“It’s going to be very difficult for Real Madrid to lose points,” said Gerard Pique following Barcelona’s 2-2 draw against Sevilla last month. Coupled with their rival’s 2-1 win over Real Sociedad, in which Sergio Ramos opened the scoring with a penalty, Pique’s comments came after Barcelona lost their lead at the top of the table for what would be the rest of the season. The 33-year-old center back added that he has “seen what has happened in the first two rounds” following the resumption of the La Liga season, referencing two questionable VAR decisions that gave Madrid an opening goal against Eibar, while wiping away Valencia’s opener (“Hmm, I’d like to see that again,” wrote The Guardian’s play-by-play commentary in regards to Karim Benzema possibly being offsides in the opening goal against Eibar). And that was even before Madrid had consecutive 1-0 wins over Getafe and Athletic Bilbao with both goals coming from penalties, followed by a 2-0 win over Alaves in which Benzema broke the 0-0 deadlock with a penalty.
If Pique lost the La Liga battle, he surely won the narrative war with penalties and VAR becoming its own distraction. Real Madrid have been awarded 10 penalties this season, tied with Athletic and Mallorca, one below league leaders Villarreal (there were no insinuations involving the other three sides). Zinedine Zidane and Ramos were forced to respond to Pique’s taunts in various states of annoyance every time they received a penalty or a perceived favorable refereeing decision. Zidane consistently made known his frustrations at the questions taking away attention from the performance of his team, unbeaten since the lockdown.
Other players were quick to pile on the favoritism. After the 1-0 loss in which Sergio Ramos scored the decisive penalty, while a questionable step on Raul Garcia inside the box went ignored, Athletic Bilbao’s Iker Muniain observed that “depending on which teams it is, some decisions are given.” Barcelona papers described that result as being “Made in Madrid.”
Ramos attempted to place the burden back onto Barcelona, saying that “whoever has made mistakes and hasn’t achieved their objectives should be critical of themselves.” Yet his statement failed to tame the situation as it was too logical when compared to imagining the invisible bias helping Real Madrid to a league title. We don’t necessarily believe Pique’s claims, especially considering Pique’s outspokenness, but one cannot fight intriguing theories with logic. And whether by fairness or bias, the 34-year-old Ramos has taken full advantage of the moment by becoming the first defender since 2006 to score 10 goals in a season – six of which were penalties.
There are levels to fairness, where even Barcelona, the highest revenue generating club in the sport, can still feel that the world is against them. It is also a lesson in deflection, as shifting the blame onto refs, VAR, penalties, and their rivals takes away attention from their own turbulent post-lockdown stretch. They were two points in the lead when the league resumed. There remains speculation over Messi’s future. Under pressure from to a lack of revenue without supporters, and overseeing a transfer for Mirem Pjanic to placate their balance sheet, Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu dug into the Madrid narrative. Bartomeu poked at the atmosphere, saying “there are many games when VAR has favored the same [team] – and many teams have been disadvantaged as a result.”
113 penalties have been awarded in La Liga this season. Antonio Mateu Lahoz leads all La Liga refs by awarding 0.47 penalties per match. Keeping track of referee penalty stats may seem like additional noise considering the batch of the latest analytics and acronyms, but it does symbolize an inherent mistrust. Leave it to Diego Simeone to defend his city rivals, explaining that there is a reason behind Real Madrid’s penalties beyond unseen forces. The Atletico Madrid boss blamed VAR for the increase in penalty decisions, saying that the system rewards attacking, creative players who attempted to make things happen inside the area. He also benefited from a dubious, VAR-reviewed penalty call in a 2-1 win over Alaves, in which Marcos Llorente appeared to step on a defender while out of bounds. But Llorente did create the collision with his aggression in driving into the box.
“VAR exposes everything…if they give you more penalties, it’s because you are in the opposition’s area more. If they attack more, like Real Madrid, it means you are there longer,” he explained. And while video technology was put in place as a leveler and an attempt to make the game fairer, it only appears to further entrench the largest clubs able to spend resources on attacking talent.
Valencia directly hit out against VAR, publishing a list of 13 calls that went against the club this season (including the Real Madrid match). Yet the manner in which Pique, Bartomeu, and Muniain indirectly refer to the “team in question” only add to the theatrics, a world of deception and fate aimed at the league’s supposed golden club. Pique has done this before, tweeting out the difference in penalty decisions between Madrid and Barcelona in 2017. These feelings puncture through to tangible conversation every few years, before going back underground.
This current iteration of that intangible mood is embodied through the two opposing center backs. Pique, interpreting every small detail and action as a potential threat, has the sense of when the lever needs to be re-pulled (usually when off-field issues threaten Barcelona). Then there’s Ramos, who’s branded himself as the ideal Spanish athlete, making sure to take advantage of every opening, without remorse or question.
“This is the rule in Italy,” said Gian Piero Gasperini following Atalanta’s 2-2 draw against Juventus that likely sealed Maurizio Sarri’s side another Serie A title. “The players should cut off their arms.”
Juvenus equalized twice in the match through two Cristiano Ronaldo penalties (11 out of his 28 goals this season have come from the penalty spot). Whether the penalties were justified is beside the larger point. Gasperini’s implication of always finishing second to Juventus takes on an added weight in invoking the match-fixing scandal two decades prior. If Juventus and Real Madrid have the trophies, then the rest of the league has the language. The art is in the subtext and inference, of never expressly saying what you’re actually saying. To paraphrase Joseph Heller, just because you think that referees are against you doesn’t mean it’s not true.
Though in a perverse way, these innuendos provide clubs with order and meaning. Wouldn’t we rather blame important losses on referee bias? Which side a supporter empathizes with becomes a footballing Rorschach test of how the world works, whether the smaller club always falling short, or the champion pulling every string to victory. Yet VAR and technology add an objective twist. They threaten to take away those undertones in revealing how signature clubs win not because of the referees, but simply because that they invest in world-class attackers who play in the penalty area. If that was the explanation all along, then maybe we’d rather have the mystery.