Astonishing Lionel Messi penalty decision another farcical Var intervention

Lionel Messi of Argentina is fouled by Wojciech Szczesny of Poland which leads to a penalty during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group C match between Poland and Argentina at Stadium 974 on November 30, 2022 in Doha, Qatar
Lionel Messi of Argentina is fouled by Wojciech Szczesny of Poland which leads to a penalty during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group C match between Poland and Argentina at Stadium 974 on November 30, 2022 in Doha, Qatar

The three most contentious penalty awards during this World Cup read as follows: two for Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal and one for Lionel Messi’s Argentina. It is almost as if there is an attempt to keep the two biggest names in the tournament.

Of course that is a tongue-in-cheek statement that belongs to conspiracy theorists, social media and those, if serious, who want to risk being sued for libel. It just cannot be true. But they were, let’s just say, odd.

Seriously, though, each of those decisions has given the use of the Var, already an acronym which fiercely divides opinion, a bad name. Or a worse one. It has not been a good World Cup for those strangely kitted people in their full refereeing uniforms, the same as those worn on the pitch in the video operations room.

The justification for that? Pierluigi Collina, who chairs Fifa’s referees committee, said it was because their stress levels were the same as those running the actual game in the stadium and therefore they sweat as much. Someone should be perspiring after the Messi decision.

Quite how Dutch official Pol van Boekel decided his countryman, and highly experienced referee Danny Makkelie, should go to the pitchside monitor after Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny had brushed a glove against Messi’s face as he tried to reach a cross and the forward headed the ball was astonishing. Quite how Makkelie concurred that it should be a penalty was even more stunning.

Soccer Football - FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 - Group C - Poland v Argentina - Stadium 974, Doha, Qatar - November 30, 2022 Poland's Matty Cash reacts after referee Danny Desmond Makkelie awards a penalty to Argentina - REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli
Soccer Football - FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 - Group C - Poland v Argentina - Stadium 974, Doha, Qatar - November 30, 2022 Poland's Matty Cash reacts after referee Danny Desmond Makkelie awards a penalty to Argentina - REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli

Justice was done when Szczesny flung himself to his left to turn away Messi’s spot-kick – and the Argentinian really does have a curiously poor penalty record (that was his 31st miss, more than any other player this century).

But Fifa has to examine what is going on. When Ronaldo went down under a challenge from Mohammed Salisu in Portugal’s opening group game against Ghana he was accused of diving. Instead the penalty was not only given and converted but led to an outrageous statement from Sunday Oliseh, a member of Fifa’s technical study group led by Arsene Wenger, that Ronaldo was a “total genius” for earning the spot-kick.

Really? Is that the kind of play that should not only be rewarded but encouraged? Messi did not try and con the referee but the question must be asked: was the official influenced because of who he is? The answer has to be no. But it really did look suspicious.

“The referee gave a penalty which was not a penalty – everyone saw that. Why? Because it’s Ronaldo or something?” alleged Ghana coach Otto Addo.

hana's defender #04 Mohammed Salisu fouls Portugal's forward #07 Cristiano Ronaldo in the area to commit a penalty during the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group H football match between Portugal and Ghana at Stadium 974 in Doha on November 24, 2022. - KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Image
hana's defender #04 Mohammed Salisu fouls Portugal's forward #07 Cristiano Ronaldo in the area to commit a penalty during the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group H football match between Portugal and Ghana at Stadium 974 in Doha on November 24, 2022. - KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Image

Ronaldo was off the pitch, substituted, when Portugal were awarded a penalty, against Uruguay’s Jose Gimenez which was another remarkable decision. The defender slid in to try and block and fell backwards with his arm naturally dropping behind him but somehow it was deemed handball even though it went against the official guidance.

Makkelie is regarded as one of the best referees in the game but has courted controversy in the past – to England’s benefit after awarding the controversial penalty from which they eventually scored in the Euro 2020 semi-final win over Denmark.

It happens – even if the incident involving Raheem Sterling was more arguable but Fifa has to examine what is going on at present. There was surely no-one, beyond the most fervent Argentinian fan, who could justifiably claim that what happened with Messi justified awarding a penalty?

It was not a good day for Var.

There was further controversy with allegations that ruling out Antoine Griezmann’s equaliser against Tunisia for offside was in contravention of Fifa rules which state a goal cannot be disallowed after a kick-off has been taken. Luckily, like Messi’s penalty, it did not affect who went through from the groups although Uruguay and Ghana may still be left to think otherwise.

There is no doubt that Argentina deserved to win – Poland barely threatened - and had Messi scored from the spot then the margin of victory would not have flattered them. But it would have been even more shocking.

The referee's verdict: Makkelie's error could cost him final spot

Referee Danny Makkelie reacts during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group C match between Poland and Argentina at Stadium 974 on November 30, 2022 in Doha, Qatar - Michael Regan - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Image
Referee Danny Makkelie reacts during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group C match between Poland and Argentina at Stadium 974 on November 30, 2022 in Doha, Qatar - Michael Regan - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Image

By Keith Hackett, former Premier League referee

I am amazed that a referee who is a strong contender to take charge of the World Cup final could have come up with such a poor decision as the one that gave Argentina their first-half penalty.

Danny Makkelie has been a Fifa listed referee since 2011 and the 39-year-old Dutchman has impressed in many of the high-profile games at which he has officiated, including earlier group games at these finals.

However. I believe this controversy might well have cost him the chance of being appointed for the final on December 18.

His initial inclination was that Wojciech Szczesny had fairly attempted to flick away a cross as Argentina's Lionel Messi ran in for a header and had seen no foul. Such a move by Szczesny is part and parcel of being a goalkeeper.

You can see Makkelie had been put under pressure by Var to go over to the pitchside monitor and it was inevitable he would change his mind.

But it was patently the wrong call.

Justice was served when Messi's spot kick was saved. That may have got Makkelie out of jail but it has probably cost him the final too.