As a referee, Felix Zwayer prefers games when he is not the main talking point. It worked in his favor last week, when the German official handled the friendly between France and Spain in which VAR–video assistant referees–were used for the first time. Spain won the game 2-0, but it could have been 1-1. VAR ruled out an Antoine Griezmann goal for France for offside and allowed Gerard Deulofeu’s goal, which an assistant referee had initially ruled out.
Sadly, Zwayer did not have the benefit of VAR Saturday when he took charge of the Bundesliga derby game between Schalke and Borussia Dortmund. The score was 1-1 and there was 91 minutes on the clock when Dortmund defender Marc Bartra’s attempted clearance flew up onto his own hand. Zwayer said no penalty, but Schalke’s players were furious. The club mascot, Erwin the lion, even ran onto the pitch at full time and showed Zwayer his own red card in disgust (he is likely to face disciplinary action).
This is not the first time the issue of a controversial handball scenario has come up in the Bundesliga this season. In February, Borussia Monchengladbach’s Lars Stindl scored a goal against Ingolstadt after the ball went from his chest to his hand before he struck it home. Again, no handball was given. “Stindl's goal was probably correct as well as incorrect,” wrote Christof Kneer in Suddeutsche Zeitung. “The referee’s decision to give the goal was just as wrong as it was right.”
The FIFA rules state that handball be awarded for the “deliberate act of making contact with the ball or hand.” The word deliberate can be interpreted many ways, all of which leave the referee needing to calculate intent. Other parameters to be considered include distance between ball and hand, and whether there is an unnatural hand movement toward the ball.
Borussia Dortmund coach Thomas Tuchel was honest enough to admit the Bartra decision could have gone against his team.
“We needed a bit of luck at the end, that the referee didn't blow for the handball,” he said.
His team, even without Marco Reus, Mario Gotze and Andre Schurrle, created more chances and should have had the result in hand before the incident took place.
The fact is, even the emergence of VAR will not be able to detect intent of players. In that respect, handball decisions will surely have to remain the realm of the referee; for the romantics, Rule 12 might be able to escape the onset of modern technology.