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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

World Cup Officiating

All referees in the World Cup should be sent to re-education camp and be taught the following mantra: "The fans in the world aren't paying to see the referees. The fans in the world aren't paying to see the referees." Most fans accept that referees are human and will accept mistakes when the referee blows the calls equally for both sides. But what they won't accept is when referees make de facto personnel decisions that directly affect the outcome of a game.

To put this in perspective, very seldom do players get ejected from any of the major sports in the United States. In baseball, there is the occasional bench-clearing brawl or the player and manager who get kicked out because they argued ball-and-strike calls and the rulebook provides for automatic ejection if you do. In football, which is a collision sport, there are very few ejections a year, usually for fighting. In basketball, players get a technical foul and are ejected upon the issuance of a second technical in the same game. That said, it's not that easy to get a technical, and you usually get one when you direct profanity or a ball in the direction of a referee. In hockey, ejections or long misconduct penalties are a little more commonplace, but the rules are such that if you join a fight that's in progress, you can cost you team dearly in terms of penalties. Seldom, though, do officials' in-game calls on this behavior affect the outcome of a game.

Which brings us to the World Cup. Italy's DeRossi deserved a red card (automatic ejection) for trying to rearrange U.S. striker Brian McBride's face with his elbow. But did Paolo Mastroeni, the U.S. midfielder, deserve a reciprocal one for a late sliding tackle that upended an Italian player (especially when the Italian team was diving with greater frequency than Greg Louganis ever did at the Olympics)? Doesn't that usually warrant a yellow card? Or how about a warning to the players to watch their sliding tackles? That, I hear, sometimes happens.

Importantly, if you get a red card you have to sit out the next game. If you get yellow cards in consecutive games, you have to sit out the next game. France has an important game coming up, and its leader, Zidane Zidane, will have to sit it out because he got a yellow card in each of France's last two games, presumably from referees with different notions about what constitutes a yellow card. Ghana's two best goal scorers will miss that nation's key upcoming game with the U.S. for similar reasons.

There has been some great play in this World Cup. The Argentines are putting on clinics. Spain looks very strong, and Portugal has advanced to the second round for the first time in 40 years. Yet, despite those outstanding efforts, more talk appears to be dedicated to performance and credentialing of the referees than Ronaldo's girth, England's lack of offense, or even the key upcoming game between Italy and the Czech Republic.

And that's too bad.

Because we don't want to notice the officials. We don't want them ejecting the best players for this game and the next one, especially using inconsistent standards and especially when one official cannot possibly view the whole field (especially on a hot day) effectively. The National Hockey League in the U.S. added a second referee several years ago to help ensure that penalties were called more evenly. In that sport and in lacrosse, players who transgress get sent off for matters of minutes than entire games. In several sports there is also instant replay, which certainly would have enabled France to beat South Korea (as the referee watched the South Korean goalie stop a French shot instead of noticing that he was standing in the goal when he did so). Reforms like these will take the pressure off the officials and will give the fans what they want -- letting the players play.

And decide the games themselves.

We want to remember the great scissor-kick, the wonderful sliding tackle (and boy did Ze Roberto of Brazil make a few against Australia over the weekend), the stopped penalty shot and the great inside passing that the Argentines displayed against Serbia & Montenegro. We don't want to remember controversial calls that leave teams without important players in key games.

Coach Bruce Arena of the U.S. team was quoted as saying that until the U.S. gets more international respect, they won't get the calls. That may be so, but let's hope that soccer on the international stage provides itself and its fans with more respect than the federations that run figure skating, boxing and gymnastics give to their sports.

There, the judges have made, and can continue to make, a mess of everything, and those sports do not enjoy the respect they otherwise could if there was more integrity to how outcomes are decided.

World Cup games need to be won on the field by the players.

The officials shouldn't have nearly as much to do with the outcomes as they do now.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did Bruce Arena appeal either of the red cards? I've heard the referee has a questionable track record when it comes to his officiating?

12:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The officiating in the World Cup was perfectly fine. Every call had a ligit reason to it. If people knew about soccer, maybe they would actually see it, instead of jumping to the famous phrase of, "That was fixed." FIFA took matters in their hands when they witnessed the officiating in the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2004, since then officiating has been fine.

1:01 PM  

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