“The referees feel left out in the cold.”


By Peter Vice @ViceytheSS

Bundesliga officiating found itself the unwelcome center-of-attention this week as three (and in some cases) match officials working fixtures on matchday six were delivered failing marks by major German footballing publications.

To add insult to injury, the German FA released a report on Wednesday singling out specific referees and the VAR teams supporting them for failing to properly handle handball penalties.

Legendary German referee Manuel Gräfe, himself no fan of the DFB after being forced into retirement last year, sat down with legendary footballing journalist Steffen Rohr of Kicker magazine for a discussion on the state-of-affairs.

Bulinews’ Peter Vice supplies a translation of the interview transcript.

Manuel Gräfe Steindy CC-BY-SA 3.0

On Wednesday, the German FA appeared to throw some of its own officiating teams under the bus with a scathing report detailing specific instances in which handball penalty calls were handled improperly. The timing of the report was no coincidence. Many German footballing circles were up in arms over the course of the week. The inconsistencies with respect to how handball calls have been judged to have offended German “fair play” sensibilities.
The intention of the DFB report was most certainly to address the issues stemming from the weekend in addition to placing a standard for interpreting the rule back in the public eye. The German FA also naturally wished to lay out a framework for precise instances in which the VAR teams operating in the country’s “Kölner Keller” should step in to compel officials operating on the pitch to take another look at a specific play.

Veteran German match official Manuel Gräfe, in an interview with Steffen Rohr of German footballing magazine Kicker, argued that the rule itself was sound. The 48-year-old insisted that the problem was proper referee training for more effective implementation. While saying that he effectively agreed with everything in Sippel’s report, Gräfe also expressed concern that there refereeing leadership hadn’t been allowed to come to a consensus on their own.

A translation of the interview transcript:

[Journalist] Tube: Mr. Gräfe, referee Benjamin Brand’s decision not to award a penalty after Leverkusen defender Odilon Kossounou’s handball in the closing stages of the match at Hertha BSC is still fueling controversy days later, even among the top referees.

DFB referee Lutz Wagner defended Brand’s decision, claiming he did not see any unnatural body position or intent on the part of the defender. Peter Sippel, the sporting director of Bundesliga referees, went public Wednesday with his assessment that there had been “an unnatural enlargement of the body’s surface and thus a punishable handball.” Which of the two is correct in your view?

[Subject] Gräfe: I assume that Lutz Wagner’s opinion, expressed on Sunday at the “Doppelpass” roundtable, reflects the consensus of the refereeing leadership. In this respect, it is very concerning that the opinion of the leadership apparently shifted after a few days and apparently due to external pressure.

On Monday, I described the penalty decisions in both Berlin games (Hertha against Leverkusen, Union in Cologne) as wrong, and on Monday evening, several Bundesliga administrators expressed the same opinion at their conference in the presence of referee boss Lutz Fröhlich and selected refs .

From my perspective and the perspective of many refs, the decisions were not only incomprehensible from a footballing standpoint, but also clearly wrong from a refereeing and technical perspective. I thus agree with Peter Sippel’s comments from a technical point-of-view, but it seems that the referee leadership was not permitted to come up with a consensus on its own.

Tube: Specifically on the case of Kossounou, how do you determine the legitimacy of an illegal handball in your view?

Gräfe: The defender actively stretched out his left arm [in an unnatural position], while also extending his right arm to block a ball under pressure. In my opinion, he wanted to cover the uncovered side of the goal a little bit [with both arms].

He tried to cleverly hide this handball, and unfortunately he succeeded. To then not decide on a penalty kick there was for me, as it was for Peter Sippel, a clear incorrect decision.

Tube: Sippel also stated, “Here the video assistant must intervene because of the clear images” [VAR leader] Matthias Jöllenbeck and Benjamin Brand were in contact, Brand said later: “The video assistant could not show me any new findings that would have contradicted my ruling on the pitch.” Would the VAR have to intervene more firmly in such a case?

Gräfe: The management furnished by Lutz Fröhlich and VAR project manager Jochen Drees has obviously not succeeded over the course of the last five years in teaching quite a few, mostly significantly younger, referees the essential basics of situational match analysis.

Although it is not the referees who are to blame for this, but their management. The unjustified red card on Matchday 1 against Schalke’s Dominick Drexler also revealed the fundamental problem in this regard. You have to look at the entire movement to arrive at a correct penalty decision and a correct classification of situations within a game.

This applies to handball rulings. In addition to the overall motion, you have to pay extra attention to individual frames to see if the player is doing it consciously or intentionally, because small movements can be decisive. If one had taken this into account in all three cases of the past weekend – Bremen, Hertha, Union – one would have immediately come to a different conclusion

In any event, the VAR protocols with respect to the basis of intervention must first be more clearly defined. Until now, Jochen Drees, as we’re currently observing almost every week, has obviously not properly communicated this to the referees.

Tube: There were grotesque handball decisions last Friday in Bremen and on Sunday in Cologne. What is the problem? The rulebook? The uncertainty of the referees? The different perceptions or interpretations?

Gräfe: The rules are not as complicated as people think. It’s about classifying situations correctly. Of course, that’s not always so easy on the pitch per se. At the very latest, after viewing the video images, a more uniform interpretation can be found.

In order to achieve this, the referees must be given the appropriate technical guidelines if they are not automatically able to do so due to a lack of experience or because of their understanding of football. There is a lack of appropriate assistance, as I am repeatedly told by referees and assistants. The referees feel left out in the cold.

Tube: Would you advocate, after several previous revisions, modifying the handball rule again?

Gräfe: No. The handball rule is not that complicated. Either the handball must be intentional or there must be an unnatural enlargement [of the body]. There may also be gray areas, but many scenes like the four mentioned by Peter Sippel were just not gray, but all respectively black or white. It must be possible for referees across the Bundesliga to call them out as such as classify them properly.

Tube: In the specific case of Kossounou, the shot by Hertha’s Jean-Paul Boëtius would have gone in for a goal without Kossounou’s handball. Preventing a goal with the hand is not enshrined in the current rule. Is that a loophole in the rulebook?

Gräfe: There are situations where there is really an unconscious, unintentional touching of the ball with the arm or the hand, which also in my opinion would really not be punishable in football. We all remember Fring’s handball on the goal line at the 2002 World Cup in the semifinal against Korea.

With the arm outstretched, the ball touched the arm – would a penalty kick and a red card make sense there? In my opinion not. I consider the criterion of the intention as decisive with the help of the unnatural enlargement, which must be really unnatural, as sufficient.

The sole matter of importance is that the scenes on the pitch or, at the latest, with the video images must be evaluated correctly.

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