Who knows how many hours Manchester United’s technical staff spent laying their plans to upset Manchester City in the FA Cup final. Erik ten Hag and his analysts would have looked at every detail: where and how to press the build-up, how to stop Rodri and John Stones dominating midfield, how to cut off the supply to Erling Haaland, and what United could do to create chances when they did win the ball.
Maybe next time they’ll just tell the players to go out there and have fun. United’s plan disintegrated instantly on contact with reality. A kick-off by City’s captain Ilkay Gundogan, a long ball by the goalkeeper Stefan Ortega, a flick on by Haaland, an attempted clearance by Victor Lindelof deflected off Kevin De Bruyne, and an almost comical flourish of brilliance by Gundogan to volley into the top corner. City were 1-0 up after 12 seconds, before 17 out of the 22 players had even touched the ball.
The stunning start seemed to confirm the prematch fears of many United supporters that their team’s defeat was inevitable. In the end, at least they kept it respectable, 2-1 being an acceptable margin of defeat considering City had better players in every position. United even hit the bar in a desperate late flurry that could have sent the game to extra time.
But despite that scare, the onlooker most relieved to hear the full-time whistle was probably not Guardiola, nor any of his staff or players. More likely it was PGMOL supremo Howard Webb, whose referees had kept United’s chances on life support throughout the first half by giving a series of big decisions in their favour.
The Jack Grealish handball with which United won the chance to equalise from the penalty spot was technically a penalty according to the current version of the ever-changing yet somehow still ever-stupid rules. The Casemiro studs-up foul on Manuel Akanji could certainly have been a red card – you’ve seen them given – yet it was no surprise to see it ignored in the spirit of “let it flow”.
But the decision not to give City a penalty when Fred cynically tripped De Bruyne to stop him running on to a cutback in front of United’s goal was – to put it generously – inexplicable. Luckily for the officials, City’s eventual victory prevented it from becoming infamous.
Webb had already been dealing with more than enough refereeing blowback for one week. On Thursday, Anthony Taylor, who had refereed Wednesday night’s Europa League final, was harassed by Roma fans as he passed through Budapest airport. In the videos you could see the fear in Taylor’s eyes as he and his wife tried to get through security while angry fans hurled abuse, drinks and even a chair.
The obvious person to blame was the coach of Roma, José Mourinho, who had been filmed after the game skulking in the car park, waiting for Taylor, whom he greeted with insults including “f***ing disgrace” and “f***ing crooks”. It was reasonable to conclude that the airport fans were following their leader’s example.
Mourinho has persecuted referees his whole career (it’s nearly 20 years since he hounded Anders Frisk out of the game) and he bears as much responsibility as any individual for the malignant culture of ref-baiting. Uefa have charged him and they should throw the book at him.
But pinning the responsibility on the bad behaviour of individuals lets a crucial systemic factor off the hook. The introduction of VAR was supposed to take pressure off referees. Instead, it has made them more central and put them under more pressure than ever.
This destructive process is working in at least two ways. First, referees are now called on to adjudicate in various micro-situations that previously did not cross the threshold of noticeability. Grealish’s accidental handball in the FA Cup final is one example. Rui Patricio’s little step off the line before saving Gonzalo Montiel’s first effort in the Europa League final is another. It’s been technically illegal for goalkeepers to move off their line at penalties since 1905, but in practice the rule was hardly ever enforced before the introduction of VAR meant it could be reliably policed. (If you want a reminder of how things used to be, look at Liverpool’s Jerzy Dudek practically charging Milan’s penalty takers in the 2005 Champions League final shoot-out.)
If the warping of the game by VAR forcing officials to punish micro-offences with inappropriately harsh sanctions is annoying and feels like a backward step, the second problem has more serious consequences.
We know now that referees will continue to make wrong decisions even when they have the opportunity to review video footage. Fred’s unpunished trip on De Bruyne in the Cup final is an example. Relatedly, referees punish some obvious offences while ignoring other, similar ones, apparently at random. Examples in this category are Casemiro’s foul on Akanji, and Fernando’s unpunished handball for Sevilla in the Europa League final.
Why do they do this? The answer is the same as it ever was: they make mistakes. Pre-VAR, though, mistakes could always credibly be explained by the fact the referee had an imperfect view. Post-VAR, officials have to appear to ignore or misinterpret video evidence to produce their “mistakes”. Good luck persuading people that this can all be explained by incompetence when the alternative explanation – conspiracy and corruption – feels so much more compelling.
Paranoia comes naturally when the sport’s commanding heights are overshadowed by scandal. This is the season of 115 charges against Manchester City, the Negreira scandal in Barcelona, more cooking of the books at Juventus, and the Qatar World Cup. If fans seem increasingly inclined to see crooked influences at work everywhere they look, maybe they’ve just been paying attention.