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Monday, October 29, 2007


An addendum to the previous post, and a brief one.

Dateline: Saturday, October 27th, 2007. Juventus is playing at Napoli, and chasing league leaders, Inter Milan. A win would put them in sole posession of 2nd place in the league, and a mere 1 point deficit behind the defending champions in the chase for the 2008 Scudetto (which would be overturned by a victory in their first fixture). After trudging through a workman like goaless draw at the interval, Juve get the second period off to a dream start with a goal by Del Piero in the 46th minute. 3 minutes later, Napoli score a well deserved equalizer through Gargano, but the match is still in the balance with 40 minutes left on the clock.

So what happens? Mauro Bergonzi -that's what happens.

Rather than admitting to the masses that he may not be (god-forbid) all-seeing, he calls a spot kick on one of the cleanest penalty area tackles you'll ever see in soccer when Giorgio Chiellini clinically picks the pocket of Ezequiel Lavezzi. Unfortunately unbeknownst to Chiellini is that Lavezzi is also an acrobat, and managed to turn contact with the ball into a leap of 4 feet in the air and a somersault - making the challenge look like an infringement. It was nothing of the kind. And so, because we have a referee who cannot bear to appear to have "missed" a call, we have instead a penalty, and an unjust one-goal defict to the visitors.

And as though he sensed the opportunity to exploit the referee's insatiable appetite for these ridiculous illusions, Marcelo Zalayeta, the man who was unceremoniously dumped after 7 years of service to the Old Lady of Turin, got his revenge on his former club by performing a similar (albeit les acrobatic) somersault - this one resulting from no contact at all. And Bergonzi promptly obliged with yet another undeserved penalty.

This is the worst kind of injustice for two reasons. First, because these calls by implication are the worst kind of error a referee can make, because it injects him into the result in a way that a missed call does not. Errors of comission are always worse. But also, because Claudio Ranieri took this as an opportunity to create the appearance of bias against Juventus, following their fall from grace in the match-fixing scandal. That memory should remain for years to come, as Italian football must remain vigilante against the unsporting influence of managers and directors, and as such, his "woe are we" act is totally inappropriate.

But that doesn't erase the culpability of Bergonzi. These were calls he didn't see (we know this because they didn't happen) but he made them anyway. And he's cost Juve the game. Even criminals deserved the proper execution of justice.

PREDICTION: Even though Pierluigi Collina (the bald-headed one) has properly disciplined him, to cover for the unconscionable error of Bergonzi, the Italian FA will ban Zalayeta for simulation, just so the real culprit - the illusion of omniscence - will go unscathed and unfortunately persist.

Now that's just wrong.

Thursday, October 18, 2007


The worst mistake a referee can make in soccer, indeed in any sport, is to make a call by implication - making calls they haven't actually seen, but are implied based on other impressions, including, but not exclusively, the reactions of players, managers and the crowd.

In England and at UEFA in general, there seems to be a body of consensus claiming the problem is with players and managers over-reacting. The thought goes something likie, "If we can just get everyone to stop pressuring the man in black, he would be free to make the correct calls."

But there are a few glaring problems with this claim: first, how many of us have played in a game where a referee blows the whistle, and the resulting silence from dumbfounded players on either side of the ball, is enough to hear a goal-keeper breathing heavy after a sprint. It happens also in the professional game, which leads to the following conclusion. Sometimes referees make calls under no pressure at all that are completely erroneous - so erroneous that even the offending team is not looking for the whistle. So the idea that the problem lies entirely with those applying pressure is absurd.

The real problem is that there is this thought that a good referee has to see everything that happens on the field. That's why so many referees are wont to admit that they've actually missed something. A foul, a ball over the line, a ghostly infringement that some how, in merely one of the 324,000 seconds that constitute a 90 minute match, has somehow changed the result - never mind missed open goals, and general bad play from the losing team. But this is really ridiculous isn't it?

Can the referee, even with one or two missed calls, really be held responsible for a result? If you're the losing team, the answer is always yes, but if we look at ourselves honestly, we all know we have a lot more to do with winning or losing than the referee. Even for underdogs who do (presumably) everything they can to win a match, only to have a bad penalty given "cost" them the game. Let me say this - if you were hanging your hopes of winning on the unlikely proposition that the referee is omniscient and catches every infringement against you, then you've got a whole other problem on your hands. Frankly, if he were, you probably wouldn't get away with what you have to get away with, to beat the favorites.

Because television announcers and producers are desperate to play up the drama of a match, in order to ensure your attention, they create this absurd aura of "a game of inches" and more of this sort of non-sense. They convince you that at any moment you may miss a game changing call or play, so much so, that we've deluded ourselves into thinking that if a referee misses a call, that he's responsible for the result. The bottome line is that a referee can't change the result any more than some crap defender, or profligate striker can, and to place the blame on a missed call for a result is absurd. I don't only say this as a former referee, I say this as a player and an observer of matches who's tired of everyone and their brother looking for excuses for bad results.

There is only one place I make an exception - that's when a referee makes a call that he didn't actually see. Take the England v. Russia match that just occured in Moscow. If Rooney did committ a foul on the play, only a blind man, or a veritable imbecile would insist it occurred in the penalty area. The video replays show clearly that it occurred outside the area, so why on earth was a penalty given? Because the referee has to be omnisicent, and if everyone in the stadium thinks it occured in the area (including Rooney who looked like a schoolboy who's just broken in his mother's favorite vase) then he has to call it otherwise he's - dare I say it - limited by human physiology and cannot see every single thing that happens on a pitch.

Now, instead of us saying that Russia should have done better to score a second goal, to keep their Euro hopes alive, we're saying the exact same thing of the English - only the English didn't do anything wrong on that play (in particular). It's true, the English could have scored again, and one wonders why they didn't. It seems the evil stench of Erickson-ian conservatism is not easily washed away by a buck-toothed English manager, and England tried to hold onto a one-goal lead rather than going for and getting the kill. What a shame.

But because the referee insists on making himself as important as the players, he can't resist making a call that he thinks he missed (which is unacceptable in today's climate) even though he would have been better off admitting his human limitations and saying, "Yes, there may have been a foul, and it may have been in the penalty area, but...I didn't see it." In that case, all he does is admit what we already know to be true, so no harm there, and in the process he avoids giving an unwarranted penalty, which gifted Russia a chance to stay in the race for the final qualification place in the group.

The bottom line is, it's much worse for a referee to call something that didn't happen (like the penalty given Florent Malouda when Liverpool played Chelski in September) than to simply miss a call. There's a built in excuse for missing a call - referees can't possibly see everything. But there's no excuse for simply making up an infringement that never happened. That's the result of a referee trying to look infallible, which is impossible, and nobody should expect that in the first place. Missing calls for referees is like players missing open goals, or making a bad pass - this happens because we're imperfect, and so is the referee.

Is that so wrong?