Sunil Chhetri's controversial goal in extra-time proved pivotal as Bengaluru FC defeated Kerala Blasters to progress to the semifinals of the 2022-23 season of the Indian Super League. However, the decision sparked Blasters' coach Ivan Vukomanovic into leading his team off the field, with the Blasters maintaining the referee's call to allow the free-kick to stand was not legal. It resulted in a 1-0 win for Bengaluru, but plenty of questions that needed answering, especially regarding the legality of the goal.
First, what exactly happened?
In the 6th minute of the first half of extra time, Bengaluru FC were awarded a free-kick in Kerala Blasters' half, with the referee, Crystal John, blowing for a foul on Chhetri. The referee sprayed the spot (visible from replay footage) from which the kick was to be taken, but did not proceed with measuring out the ten yards for the wall.
Chhetri stood over the ball, with Adrian Luna blocking his attempts to take a quick-free kick, while the Blasters formed their wall. The referee appeared to converse with Chhetri, and also gestured towards Luna, who dropped back a yard, before Chhetri spotted an opening an opted for a quick-free kick, sending the ball into the top corner, with Prabhsukhan Gill in the Blasters' goal watching on, not ready.
It ended with the Kerala Blasters walking off the field and Bengaluru FC being awarded the win.
What does the rule say?
Law 13.3 of the International Football Association Board (IFAB) states the following regarding quick free-kicks:
"If, when a free kick is taken, an opponent is closer to the ball than the required distance, the kick is retaken unless the advantage can be applied; but if a player takes a free kick quickly and an opponent who is less than 9.15 m (10 yds) from the ball intercepts it, the referee allows play to continue. However, an opponent who deliberately prevents a free kick being taken quickly must be cautioned for delaying the restart of play."
What is the controversy then?
Kerala Blasters assistant manager, Ishfaq Ahmed, noted in the mixed zone after the game, that once the referee had marked the spot from where the free kick was to be taken with vanishing spray, it began the procedure of measuring out 10 yards - however this procedure (and exception) is not to be found in the laws of IFAB. The defending team in this scenario cannot mandate a wall or the measuring out of 10 yards - the request has to come from the attacking team - Chhetri maintains he never made the request.
Thus, with the ball stationery, Sunil Chhetri was free to still take a quick free-kick. The referee was not obligated to notify Kerala Blasters (even with the whistle), with Luna even ready to block Chhetri's attempt. Had Luna deliberately blocked it, Chhetri would be able to ask for a retake, thus necessitating the usual procedure of 10 yards being measured out for the wall, and then the whistle notifying the restart of play.
What did Sunil Chhetri say?
"Yeah, we got the the free kick. I told the referee, 'I don't want the whistle, neither do I want the wall.' He said, 'You sure?' I said, 'Yes. I do not need the wall, nor do I need the whistle.' He asked me again, 'Are you sure?' Again, I said yes."
"Luna was standing right on the ball. He blocked my first attempt. I assume, he knew what I was gonna do."
"He turned again, he blocked [my attempt] again. I had no space and I was about to ask the referee to have 10 yards. I do that every game. Every time I get an opportunity, I try to do that because it gives you an opportunity, but almost all the time, the guy will stand on the ball. Then I'll say, 'Okay referee, let's get the 10 yards'."
"But then I got a small window, where I could [take the free-kick]. When you try this, even if somebody blocks it, you get a free-kick again - always an advantageous position."
"Now what happens is the marking [first spray] is always where the ball is - so the ball doesn't move and then he will say 'whistle and 10 yards'. I always try to be cheeky - it's not the first time I've tried [this], because what happens is if somebody's not switched on..."
"Luna stood on the ball - there was no space. I tried, he stopped me and generally they stand and then I have to ask the referee - 'please can I have the ten yards'. But until that time it's not easy for referee... So I did tell him twice - 'I don't want the whistle, I don't want the 10 yards'."
"What happened later [with the Blasters walking off] is something that I can't and do not want to comment on, because it's their thing."
Do the Blasters have a case?
Not really. In the era prior to the usage of vanishing spray, the referees did place the ball on the spot from where a free-kick could be taken - and that did not initiate the procedure of 10 yards being counted out (which is what the Blasters contend ought to have happened). Quick free-kicks were still in play with the ball stationary - most notably used by Thierry Henry against Chelsea in 2004, with Premier League referee Graham Poll telling the BBC "The whistle doesn't need to be blown. I asked Henry 'do you want a wall?'. He said 'can I take it please?' He was very polite. I said 'yes'. I gave the signal for him to take it. That's what he did."