Sports

LaLiga’s refereeing hits low point: Ridiculous red cards, confusing calls

After a few days of some truly horrible refereeing decisions in LaLiga, let me start by asking you: did you know that a leading referee like Antonio Mateu Lahoz could easily earn more than €400,000 per season?

What’s your view? Chump change or more than your gross in 10 years? Enough remuneration to make refs more accountable than they are right now? Perhaps you believe that when we require our refs (usually between 10 and 20 years older than the elite athletes they have to keep up with) to suffer the spotlight of patrolling the world’s favourite sport and to keep the multibillion-pound industry going, they deserve that level of incentive-reward? Or even more? Fine, if that’s your point of view.

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Lahoz’s colleagues have badly besmirched the reputation of Spanish top-flight refereeing over the weekend — namely Alejandro Hernandez Hernandez and (VAR) Jaime Latre at the Bernabeu; Xavier Estrada Fernandez (VAR) at Valladolid; Ricardo De Burgos Bengoetxea at Villarreal; plus Juan Martinez Munuera and (VAR) Jose Luis Gonzalez Gonzalez at Camp Nou. Even though they won’t earn quite so stratospherically (their average earnings in a season will be €220,000-€300,000), they and all their colleagues owe us, and LaLiga’s footballers, much more common sense, much more personality and much greater understanding.

Here are some of the ridiculous refereeing aberrations over the past five days.

During Real Betis vs. Cadiz, Sergio Canales received his first red card over a nearly 500-match senior career after a “spat” with Mateu Lahoz where both men look childish … followed by Valladolid’s 1-0 win over Real Sociedad where VAR disallowed three goals — each of which the on-pitch team originally thought were fine, and where perhaps only one intervention met the original criterion of a “clear and obvious” mistake.

We also saw three brutal attacks on ball-players (Montiel and Papu Gomez for Sevilla on Vinicius and Fede Valverde, then Dani Garcia on Gavi) that were textbook straight red cards, but only the first two were even judged to be worth bookings. (By the way, don’t take my word for it. Go and seek these incidents out for yourself by streaming the replays on ESPN+ in the U.S.: minutes 30 and 94 at the Bernabeu, then minute 27 at Camp Nou).

All abject decision-making by the referees on each occasion, but still worse failures to act by VAR each time. None of the three players who perpetrated the thuggery now suffer suspension, or punishment, but two of the victims, Gavi and Valverde, will miss playing time for their clubs as a direct result. Does that make sense to you? Is this, after endless referee training and supervision, law-tinkering and VAR introduction, genuinely all that we, spectators, media, players and managers, can aspire to? I think not.

The piece de resistance came when Villarreal beat Almeria on Sunday night. It was a deeply emotive occasion. Villarreal’s legendary vice president, Jose Manuel Llaneza, had just died after a year suffering from leukaemia. Aside from being a sparkling, kind, sage man he was fundamental in the 25-year rise of the Yellow Submarine from a third-division side playing in a tiny, dilapidated stadium and training in public parks to a European-trophy winning, double-Champions League semifinal club.

His death, only a couple of days before the game, was the main subject prematch. There was a small ceremony to honour him before kick-off and everyone at the club had promised that playing, hopefully winning, would be dedicated to Llaneza’s memory. Trailing 1-0, the Yellow Submarine equalised via a terrific header from Alex Baena.

The young midfielder, who’d already been booked, lifted up his shirt, tucking part of it behind his neck, in order to show a T-shirt message which read: “Thanks for everything Llaneza.” De Burgos Bengoetxea yellow-carded him for the action, sent him off, and then furiously and stubbornly motioned to protesting players that he was in the right. It was a disgusting lack of common sense (a theme here).

The instructions to Spanish referees state that players shouldn’t waste time in choreographed goal celebrations which include taking their playing shirt off or covering their head with their shirt. Neither of which Baena did. Displaying such a message, if Villarreal scored, was something which De Burgos Bengoetxea should, unquestionably, have anticipated. And, if he intended to be so harsh about the displaying of any Llaneza tribute after a goal, he owed it to Villarreal to have gone to their dressing room prematch to warn them.

It’s a tactic that most refs, average or great, apply: going into each dressing room, after the warm-ups, to inform teams that while the basic FIFA laws don’t change, every official nevertheless has things he’ll be more or less strict about: dissent, time wasting, obstruction, playing advantage — take your pick. It’s the beginning of the awareness between players and refs which can lead to a better, more flowing, less controversial match. It’s common sense.

But, even though the Basque ref chose not to do this (or failed to anticipate it), Baena’s actions didn’t strictly contravene the laws. No excessive time-wasting, no shirt off, no covering of the head — De Burgos could have let it take place for three to four seconds, added the time to his watch, and chivvied Baena into readiness for the restart. He only had to show common sense, restraint and personality.

Ditto Mateu Lahoz when he sent off Canales. The circumstances were truly bizarre. Betis were drawing 0-0 at home to Cadiz in the 98th minute. As the away side prepared to take a throw-in: Canales spoke to Lahoz; the referee pointed to his watch and, 16 seconds later, Betis’ exceptional 31-year-old midfielder had been shown two yellow cards and was trudging off the pitch.

Radio station Cadena SER report that Canales said: “You could add another minute or so to the clock!” Lahoz booked him and allegedly added: “If you keep talking to me I’ll send you off!” Canales, Betis’ captain and, thus, with every right to make a few non-abusive dialogue remarks to any ref, particularly the idiosyncratic Lahoz, is reported to have said: “If I’m not allowed to speak then don’t you ask me about my personal matters anymore.”

Lahoz is infamous for this. He believes it helps him ref well if, during a match, he can ask Gerard Pique how his kids are, Malaga defender Weligton whether he’s opened his new bar-cafe yet or tell Kevin De Bruyne during the 2021 Champions League final to “say hello to your folks from me!” Mateu has never met the Belgian’s parents but he’d read how important they’d been to the City midfielder and wanted to “connect” with him by saying that. He’s odd: extremely idiosyncratic, but usually pretty good at his job. Just as in 2018, he’s the only LaLiga official chosen to ref at the upcoming World Cup.

Anyway, you only need the evidence of your own eyes (please go and look at the incident — you can stream the reply on ESPN+ in the U.S.) to conclude that Lahoz took offence, stood on his dignity and used temper, not good judgement, to red-card Canales. After the first booking, Lahoz actually waves for the Almeria throw-in to be taken, but does a kind of double-take, as if suddenly deciding that Canales’ reply has stung his pride, ignores the play and waves the second yellow with a pompous “take THAT!” flourish. It looks like a tit-for-tat gesture.

Canales was suspended, missed Betis’ subsequent 1-2 defeat to Atletico Madrid, meaning his punishment vastly outstripped anything he did or said. After the midweek match, Lahoz’s report didn’t say Canales had been abusive, sworn, or had even protested — simply noting he’d made “observations.” Pathetic.

Meanwhile, the trouble with Xavier Estrada Fernandez’s work (as VAR official on Valladolid 1-0 Real Sociedad, for which he’ll be paid €2,100) was that he continued the trend for VAR to re-referee anything of potential consequence rather than the original criterion of reviewing/correcting “clear and obvious” errors.

Fans and players were robbed of three goals. And while the video review properly identified two previous fouls and an offside perhaps, only the latter came close to the “clear and obvious” category. When will international refereeing formally announce that, whenever a goal is scored, VAR must now review anything which might cause them embarrassment rather look at a split-second decision missed by the refereeing team but which was a clear and obvious error? The criteria for when VAR is used have changed and we deserve honesty and clarity about it.

As for what I consider assaults by Papu and Montiel on Vinicius and Valverde, and also Garcia on Gavi, I dare anyone (other than the VAR officials on the night) to watch them again and not conclude there was serious foul play. The FIFA laws say that: “A tackle or challenge that endangers the safety of an opponent or uses excessive force or brutality must be sanctioned as serious foul play.”

Referees are under pressure, highly skilled, very fit and… essential. But their principal tasks are not to protect one another, to show a player who’s boss or to hide behind the current wall of silence postmatch — not given the importance of their work to the health of the industry, not given the vast salaries they now command. Not given the fact that it’s the well-being of the players, the quality of the entertainment and the enjoyment of the fans that they’re employed to ensure.

They are, to all intents and purposes, our employees. And we deserve better standards of wisdom, common sense and honesty about errors.

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