Football Features

11 refereeing mistakes so bad the official was forced to apologise

By James Richards

Published: 17:16, 10 July 2020

Every now and then a referee makes such a howler that he feels the need to apologise.

In fact, things have gotten so convoluted since the introduction of VAR, that officials have been called out for not one, not two, but three incorrect penalty calls in just one night of Premier League football, while apologies and admissions of poor decision making have become rather common recently.

With that in mind, we’ve taken a look at 11 instances where match officials made a mistake so bad, they had to front up and admit they were wrong.

1. Chelsea v Barcelona, Champions League semi-final 2009

Referee Tom Henning Ovrebo is surrounded by Chelsea players after the final whistle of the final whistle during the UEFA Champions League Semi Final Second Leg match at Stamford Bridge, London.

Referee: Tom Henning Ovrebo

What went wrong?

In a game that saw Chelsea knocked out of the Champions League on away goals, the referee was at the centre of many controversial decisions throughout the match when he failed to award the Blues a couple penalties.

In a now-iconic moment, the referee was chased the length of the pitch by Michael Ballack after he failed to spot an apparently blatant handball.

He later admitted that it was not his greatest game.

“It was not my best day, really,” Ovrebo told Marca. “But those mistakes can be committed by a referee… and sometimes a player or a coach. Some days you’re not at the level you should be.

“I can’t be proud of that performance. They were handball situations. I judged them on the pitch and I think it is not interesting to know what I think of those actions once judged.

“But I understand that people think differently to the decisions I made at the time. That discussion will continue eternally.

“I was responsible for the decisions that were made and we can argue that, if I had taken others, maybe Chelsea would have qualified for the final. We will never know.

“I made decisions and they were not the best. But it is difficult to say if, without that arbitration, Barcelona would have been eliminated or not.”

2. Everton v Newcastle, Premier League 2018

Referee: Bobby Madley

What went wrong?

Referee Bobby Madley was made into a social media phenomenon following his reaction after Newcastle players protested over a missed handball by Everton defender Phil Jagielka.

The Everton defender clearly handled in the box but referee Madley missed the incident leading to an open apology on the pitch and a mini-meltdown that made it into meme history on Twitter.

3. Watford v Leicester City, Championship Playoffs 2013

Referee: Michael Oliver

What went wrong? 

One of the most famous Championship playoff clashes of all time pitted Watford against Leicester City in the semi-final second leg in 2013. From end-t0-end action to late goals, this game had absolutely everything as Watford scraped through in dramatic style, including a mistake from referee Michael Oliver.

When Leicester’s Anthony Knockaert when down under minimal contact from Marco Cassetti, it looked to most like a dive. Not to Oliver, though, who pointed at the spot for a Foxes penalty. However, 30 seconds later, Manuel Almunia had saved the penalty and Watford had raced down the other end to score via Troy Deeney.

Still, that didn’t stop Oliver apologising to then-Watford boss Gianfranco Zola.

Zola said: “I remember that I turned to the bench [after the penalty was awarded] and I think I spoke and said, ‘I can’t believe what he’s done.’

“Last year Oliver apologised to me before a match, I can’t remember what match, but he came to me and said, ‘I must apologise to you, you are right, and it wasn’t a penalty.’

“In that moment [in 2013], I felt very close to having a heart attack but, in the end, it came up in a perfect way.”

4. Bournemouth v Southampton, Premier League 2017


Referee: Jonathan Moss

What went wrong?

In an important match for the Cherries, the defining moment in this 1-1 draw was a controversial decision by referee Jonathan Moss.

The incident occurred when Bournemouth defender Adam Smith appeared to be taken out by Southampton’s Sofiane Boufal in the box. Instead of awarding the spot-kick, Moss decided to book Smith for diving leaving Eddie Howe incensed.

Smith said after the game: “I got to the ball just before him, jumped to go over it and he [Boufal] took me down.

“For the ref to book me doesn’t help because that’s my fifth yellow card of the season. I spoke to him after and he apologised and said it was a penalty.

“I don’t mind him admitting it but the fact that he booked me and can’t get it rescinded, I’ll miss the next game.

“If we had got the penalty maybe we would have gone and scored another one. But we got a point and need to look forward now.”

5. Chelsea v Arsenal, Premier League 2014

Referee: Andre Marriner

What went wrong?

If things weren’t bad enough in this 6-0 defeat for Arsenal then referee Andre Marriner decided he would add insult to injury when he sent Kieran Gibbs off in an incident of mistaken identity.

Eden Hazard saw his goal-bound effort tipped round the post by the hand of Arsenal midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, but the inevitable red card was shown to Kieran Gibbs by mistake, an error that Marriner later admitted he regretted.

Referees’ body the Professional Game Match Officials Limited said in the statement: “Incidents of mistaken identity are very rare and are often the result of a number of different technical factors.

“Whilst this was a difficult decision, Andre is disappointed that he failed to identify the correct player.

“He expressed his disappointment to Arsenal when he was made aware of the issue.”

6. Nantes v Paris Saint-Germain, Ligue 1 2018

Referee: Tony Chapron

What went wrong?

It is not often a referee is caught trying to foul a player but that is exactly what happened in the game between Nantes and PSG.

With Nantes trailing late in the game, Diego Carlos inadvertently ran into the back of referee Tony Chapron sending the official sprawling to the floor.

The referee’s reaction was quite a thing to behold! He tried to trip the player before calling him back and showing him a second yellow card to send him off the pitch.

The reaction after the game from Nantes president Waldemar Kita was hardly surprising as he called for Chapron to be given a lengthy ban.

“I received 20 SMS from all over the world telling me that this referee is a joke,” Kita told L’Equipe.

“What do you want me to say to you? If I talk too much, I will be summoned by an ethics commission. We have no right to say anything.

“Chapron has to rest and get a massage, it works like that now, we cannot see him. I’m waiting for the green light, otherwise, I’ll be killed. It’s amateurism.

“At least, you apologise but you do not give a red card, it’s not serious. We still have to find a solution, because there is a problem in all this.”

Referee Chapron did offer an apology for his actions admitting that he should not have reacted the way he did.

“During the match Nantes-PSG, I was knocked over by Diego Carlos, a player with Nantes. At the moment of impact I felt a sharp pain where I had recently suffered an injury,” Chapron said following the game.

“My unfortunate reaction was to stick my leg out towards the player. This clumsy gesture was inappropriate. So I want to apologise following this action.”

Chapron appealed his initial three-month ban only for it to be rejected and doubled to six months. He was then voted Ligue 1 Referee of the Year by his peers. Unbelievable.

7. Aston Villa v Sheffield United, Premier League 2020

Referee: Michael Oliver

What went wrong? 

If ever there was a time the Premier League didn’t want things to go wrong with their technology then surely it was on its first day back from the enforced suspension of play due to coronavirus. Of course, as proven by the shambolic events of Aston Villa vs Sheffield United, they were to have no such luck.

The Blades should have been awarded a clear goal when Villa goalkeeper Orjan Nyland caught a free-kick at his far post, but appeared to carry the ball over the line as he came back down to the ground.

Replays and screenshots showed the ball did, indeed, cross the line, but referee Michael Oliver wasn’t buzzed to indicate a goal.

After the match, Hawk-Eye Innovations released a statement apologising for the mistake, claiming a “level of occlusion never been seen before in over 9,000 matches” was at fault for the technology failing. 

“During the first half of Aston Villa vs. Sheffield United match at Villa Park, there was a goal-line incident where the ball was carried over the line by Aston Villa goalkeeper, No. 25 Nyland,” the statement read.

“The match officials did not receive a signal to the watch nor earpiece as per the Goal Decision System (GDS) protocol. The seven cameras located in the stands around the goal area were significantly occluded by the goalkeeper, defender, and goalpost. This level of occlusion has never been seen before in over 9,000 matches that the Hawk-Eye Goal Line Technology system has been in operation.

“The system was tested and proved functional prior to the start of the match in accordance with the IFAB Laws of The Game and confirmed as working by the match officials. The system has remained functional throughout. Hawk-Eye unreservedly apologizes to the Premier League, Sheffield United, and everyone affected by this incident.”

This is arguably even more bizarre than when the technology made the right call, but the stadium screens displayed the wrong decision, as was the case with Dele Alli’s goal during Tottenham’s 1-1 draw with Watford in October 2019.

8. Barcelona 1-1 Atletico Madrid, La Liga 2014

Referee: Antonio Mateu Lahoz

What went wrong? 

As Barcelona and Atletico Madrid went toe-to-toe in the final game of the 2013/14 La Liga season, the stakes couldn’t have been any higher.

Diego Simeone’s men sat three points clear of Barca in the table and needed to simply avoid defeat to seal a first Spanish league title since 1995/96. A win for Barca would see them defend their title via the head-to-head rule.

The Blaugrana took the lead in the first half thanks to an Alexis Sanchez strike but Atletico equalised shortly after half-time through iconic centre-back Diego Godin.

Barca looked to have won the match in the 63rd minute when Lionel Messi appeared to beat the offside trap and find the back of the net, only for the flag to be raised, ruling out the goal. Replays showed that Messi was, in fact, onside.

Atletico held onto the draw and then-manager Tata Martino ended the season without a major trophy. Martino’s assist, Elvio Paolorosso, has since revealed that match referee Antonio Miguel Mateu Lahoz apologized to the Barcelona squad after the match.

“Messi scored a goal that would have given us the title and the referee ruled it out,” he said. ”We were crying in the dressing room and the referee came to apologize.”

9. Manchester United v Arsenal, Premier League 2009

Referee: Mike Dean (fourth official Lee Probert)

What went wrong?

With Arsenal losing 2-1 late into an important game at Old Trafford it looked as though the Gunners had grabbed a late equaliser when Robin van Persie struck, but the goal was chalked off for offside.

In his frustration, the Arsenal manager kicked a plastic water bottle down the touchline which was spotted by fourth official Lee Probert. He called over referee Mike Deans who sent the Arsenal boss to the stands where he was unable to find a seat, prompting the now-iconic moment of him standing with his arms spread as he looks for a pew.

The League Managers Association chief executive, Richard Bevan made a statement after the game that revealed the officials were incorrect.

He said: “I’ve spoken to Keith Hackett and he fully recognises the situation was an error and an apology will follow to Arsène Wenger. Lee Probert totally failed to manage the situation and created a needless pressure point, taking the focus away from the pitch in a big event with only a minute to go.”

10. Holland v Spain, World Cup Final 2010

Referee: Howard Webb

What went wrong?

During a heated World Cup final in South Africa, the Dutch team appeared to approach the game with a plan to use brute force in order to nullify the Spanish threat. And when Nigel De Jon Kung-fu kicked Spanish midfielder Xabi Alonso in the chest, it should have been a straight red card.

However, English referee Howard Webb only gave a yellow. He did not apologise at the time but admitted in his book, written a few years after the event, that he got the decision wrong.

“It wasn’t until half-time that I realised De Jong’s tackle might have been worthy of a red card… I felt gutted beyond belief. It looked like I’d missed a red-card offence in the World Cup final. What a f—ing nightmare. I returned to the pitch with my head pounding and my heart thumping.”

Somewhat luckily for Webb, Spain were crowned World Cup winners for the first time in their history thanks to Andres Iniesta’s extra-time goal.

11. Australia v Croatia, World Cup 2006

Referee: Graham Poll

What went wrong?

English referee Graham Poll never really lived down his mistake at the 2006 World Cup that saw him book Croatian defender Josip Simunic three times without sending him off.

The error meant that Poll was not selected to officiate any further games at the tournament and admitted his mistake was down to writing the wrong name in his book. In a statement released by FIFA Poll said:

“In explaining his actions to the committee, Poll said he incorrectly noted down the name of the Australia number three Craig Moore when booking Simunic for the second time and failed to realise his error.”