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My Comprehensive Thoughts on Zwayer-Gate

Felix Zwayer’s performance in Der Klassiker has made all the headlines. But is it warranted?

Borussia Dortmund v FC Bayern München - Bundesliga Photo by Alex Gottschalk/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Good morning, folks. If you’re anything like me, you’re probably sick of hearing the name “Felix Zwayer.” You’re probably anxious to talk about what BVB need to do to get back into the title race, or the upcoming match in the Champions League against Besiktas, or just about anything other than the events that transpired on Saturday, when a series of controversial refereeing decisions by Zwayer sparked outrage among Dortmund players following their 3-2 defeat to Bayern Munich.

Unfortunately, this news cycle seems far from over. DFB Volunteer Marco Haase’s decision to file a criminal complaint against Jude Bellingham for his post-match comments about Felix Zwayer has ensured that this story will continue to clog headlines for the foreseeable future.

We’ve covered bits and pieces of the story, and made reference to Zwayer’s refereeing in our various post-match articles, but we haven’t yet had a chance to break down, in totality, all the controversial decisions and statements. I’d like to take a stab at answering these basic questions:

  1. Were Felix Zwayer’s in-game decisions wrong, and if so, to what extent did they cost BVB the game?
  2. Were the BVB players’ reactions justified?
  3. What does this entire situation mean for the league as a whole?

#1: Were Felix Zwayer’s Decisions Wrong, and Did They Impact the Result of the Match?

Let’s break them down one-by-one.

Hernandez’s Shove on Reus

The first controversial incident occurred in the 54th minute. After a give-and-go with Erling Haaland, Marco Reus collected the ball inside the penalty box with Lucas Hernandez bearing down on him from behind.

Source: ESPN

The two players collided, and Marco Reus tumbled to the turf. I tried to find the precise moment that Marco Reus started to go down. It was kind of hard and it involved a lot of pausing and playing, but I think I isolated it below.

When asked about this particular penalty shout by Sky Germany, Zwayer said “It was contact in the upper body area, which is allowed to happen even at high speed. The situation is not black and white, I decided against the penalty kick because of my line [of sight]. It was not necessary for me because I had a clear view.” As the image below demonstrates, Zwayer did indeed have a very clear line of sight on the play.

Source: ESPN

However, after viewing it several times, the contact isn’t limited to Reus’s upper body (circled). It appears that some portion of Hernandez’s left leg makes contact with Marco’s trailing left leg (also circled). To me, if any contact brought Reus down, it was this contact on his leg, rather than a shove to his back from Hernandez.

Either way, Hernandez was nowhere near the ball, and his contact unquestionably pushed Reus over. Personally, I think it was enough contact for a penalty to be awarded, or at the very least a VAR check. Unfortunately, Zwayer chose to do neither. The reasoning he gave after the match, that the upper-body contact was allowed, is insufficient to me. Therefore, the answer to the first part of the question I posed above would be: yes, his in-game decision was wrong.

On to the second part: did it have an impact on the game? Well, no. That’s because, as many others have pointed out, Haaland was offside in the buildup:

Source: ESPN

It’s definitely very close, but to me, Haaland looks offside here. If VAR had taken a look at the play, it would have nullified a potential penalty even if it had been given one. However, once again, this does not mean that Zwayer made the correct decision: it means he made the wrong decision, but was bailed out by an unrelated circumstance that rendered his decision meaningless.

The Hummels Handball

In the 74th minute, Serge Gnabry delivered a routine corner into BVB’s penalty box. Mats Hummels knocked the ball out of the area to the top of the box. Dayot Upamecano collected the ball and passed it to Alphonso Davies, who promptly parked it in the 20th row of the Westfalenstadion, resulting in a goal kick. There were no shouts for a penalty from the Bayern players, who started jogging back to get into their defensive positions.

However, before Gregor Kobel could take a goal kick, he was stopped by Zwayer. After consulting the screen for a few moments, he decided to award a penalty for a handball on Mats Hummels, whose arm had made contact with the ball as he attempted to clear it. Robert Lewandowski would then convert what would turn out to be the game-deciding penalty kick.

Here’s what the situation looked like moments before the ball struck Hummels’ arm. I’ve circled the ball because it’s hard to see it otherwise, and it gives you an idea where in the sequence this is.

Source: ESPN

As you can see, Hummels is sandwiched between his teammate Jude Bellingham and Thomas Muller. His right arm, the offending arm, actually got caught on Bellingham’s back as Hummels tried to run past him, and as a result Hummels stumbled and twisted his body as he tried to attack the ball with his head. This kept his arm high, where the ball eventually struck him:

It clearly struck his arm, which was directed outward from his body. There was clearly no intent involved, but according to the International Football Association Board’s handball rules, that doesn’t matter if:

[the player] touches the ball with their hand/arm when it has made their body unnaturally bigger. A player is considered to have made their body unnaturally bigger when the position of their hand/arm is not a consequence of, or justifiable by, the player’s body movement for that specific situation. By having their hand/arm in such a position, the player takes a risk of their hand/arm being hit by the ball and being penalised

So the question becomes: was Hummels’ arm in an unnatural position, or was its positioning justified by the his body position in that specific situation? This is a tough question to answer, because it’s very hard to determine what exactly was happening to Hummels at that moment. You could say that Hummels stumbling and being caught between Muller and Bellingham “justifies” his arm position, but you could also say that Hummels clearly wasn’t impeded enough to prevent him from attacking the ball, which means he should have had his arm down.

I’m leaning towards “no handball”, but I also don’t think it’s completely clear cut either way. In doing so, I suspect that I could be succumbing to my own bias. If Hernandez or Davies had committed an identical handball in their own box, would I feel the same way? It’s hard to say. What I will not entertain, though, are arguments that this is an especially egregious call made by Zwayer. The ball clearly strikes Hummels’ arm while it’s extended, so there are definitely valid arguments to call it handball.

So the answer to part one of my first question is: “maybe.” Now, on to part two of my first question: Did his decision impact the game? Well, this one obviously did, because it gave Robert Lewandowski the chance to score the winning goal from the penalty spot. However, it’s important to remember that this all did not take place in a vacuum. The score was 2-2. BVB probably would have led 2-0 if it hadn’t been for a pair of critical errors along the back line by Mats Hummels and Raphael Guerreiro. While Dortmund had done well to eliminate a 2-1 deficit they held at the half, they had nevertheless put themselves in a position to lose the game on another unlucky mistake, and that’s unfortunately what happened.

Were the BVB players’ reactions justified?

I can perfectly understand why the BVB players were frustrated at the end of the game. They weren’t aware that Haaland had been offside, so as far as they knew, they had been robbed of a clear penalty. While their opinions on the handball may or may not have been justified, it’s definitely understandable that they would have felt indignant on one play being sent to VAR, and the other not.

That being said, with the full context of the game having come into light, I see little justification for their continued outrage, or the words expressed by BVB’s front office in the hours following the game. I suppose they can be mad at Felix Zwayer for being generally incompetent in his handling of the Reus penalty, but we’ve already established that it ultimately had no effect on the game. Being outraged about it for this long seems unnecessary.

Jude Bellingham has found himself in hot water for his comments following the match. His exact wording was:

It hits him but I don’t think he’s looking at the ball. You can look at a lot of decisions in the game. You give a referee that has, you know, match fixed before, the biggest game in Germany… What do you expect?

This is a pretty damning statement from Jude, and regrettably, it was more than a little irresponsible. While Zwayer was indeed involved in a match fixing scandal in 2005, there’s no evidence that he’s been involved in any such activities since, let alone during Saturday’s match.

I understand his frustration. BVB had fought very hard, played very well, and aside from their two big errors, probably deserved a better result. In the moments after the game ended, with their hearts still racing, their muscles dead, and feelings of having been cheated, it’s hard to blame them for being frustrated. In my opinion, it’s a natural consequence of shoving microphones into players’ faces literal seconds after a match ends. If Bellingham had some time to cool down and maybe even watch the footage, he might have felt differently.

What does this situation mean for the league as a whole?

Unfortunately, we can’t just ignore Bellingham’s comments, or shrug them off as the sour words of a dejected teenager. In a top league like the Bundesliga, it’s imperative that the players have total trust in the league’s referees, and that if they don’t always make the right decisions, that they at least try to the best of their ability.

Jude Bellingham hasn’t been in Germany very long. He’s also only 18. When Felix Zwayer’s match fixing scandal took place, Bellingham was still in diapers. This means that if he’s aware of Zwayer’s history, every single player in the league is too. I’m sure Bellingham voiced an opinion that has been shared in many locker rooms across Germany. Some players may feel that Zwayer’s involvement wasn’t so egregious, or that he’s since moved on from his mistakes, but it’s also likely that many of them, like Bellingham, don’t. That’s a problem, whether their concerns are justified or not.

Even if the DFB comes down hard on Bellingham for his post-match statements, it won’t change the fact that one of its most prominent referees has suffered irreparable reputational damage. I don’t think he necessarily deserves to lose his job, but it still may be wise to keep him away from BVB games, or at the very least, important games like Der Klassiker. I understand that they probably don’t want to be seen as capitulating to BVB, but it might also be best to avoid any controversies like this in the future.

In the meantime, BVB’s players should take a few deep breaths and move on. There’s nothing that can be done about it now, and although it would have been nice to lead the league, a four point gap isn’t insurmountable. The season isn’t over, and BVB’s players will need to be fully focused to take the fight to Bayern again.

Edit: The Davies Handball

Many of you have also pointed out a play that took place before the Hummels handball, in which a cross from Thomas Meunier appeared to have struck Alphonso Davies in the arm while he was sliding to block the ball. If deemed a handball, it would have awarded BVB a handball.

The issue here is that nobody, from Zwayer to BVB’s players, seemed to notice this at the moment or make any kind of appeal. Neither did any of them cite this in their post-match complaints. It only seems to have surfaced well after the match ended. Davies’ arm wasn’t too far above his torso and it was a very quick play, so it’s understandable, if frustrating, that the referee would miss it in real time. If you’re going to blame anybody for this, it should be the VAR staff, not Zwayer.

Your Thoughts

Yeesh, more than 2,000 words. Hopefully I didn’t put any of you to sleep. Did my points make sense, even if you don’t necessarily agree with them? Let me know your thoughts below.