Checking ‘Collina’s heirs’: Why Jude Bellingham got away without being sent off

This time, too, the referee is in discussion after the top game between BVB and Bayern. The focus is on an unsuccessful sending off for Jude Bellingham. Deniz Aytekin shows understanding for his critics.

How much discussion about the referee after the final whistle of a game naturally depends not least on whether, from the point of view of the teams involved, the referee has had a significant influence on the course and outcome of the game in question. In the games between Borussia Dortmund and FC Bayern Munich in recent years, BVB has regularly complained publicly about the decisions of the referees after a defeat. For example last season, when the referees Felix Zwayer and Daniel Siebert from the Dortmund camp were criticized for refusing to give the black and yellow a penalty kick in the first and second leg.

Alphonso Davies suffered a contusion on his skull when Bellingham kicked him.

(Photo: IMAGO/Chai vd Laage)

On Saturday evening, after the end of the match in the Dortmund stadium, hardly anyone would have said anything negative about referee Deniz Aytekin if Anthony Modeste had not managed to equalize for the hosts to make it 2-2 in the last second. This time, however, it was the disappointed Bavarians who spoke of a scene just before half-time, in which Jude Bellingham, fighting for the ball, had hit his opponent Alphonso Davies in the head with the toe of his shoe without being given a personal penalty to be. Not only in the opinion of Munich coach Julian Nagelsmann, Bellingham, who had already been warned, deserved at least the yellow card, which would have meant yellow-red and thus a majority for the record champions.

Aytekin himself explained in detail why he had waived the dismissal. In an interview with the Sky broadcaster, he said that the warning against Bellingham after 13 minutes came in the hectic initial phase of the match after two Munich players, Marcel Sabitzer and Mathijs de Ligt, had already received a yellow card after foul games. The sanction was primarily intended to calm the game and was an optional, but not a mandatory decision. With this background, shortly before the break, he “lacked the last conviction” to show yellow-red and thus possibly intervene decisively in the game. The referee saw a degree of discretion given that Davies approached Bellingham from behind and with his head slightly lowered. In other words, the Dortmunder couldn’t see the opponent and didn’t have to expect that he would hit him in the head.

“Looked at in isolation, it’s a yellow card”

In the show “Doppelpass” Aytekin explained: “If you look at this scene in isolation and without emotions, then it’s a yellow card. But we referees are always expected to have a certain empathy and a feeling for the situation.” Bellingham didn’t hit Davies on purpose, “and then, as a referee, you tend to think: do I still have some leeway to use it?” According to the referee, there was this minimal leeway, but perhaps he also showed “a bit too much empathy” in this situation. He understands every Bayern fan who says it’s a yellow card.

What Deniz Aytekin was addressing was the tension between the rules and their interpretation, the context of the game and the referee’s general conduct of the game and his tactical use of discretionary powers. A game management is more than the sum of the individual decisions, which also have to come together to form a whole, a line that fits the game character. Even a referee has a match plan, especially in a big game like this, the importance of which is already outstanding due to the worldwide attention – and which has written its own stories in the recent past, in which the referees also unintentionally played a leading role.

Why Aytekin changed his line

With the 44-year-old Aytekin, one of the undisputed best, most popular and most experienced referees in the country officiated this always explosive clash. Aytekin’s great strength lies in his personality, he likes to solve conflicts – and usually very successfully – with communication instead of cards. And he is a game master who not only decides technically, but also always aligns his discretion, as far as it is technically possible, with what the game requires and what is therefore useful to him. In Dortmund, however, Aytekin showed the first yellow card after a minute and a half, after less than a quarter of an hour three players were already cautioned. That’s unusual.

It was obvious that the third yellow card, the one for Bellingham, arose more from the referee’s tactical considerations of using the first halfway suitable opportunity to get the balance after two warnings against Bayern players. But Bellingham mainly played the ball in a duel with Jamal Musiala, and Musiala’s fall looked worse than the BVB pro’s entry. Aytekin had bought the balance with too strict a standard, which posed the risk of an unnecessary flood of cards. The referee then moved away from it, otherwise he would have had to warn Leon Goretzka in the 22nd minute for his foul play on Niklas Süle. And finally, Bellingham also benefited from Aytekin’s now generous line on personal penalties.

From a technical point of view, the discretion for the referee after Bellingham’s foul on Davies – in which he recognized an advantage because the Munich team had a promising opportunity to attack – was actually minimal. Julian Nagelsmann was wrong when he said pre-season training taught that any foot hit in the face of an opponent would result in a red card. Instead, two scenes from last season’s UEFA competitions were used to show the Bundesliga clubs the difference between when such a goal leads to a sending off and when only to a warning. Red, for example, if the foot hits the head frontally with the open sole, only yellow results if the opponent was not in the field of vision and a hit with the instep occurs.

Conducive to the game, but difficult to justify in terms of rules

But measured against these reference scenes, the Bayern coach had at least one point that a personal punishment would have been appropriate. At the same time, even in the Bayern camp, there was a voice that could understand Aytekin’s decision not to end Jude Bellingham’s assignment prematurely: “To be honest, I’m a little bit with the referee and I understand that he didn’t want to leave the stadium for good wanted to bring cooking,” said former CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. It’s also possible that Aytekin had the Dortmund reactions after the games against Bayern in the back of his mind a little in the past few years. In the event of a yellow-red for Bellingham, BVB would certainly have complained about the first warning in the event of a defeat and complained about another significant disadvantage from the referee.

This first yellow card for Bellingham – primarily motivated by the referee’s tactics, but ultimately exaggerated – created the problem that was discussed after the final whistle. Aytekin tried to fix it later by doing without yellow-red – which was actually balanced and helpful in the addition of both scenes, but was difficult to justify in terms of rules.

In the second half, the penalty matched the game better, it was more conclusive, even with yellow-red against Kingsley Coman in the 90th minute after the second crystal clear tactical foul – here the referee definitely had no choice. Leroy Sané’s light kick while falling against Karim Adeyemi’s chest, who had previously fouled the Munich player, should not be assessed as assault and, like Adeyemi’s offense, only be punished with a warning, was also appropriate.

After the change of sides, Deniz Aytekin was also able to better exploit his greatest strength, the game management through personality and communication. And if Modeste hadn’t scored the late equalizer, the impartial would probably not have been an issue. It is all the more to his credit that he – once again – faced media inquiries and openly explained why he made the decisions he did in the most controversial of situations. He also provided insights into the tactical considerations of a referee, which should be far more widespread. If only because the match management of the referees can be better understood.

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