offering very different interpretations of the action; each seemingly as devoid as social media of any factual information. It is odd given that both FIFA Law 12 and the FA’s interpretation of Law 12, via the International Football Association Board, are available online.
While there was universal agreement among the BBC team about Herrera’s booking for obstruction, only Shearer offered uncritical support of the Spaniard’s second yellow, with Neville putting up a robust defence of the United man, and Lampard largely on the fence.
Defined by Law 12 of FIFA’s Laws of the Game, obstruction is interpreted as “Impeding the progress of an opponent” which means “moving into the path of the opponent to obstruct, block, slow down or force a change of direction by an opponent when the ball is not within playing distance of either player.”
The Laws go on to clarify another factor, that “all players have a right to their position on the field of play, being in the way of an opponent is not the same as moving into the way of an opponent.” Rant’s emphasis, but the point is critical.
Or in other words, obstruction takes place only if the infringer moves into infringed’s path while the ball is unplayable – and not when ground is simply held rather than conceded. Under that interpretation it becomes far less clear that Herrera stepped across Harzard rather than holding his position, albeit one that the Belgian wanted to take at genuine pace. This is not a nuanced analysis that is likely to take place in the cauldron of Twitter, or the dumbed-down environment of a TV studio.
The debate about what constitutes persistent fouling allows for greater ambiguity still, with the aforementioned defunct USSF guidance suggesting that the whole team can be held guilty of persistence even if an individual player is not. FIFA’s Laws appear to contradict that assessment.
“Referees should be alert at all times to players who persistently infringe the Laws,” notes Law 12. “In particular, they must be aware that even if a player commits a number of different offences, he must still be cautioned for persistently infringing the Laws.” No mention of team guilt there, giving rise the question of whether Herrera’s two fouls on the night constitute persistence. United committed just 14 in total in what was a low foul count game.
There is no definition in Law 12, FIFA’s document holds that it remains at the referee’s discretion, albeit with the caveat that an official should, but does not have to, warn a player suspected of persistent fouling.
"The definition of persistent fouling allows for ambiguity, with the now defunct USSF guidance suggesting that the whole team can be held guilty of persistence even if an individual player is not. FIFA’s Laws offer a contradictory assessment."
Meanwhile, for Herrera’s second foul to have been awarded a yellow in its own right, it would have to meet the definition of reckless – that “the player has acted with complete disregard of the danger or consequences for his opponent.” The point is moot, but worth the note.
Predictably the managers took opposite sides of the argument, Chelsea’s Antonio Conte suggesting that “it was impossible” for Hazard to to play football. “I see only that he got a lot of kicks. I don’t think that I’m crazy and I see only him in this situation.” Hazard is the most fouled player in the Premier League this season, with United’s Paul Pogba not that far behind.
Meanwhile, Mourinho paid referee Oliver a wildly backhanded compliment, declaring the 32-year-old official to have “fantastic potential” – or as some pundits have pointed out in translation, a whistler not yet up to the job in the Portuguese manager’s opinion.
Amusingly, the controversy took an extra turn on Tuesday, with news that United defender Marcos Rojo would not face further sanction after he stepped on Hazard late in the game. Oliver confirmed in the aftermath that he had seen the incident and dealt with it on the field, presumably viewing it as accidental. All too predictably, in many circles, the referee was overnight transformed from hero to zero.
Then, in a late twist, the Football Association charged United with “failing to control their players” following Herrera’s dismissal. The Reds have until 6pm on 17 March to respond to the charge. It is likely to result in a fine to go alongside Herrera’s two match suspension. Mourinho will find laughter in neither. The Twitter community probably will.