The penalty given in the early stages of the Champions League fixture between Manchester City and Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday night has been hailed as amongst the “worst penalty decision[s] ever” by the BBC. Since there was no VAR and the fourth official appeared silent on the issue, the penalty stood and Gabriel Jesus put City up 2-0.
Aside from the “meme-ageddon” that has followed, Sterling has received criticism from his harshest critics who have claimed that he should have been more forceful in explaining to the referee what had actually happened. Others have highlighted the fact that he did not seek to claim a penalty in any way and that the referee immediately awarded the penalty when he went to ground.
What is the law and would any protestations have made a difference anyway?
Law 5 of The International Football Association Board’s (“IFAB”) Laws of the Game concerns the referee, with subsection 2 dealing specifically with ‘Decisions of the Referee’.
“The referee may not change a decision on realising that it is incorrect or on the advice of another match official if play has restarted or the referee has signalled the end of the first or second half (including extra time) and left the field of play or terminated the match.”
Law 8 governs the ‘Start and Restart of Play’:
“Free kicks (direct or indirect), penalty kicks, throw-ins, goal kicks and corner kicks are other restarts (see Laws 13–17).”
Pursuant to Law 14 ‘The Penalty Kick’:
“[t]he ball is in play when it is kicked and clearly moves.”
The above would suggest that the referee is at liberty to change his decision, even if he has awarded a penalty and VAR is not available.
However, Law 14 goes on to say, under subsection 2:
“[o]nce the referee has signalled for a penalty kick to be taken, the kick must be taken.”
The referee cannot overturn his decision, once he has signalled for the penalty to be taken which is a step beyond awarding the penalty kick itself. Before this point, the referee is at liberty to change his mind.
History provides us with some examples.
One recalls the famous Arsenal – Liverpool game in 1997 in which Robbie Fowler through on goal, jumped over David Seaman, was not touched by the England goalie, but ended up on the floor. Gerald Ashby gave the penalty, Fowler protested and told him that it was not a penalty, but it was given in any event. Despite his protestations, Fowler recalls that he “didn’t miss the penalty on purpose, it was just a bad penalty but they all are when you don’t score them”. It didn’t matter, as Jason McAteer scored the rebound.
Another more obscure example comes from the German Bundesliga in 2014 during a relegation battle between Werder Bremen and Nurnberg. Aaron Hunt dived in the box and was awarded a penalty by the referee Mr Manuel Graefe. Hunt saw the error of his ways, recanted and the referee bravely overturned his decision.
Of course, Gabriel Jesus, the man tasked with taking the spot kick, could have missed the penalty on purpose, an approach adopted by then Danish captain Morten Wieghorst in a 2003 Carlsberg Cup match between Denmark and Iran.
In summary, it would have taken a very brave referee to overturn a decision purely on the basis of a player’s admission. Taken to its utmost extreme, a scenario could arise whereby a player implores the referee to overturn a decision because of external pressures put on them, such as in a match fixing type scenario.
Had the referee had some guidance from his fourth official, things could have been different, but it is doubtful whether anything Sterling would have said would have had any impact on the decision.