Sunil Chhetri
“I got the free kick and I saw the opening,” Sunil Chhetri said after the match, “I told the referee I neither wanted the whistle nor did I want the wall. Photo: Twitter/Bengaluru FC

Was Chhetri's 'quick free kick' goal against Kerala Blasters fair? Debate hots up

Indian football team captain Sunil Chhetri is facing online fury after his quick free-kick that resulted in a goal during the Indian Super League (ISL) play-off in the game between Kerala Blasters and Bengaluru FC on Friday (March 3).

The controversial situation happened in the 97th minute when Bengaluru was awarded a free kick near the Blasters’ penalty box. Sunil Chhetri went for a quick one and caught the whole Blasters’ team off-guard. The Blasters’ players gathered around the match referee, John Crystal, who awarded the goal in favour of Bengaluru. All hell broke loose.

Also read: What does IFAB free kicks law say?

Kerala Blasters’ coach told his players to leave the field

A furious Ivan Vukomanovic, the head coach of Kerala Blasters, asked his players to come off the field. Fans of Kerala Blasters, one of the most vocal teams in ISL, immediately took to Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, venting their rage. Rants and racial abuse were directed at Sunil Chhetri and the match referee.

As a close follower of football, this writer would like to shed some light and clarity regarding the controversy.

Rationale of taking a quick free kick explained by referee

Let us start with the Thierry Henry free-kick goal for Arsenal against Chelsea in 2004. The Chelsea shot-stopper Cech wasn’t ready, Chelsea was only setting up its wall, and Henry scored a cheeky goal.

Also read: Sunil Chhetri only after Ronaldo, goes past Messi to achieve this feat

The match referee, Graham Poll, explained it thus: “First, you have to deal with the principle of a free kick. If the attacking team are fouled, then it is they who hold the advantage. With a free kick around the penalty area, we always ask the players whether they want it quick or slow. This is their window of opportunity to surprise the defence. If they want it quick, then they have given up the right to re-take it, no matter if it hits a defender who’s three yards away. The same goes if they kick it over the bar. They only get one chance.”

“The flip side is if they want it slow, they can’t then take it while I count out the ten yards for the wall. They must wait for my whistle. There is nothing in the laws of the game that say we have to indicate for the free kick to be taken. It’s just like when someone wants to take a free kick anywhere else on the field. As long as the ball is stationary and in the right place, then the attacking team can take it as quickly as they like.”

Chhetri’s explanation

Now that’s clear, let’s move on to what Chhetri had to say.

“I got the free-kick and I saw the opening,” Sunil Chhetri said after the match, “I told the referee I neither wanted the whistle nor did I want the wall. He asked me again and I repeated myself. I think Luna was blocking the chance and I think he knew it and yeah, it was one of the days it just goes in.”

Also read: Chhetri, Roy Krishna on target as 10-man BFC down Jamshedpur 2-1

One cannot blame either Sunil or the referee here.

In the English Premier League, for instance, you always see two or three players who step in immediately to block a quick free kick. Again, if the kick is taken while the referee is setting up a wall, or using his vanishing spray, it doesn’t count as a goal. There’s no question of morality or fair play here. It’s all there in the rules, it’s all fair and square as long as you’re playing by the rules.

Yes, the quality of refereeing in ISL might be sub-par, but, in this particular incident, there’s nothing the referee could’ve done.

Keep fighting till the final whistle

Another thing we need to take note of is that there were at least 20 more minutes to be played. Football, being a low-scoring game, can change the course within a few seconds. Manchester United literally won the UCL of 1999 in three minutes. You don’t give up until full-time. There’s still a fight left in you, and you should keep fighting till the final whistle.

There’s that Bruno Fernandes goal against Manchester City in January 2023 where Marcus Rashford was offside. Akanji, who was marking Rashford, assumed that he would be flagged offside, didn’t sprint much, and then Bruno came in and scored the goal. You simply can’t assume something and get aggravated when it doesn’t come your way. There’s a reason why the referee’s assistant raises the offside flag after the move is completed. There’s a reason why players continue to play even when there’s a shout of foul/handball/offside.

And finally, for those who are advocating “fair play” and sportsmanship, you cannot expect a lion not to eat you just because you won’t eat him. If you fail to prepare, be prepared to fail.

(Harikrishnan B is a Mumbai-based football writer and an ardent Manchester United fan)

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