OKAY LET'S GET this out of the way: the goal Sunil Chhetri scored against Kerala Blasters in the ISL playoffs, technically, is legit.
So right out of the gate, we can dismiss all the claims of Bengaluru FC and Sunil Chhetri being "cheaters." They're not. They are supposed to look for every possible advantage. Sunil saw a window of opportunity and took it. He shot the ball into the net. Whether it was judged to be a goal or not wasn't up to him. That was on the referee.
Now that we're past that, let's get into the nuances of the situation. Be warned: muddy waters ahead.
The IFAB rule applicable to free kicks, of course, allows for the attacking team to take a "quick free kick" where the referee doesn't blow the whistle, and the defence can be taken by surprise. Social media has been flooded with clips of similar goals from around the world since last night. Sunil himself has scored a similar goal in the past.
So where's the controversy? Why did an experieced coach like Ivan Vukomanovic along with the whole Kerala Blasters squad choose such an extreme way of registering a protest? Walking out of a match is serious, it can have major consequences for the club, as we saw back in 2012 with Mohun Bagan. So why do something like this when the goal can be justified by the rules? Did the emotion of the moment get the better of their judgement?
Well, maybe. Or maybe not. Just like with everything else surrounding this extraordinary situation, it depends on your interpretation.
Let's take a look at what happened... blow by blow.
Sunil Chhetri is brought down outside the box. It's a direct free kick for BFC. Referee Crystal John reportedly asks Sunil whether he wants a whistle or a wall, Sunil says he wants neither. This means the play is technically still on. But this is a conversation between Sunil and the referee, and other players may or may not be aware of it.
Sunil Chhetri walks up to the ball, and there are two other BFC players near him. A number of other BFC players are seen walking towards the KBFC box, presumably to take their position near a wall. Some KBFC players are also walking up towards the free kick position, but they are not organised in a wall yet. KBFC goalkeeper Prabhsukhan Singh Gill is seen talking to his defenders; presumably he's discussing positioning and wall formation.
No one is showing any sign of hurry or alertness towards the ball. So we can conclude that they are under the impression that there's going to be a wall for the free kick, that the game is not on at the moment.
Let's pause here. Is it the referee's fault that the players misread the situation? No. Is it Sunil's fault? No. So far, we have a misunderstanding. But nobody's done anything wrong. Yet.
Now, let's focus on Adrian Luna, who is the KBFC player closest to the ball. He's standing barely inches away from the ball. That's a basic protective position that defenders sometimes take up. Apart from preventing a quick free kick, it also blocks the free kick taker's view of the defensive wall from the angle of the shot. That means he can only set up his free kick after the defender has stepped away from the ball, giving him less time to strategize.
Now the question is: does Adrian Luna, at this moment, know that the play is still on, or does he like others think the game is on hold till the wall is set? We don't know for sure. Only Luna can clarify this. But we can guess from his body language. He appears relaxed, not on alert. I'm going to make an assumption here: Luna, at this moment in time, doesn't know the quick free kick is still on. You can conclude otherwise if you wish.
All right. Now we get into the juicy (or muddy) part.
Referee Crystal John makes a gesture with his hand. He appears to be looking at Adrian Luna. We don't know if he says something, or any other context of this interaction. But we see him motion forward with his hand, and Luna starts moving away from the ball, walking backwards.
What does the referee indicate here? Does he mean "game is still on"? Or is he telling Luna to back away from the ball? Sunil Chhetri in his post-match interview interprets this as the former. But the way Adrian walks back, it's very possible that he thinks that the referee is saying back away because there needs to be a 10 yard gap for the walled-up set-piece.
So, at this moment, if Luna was already thinking that the game was on pause, he has just received what he thinks is a confirmation from the referee.
Then Sunil feints. He starts, and stops just short of kicking the ball.
Watch closely how Luna reacts.
He stops dead on his tracks. He's not actively trying to block the ball. He's acting like somebody who is surprised by what just happened, not a defender springing into action.
Now, think; if you were in his shoes, believing that you were in the process of setting up a wall, what's the first thought that would cross your mind?
Could it be something like this, "Why is he shooting, is the wall already set up?"
And if you thought that, what would you do in that situation? Would you look back to see if the wall was indeed in place?
Because that's what Luna does. He turns his head away from Sunil and the ball, looking towards the goal, and the cluster of KBFC players semi-scattered on the edge of the box.
That's not a player who is actively defending. That's somebody who is taken aback by what just happened.
And Sunil, thinking on his feet, uses Luna's distraction to quickly dispatch the ball. Luna turns back just in time to see Sunil's right foot swing for it. And his reaction isn't to try and block it; he flinches and turns away from the ball's direction to protect himself from getting hit.
Once again, he demonstrates that he is completely unaware of the fact that the game is supposed to be on.
The rest of the KBFC players are equally surprised. None of them are ready, none of them are in position. Including the keeper. The ball finds its target unopposed.
The moment the goal is given, KBFC players swarm the referee protesting the decision. Even the head coach immediately reacts to it in a rather emphatic way.
Their shock looks sincere. They're not concerned with Sunil or BFC's play. They seem to be laser-focused on the referee; almost like they are feeling let down by something the referee did.
What happened here? Well, we're back on the speculation train again. But to me, somebody watching on TV, it appears that the crux of the matter is that they all interpreted the referee's gesture to mean "move back" rather than "game is on." That's why their reaction was so hyper-focused on the referee, and so visceral.
That's why Vukomanovic, in that moment of high stress and tension of a really hard-fought match, took the decision to walk out. Because in a game like this, if you think the referee is doing you dirty and ruining your season with a single decision, the whole thing seems to be worthless.
No rule was explicitly broken. But what makes the situation problematic is that the referee's action - or the way it was perceived by KBFC players - played a significant part in creating that goal. If the referee doesn't make a vague gesture, Luna doesn't walk back from the ball, and Sunil doesn't get to shoot.
So what happens now? Should Kerala Blasters be punished?
Well, given the nature of the sport, there will probably be some kind of reprimand and punitive measure. Maybe a fine. Maybe points deducted. But I genuinely hope there is no suspension. KBFC were put in a bad position by the non-decisive communication of the referee. So they deserve some leniency.
And think of this same situation in an alternate way. If referee Crystal John had decided, in that moment, not to just make a hand gesture, since the rule says he doesn't have to communicate to the defensive team that the game is on? Or if he decides to yell "game is on" so there's no way to misinterpret his gesture? Then we don't have a controversy.
What if he decided, given the unreadiness of the defence and a less than 10 yard distance between the ball and an opponent player, that the free kick was not legit? Then the same vague rule-set would justify him disallowing that goal.
So no matter how we look at it, without the referee's particularly vague communication, we don't arrive where we are. It doesn't take any credit away from Sunil or BFC. But it provides important context for why KBFC reacted the way they did.
When it comes to luck, KBFC got the short end of the stick. There's no point beating them with it.
Fans, clubs, academies... everyone has been complaining about poor refereeing in Indian football for years. If after all this time AIFF still haven't managed to produce referees who will know how to communicate on the field in a decisive, clear manner, that's going to create controversies. There's no point blaming KBFC for it.
Is Crystal John going to face any major punishment? No. So why should KBFC?