The 9-Minute Delay in Leverkusen — The Ref got it Right

By now, news of what happened during the Bayer Leverkusen-Borussia Dortmund match has reached well beyond the borders of the footballing world into the greater realm of general sports interest. Even in the football (a.k.a. “soccer”)-averse United States, the match has managed to make the list of “Top Headlines” on ESPN.com, which has probably never once listed a Bundesliga match result among their biggest news items at any given moment.

And, to be fair, they still haven’t. The score does get a mention, but there is otherwise almost nothing about the importance of the contest to the league standings or anything else Bundesliga-related.

Sidebar: By the way, my fellow Americans, this particular match was a highly anticipated battle between two of the league’s top teams with the visitors winning an otherwise dull 0:1 . . . and I know that some of you are thinking, “Big surprise! A ‘dull’ soccer game!” All I can say to that is that you continue to have this sport wrong.

Despite the relatively low profile of German football/soccer among US sports fans, the clickbait-appeal of a headline like “Leverkusen-BVB halted over boss dismissal” is simply too much to resist, even if the story ranks in importance below news of a car race, reports of a baseball player allegedly being ordered by his employer to lose weight, and multiple entries from that vaunted staple of American sports journalism and culture: athletes running afoul of the law.

Felix Zwayer taking his crew off the pitch.
Felix Zwayer taking his crew off the pitch.

Even while two of the world’s most-popular football clubs — English titans Chelsea and Manchester City — met in the fifth round of the English FA’s most-prominent cup competition, it was another staple of sports that pushed the Bundesliga into the perception of the wider sports world: a general contempt of sports officials.

But this writer, who has been privileged enough to train and work as an official in a variety of sports and levels of competition, is not here to join in the chorus of armchair experts who are critical of what Felix Zwayer did or did not do Sunday in Leverkusen.

Instead, I am here to sing his praises and defend his actions.

Officials are generally discouraged from discussing particulars of their decisions and pretty much never engage in a debate over them. This silence, in fact, is often the policy of sports officials’ governing bodies.

As a non-employee of the DFB or its officiating union, however, I am bound by no such requirements. And though “soccer” is not one of the sports I’ve officiated, I have noticed there are some basic truths that run through the officiating side of any and all sport types, leading me to believe it’s fair game for me to represent Herr Zwayer’s actions in this matter.

At the very least, my perspective is likely a lot closer to his than that of those who’ve never taken the field with a whistle in hand.

Hence, Felix Zwayer, I salute you!

The Disputed Play

This part of the controversy can be put to bed fairly easily, I should think, unless you’re wearing your Bayer Pharmaceutical-supplied horse blinders.

The foul preceding Borussia Dortmund’s go-ahead goal was rightly called on Stefan Kießling. That’s no longer in dispute by anyone, I believe.

Any remaining question seems to regard whether Dortmund’s immediate putting of the ball back into play a few yards in advance of the foul spot was completely kosher.

I think we can all agree that it is rare that a free kick or throw-in is taken from the precise spot where a foul occurred, so the objection seems a bit disingenuous. Kießling undoubtedly wanted to hinder the counterattack by impeding Matthias Ginter after dribbling the ball directly into the young Dortmund defender’s feet. Allowing the quick restart from a spot in advance of the foul is akin to allowing advantage to be played when the fouled player or team remains in possession.

This decision is always at the discretion of the referee, which allows for interpretation, of course. Hopefully nobody coaching at any level would excuse their defenders because the free kick taken about three-quarters the length of the field away from the goal was five meters advanced of the foul spot. As you get closer to the goal under attack, you can start being a bit more finicky about placement, but from anywhere in the opposite half, you’re looking for a scapegoat.

Hence Zwayer is not the scapegoat for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s goal.

The Dismissal, the Petulance, and the Suspension

However as Zwayer became aware of “unsporting conduct” happening in the Leverkusen bench area, he acted fairly quickly and decisively. The referee listened to team captain Kießling’s argument near the center circle before wheeling around to address Schmidt with a gesture familiar to anyone who’s watched much Bundesliga football – one that means, “You may now go sit among the fans, because you’re barred from the touchline.”

Leverkusen coach Roger Schmidt undoubtedly knew immediately he was ejected from the game. There is no question he understood at least this much.

Feet planted, Schmidt just shook his head “no” before gesturing to the referee that he wanted Zwayer to come over to the bench area. Schmidt could be heard on the match broadcast asking the fourth official, “Why should I go up there? Why?! Why?!”

“I wanted an explanation,” said Schmidt after the match.

Let’s go ahead and clear something up right away. The percentage of match ejections in which a player or coach genuinely is ignorant of the reason for their ejection hovers somewhere near zero.

However much Schmidt repeats he was looking for that explanation, what the coach actually wanted was an opportunity to bark at Zwayer about the play preceding the goal. If the situation had been reversed, with Leverkusen re-launching their counterattack a few meters in advance of the foul spot, is there any chance Schmidt would have even wondered how his players were allowed to get away with that, much less saved it as a question for after the match?

“Excuse me, fellas. I’m just curious about that one foul preceding our goal, why didn’t you make us move the ball back a few meters before resuming play?”

Schmidt may not admit it, but Zwayer was well aware that the only result of going over to Schmidt would be an exacerbated continuation of whatever behavior preceded the ejection. Hence, he instead used Kießling’s function as team captain to re-deliver the directive to Schmidt.

Officials are trained to minimize conflict. A sporting contest, especially at the professional levels with so much at stake, is naturally full of emotion. It is the task of the official to stay away from emotions, entirely, in order to be a fair adjudicator. It is the emotions of the players, coaches, and fans that make it seem at any moment that the official has chosen a side in a matter, rather than officiating from an impartial stance.

Sending Kießling to Schmidt was likely meant to avoid an escalation of the conflict, and only Schmidt can be faulted for allowing it to instead inspire what followed. Without pretending to be a lip reader or even insisting that the audio was entirely clear, I feel fairly confident that what Schmidt said in response to whatever message Kießling delivered was, “Dann soll er abbrechen.” (Then he should suspend (play).)

Schmidt seemed to think he was calling Zwayer’s bluff, with the problem being that Zwayer was not remotely bluffing. Even recreational league officials know that one tool in their arsenal to gain compliance from a resistant coach is the suspension of play. We all are well-trained in ignoring the abuse that is continually rained down on us from everyone other than our own peers, but when insubordination threatens to completely undermine the authority necessary to be responsible for the game, we must act accordingly.

This is one reason why I object to Deadspin’s characterization of Zwayer as a “fed-up ref” in their reporting on the incident (which I am intentionally NOT linking to, as they do not deserve the extra traffic for it). Improper reporting of the incident will lead to people getting the impression that a referee was reacting to his own emotions in suspending the match, when the fact is that Zwayer was clearly in complete control of himself and the situation.

As an official, I absolutely admire the way Zwayer decisively acted throughout the entire scene. In my time officiating, I’ve only once ever threatened to suspend a game and fortunately did not have that non-bluff called. That’s easy enough to do at the YMCA when quieting some adults who are distracting their nine-year-old kids from enjoying some stress free basketball, but to do it in a semi-packed stadium during an internationally televised contest?! That takes a whole other level of self-assuredness.

The Fallout

After the match, Leverkusen sporting director Rudi Völler gave an immediately legendary interview in which he raged against Zwayer.

“To interrupt the game and bring such chaos into the situation was completely unnecessary,” said the footballing legend. “To act as if something very bad had occurred is a complete overreaction.”

Ironically, this is precisely what Schmidt’s employer should have saved for the discussion with his coach, rather than for a public attempt at shaming the referee. Even considering the average fan’s tendency to side against referees, this incident remarkably is largely casting a negative light on Schmidt and Bayer Leverkusen.

Largely, but not entirely.

Fox Sports’ Ian Paul Joy, a former player who is currently a studio personality for Fox’s Bundesliga broadcasts, did not hold back whatsoever in evaluating what happened. inferring that Zwayer was an “idiot.”

Joy was not alone. Many people have lobbed the tired old chestnut of “he’s making himself the center of attention” toward Zwayer in explaining his actions.

And I can admit that even I, someone who understands the difficult nature of an official’s job, have had similarly unkind thoughts toward the impartial judges of a game in which I am very partial toward one of the contenders.

We officials have a tired old chestnut of our own, though, which goes, “if the game ends with nobody noticing we are there, we have done a great job.” The problem with that bit of “wisdom” is that it relies not only on the officials, but also the players and coaches. In a sport where simulating contact is a widely practiced tactic, the deck is completely stacked against the officials. To get every decision right over the course of 90 minutes, a little bit of luck is needed in addition to all the training, focus, physical effort, and rapid mental processing.

And even in that impossible case where the officials scored 100% on their decisions, there would be complaints. That’s the nature of the beast. Zwayer knows that the average fan will not blame Schmidt for his petulant refusal to comply with an order to leave. He also knows that Völler will get more praise for his Donald Trump-like post-match ranting than he will have detractors who regard him as an embarrassment.

Zwayer knows that the word “villain” is somehow implied in his job description when it comes to public perception. All officials know this and yet continue their pursuit. Don’t believe it? Ask yourself why you’re not officiating youth sports yourself. Even if you don’t personally vilify referees, you can’t be unaware of the unending string of news reports in which officials have been physically and verbally abused at all levels, including in front of our youngest participants.

The Handball

If I didn’t discuss the clearly missed handball later in the match that should have put Leverkusen at the penalty spot for a chance at an equalizer, the backlash charges of my bias would be even greater than what they’re bound to be.

Quite simply: Zwayer and crew missed the Sokratis handball.

They didn’t see it clearly and then intentionally not award it to spite the Leverkuseners, as was suggested by Völler directly after the match ended. They simply missed it.

It’s impossible to know the mind of a person, of course, and you’ll assume I am siding with the official based on my connection to the vocation. While this may be true, too, I’m also siding with simple reason. If Felix Zwayer were the sort of person and official who would allow the emotions of such a conflict to color his judgment, it would have been found out well before now and prevented him from becoming a professional official.

It’s that simple, and if you don’t believe that, there’s no amount of explaining that will bring you closer to the light. I’d offer that what you’re probably thinking that you, if put in that position, would indeed leverage your authority to exact revenge over such slights. Hence, it seems logical that anyone/everyone would do the same thing.

All I can say is that the difference is also the reason why I continue to work games and you continue to only watch.

Sorry?

via GIPHY

Finally . . . A Tribute

Herr Zwayer, there will doubtlessly be many who think you to have been the problem in this situation, but as a brother in the worldwide fraternity of people who’ve answered the call to officiate, let me be one of the public dissenters.

I could not be more in awe of how you managed the situation.

And the next time you miss a clear penalty that should have gone in favor of the 1. FC Köln, I will still curse your name at the moment. I may even tweet some complaint. Just know that it’s that same ol’ emotional reaction as someone partial and that I always come back to reason when I remember just how damned difficult your job is even with kids not one-tenth as fast, strong, or cunning as the athletes you are observing.

I know you don’t need public appreciation to continue in your avocation, but allow me to offer it anyhow.

Editors Note: Earlier this month, the DFL announced that it will apply to FIFA for the permission to participate in a two-year test phase program to use video replay for assistance in making decisions during Bundesliga matches 

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Randall Hauk is a freelance writer living in the United States while covering German football. He is currently the publisher of Planet Effzeh, an English-language site covering 1. FC Köln. He wrote about the German national team for the Telegraph as part of their World Cup Nation coverage.