Monday, June 21, 2010

Sympathy for the Referee

The last week has seen numerous bad refereeing decisions in both the World Cup Soccer and the NBA finals. As the NBA finals are won and done (Lakers in 7) and in basketball, a 7 game series means that the bad decisions tend to even out over its course, let's turn our attention the the FIFA World Cup.

In soccer bad refereeing decisions are etched into every fans memory.
Quickly, what is the most famous FIFA World Cup goal? The first goal that comes to mind is Maradona's "Hand of God" goal in the 1986 quarter-final win over England. A goal that should not and would not have been awarded, had the referee seen Maradona's fist punching the ball into the net.

The 2010 FIFA World Cup is trending along a similar line. Siphiwe Tshabalala's spectacular opening strike of the World Cup for South Africa or David Villa's excellent skill to get Spain going, should be among the most memorable goals, but most of us are still talking about and replaying the goal by USA's Maurice Edu, which was disallowed by Mali referee Koman Coulibaly for an unknown reason.

Before damning the referees to a far less stressful existence in their day jobs, we may consider the difficulty they have controlling the game, making correct calls every time and what these controversies mean to soccer in general.

Difficult decisions are part of the referees job. We have previously written about the difficulty of getting into the correct position to see all that goes on in a soccer game. Even with TV we often don't see what happened until we get the instant replay from 3 different angles. Sometimes, even then, we are still not sure.

The referee needs to make his decisions quickly. Sure he can get some help from his assistant referees, but decisions also need to be prompt so that the game can continue to flow and be entertaining for the spectators. Player skill, speed, aggressiveness and even simulation, sometimes diving with theatrical eloquence to win free kicks and penalties, make it even harder.

In the USA vs Slovenia game on June 18, 2010, the referee was attempting to keep track of at least 3 different tussles between the players in the penalty box. In most cases, to those of us who got to see it more than once and from more than one angle, it looked obvious that the Slovenia players were fouling the Americans and that a penalty should have been awarded to the USA. The referee however had one view and one chance to see all that was happening and made his call.

Of course we hear the argument that the referee should simply have explained the call. Perhaps he should have, but would that really have appeased the United States players, coach or fans? After all, the goal was still disallowed and video replay is not currently used in soccer to overturn or review a refereeing decision.

This leads me to the other benefit of a poor decision - Interest in the game. The USA is not normally a country to be gripped by soccer fever, but the excitement for the deciding group game against Algeria has been raised a few levels because of the refereeing error. Americans who usually label soccer boring will be tuning in to see if their team can win and qualify for the round of 16, despite the terrible judgement that has befallen their team.

A similar enhancement of the game can be seen around the world. Every game England plays against Argentina, whether Maradona is Argentina's coach or not, is at an elevated level because the the "Hand of God" goal. The next time the Republic of Ireland play France, Irish revenge will be on everyones mind because Thierry Henry used his hand to assist in a goal for France over Ireland to qualify for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The list goes on, everyone creating renewed interest, excitement and rivalries.

Let's have some sympathy for the referee. After all they are only human and can make human errors. And we so enjoy the rivalries they may have created by disallowing or allowing a goal here and there.

OK with sympathy we can now try to understand what Mali referee, Koman Coulibaly saw in this goal to disallow it. Could this video have the answer?

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