The referees and their decisions at the 2010 World Cup
A fundamental statement made by the author about football and the referees is that it is not the low quality of the referees’ decisions – which remains to be proven – that should be scrutinised, but their tendency. This tendency – as discussed in more detail elsewhere – is often to the disadvantage of the attackers. If this a) should be doubted and b) its effect, once accepted, should be felt to be just as questionable as detrimental to football as a whole, then the following points should only be quickly mentioned here:
To a) Is there any doubt about the interpretation to the disadvantage of the attackers?
A harmless jostle by an attacker that brings him into possession of the ball is generally interpreted as a “forward’s foul”, while a reverse but analogous offence by the defender, especially in the penalty area – or even in the same situation, since he “pays back in kind” — is never regarded as foul play by the defender, let alone as a penalty.
If 100 crosses are hit into the penalty area and about 50 of them are stopped due to a scramble, all of those 50 whistles are in favour of the defence. You can see with the naked eye that both parties – the defenders and the attackers – are always constantly working their opponents. Accordingly, there should be about 25 penalties and 25 forward fouls. It is widely accepted that “you can’t give a penalty for something like that”.
Why this sentiment is accepted is intuitively obvious: the scene would not result in a goal without the whistle, since even without foul play the attacker would still not get a shot/heading towards goal, and even if he did, it would not strike with anywhere near a measurable probability. If the whistle was blown in favour of the attacker, but there would be an almost certain goal because of the only decision provided for in the rules, the penalty? The penalty would be perceived as too harsh, so there are simply no penalties. Even if the referee’s behaviour, thinking, feeling, “I don’t punish because the penalty would be too harsh” is plausible, it would be a mandate to the rule-makers not to punish the equally fouling players unequally, but to set the penalty, including the one against the defenders, so high that it again creates a goal situation appropriate to the offence. In other words, there should not necessarily only be penalties for offences committed by defenders.
About 90% of offside decisions are against the attackers. One should read the word “offside decisions” carefully and think about it. Correct decisions, which can include both running on and stopping (here he rightly whistles offside, here he rightly lets run) are not included in this. Here, too, a brief psychological discussion of why the percentage distribution is so overwhelmingly the wrong way round, against the spirit of the game, against the tension: a goal that is wrongly recognised makes big waves – clearly, the score has changed and should not have — while a goal that is stopped, which is often only recognisable in the approach, is by no means addressed with the same fervour as a “referee failure”. The possible addressee for doing this is the media. After all, the loser is not allowed to do so because he allegedly wants to divert attention from his own failures; the winner does not. Won, ticked off. Soon no one asks “How?” any more, and so on.
These three examples – which could be added to in many places – may suffice here for the time being.
b) What effects should rule interpretations have to the disadvantage of the attackers?
Those who are jointly, if not mainly, responsible for the rules and thus for football as a whole give too little consideration to the needs of the spectators. In theory, the spectators should be well divided into the true fans of one of the two teams and the neutral spectators. The neutral spectators should actually be in the majority by far. Especially at a World Cup, this should be the case at practically every match, and it is here that many spectators could lay the foundation for a long following of this game. But the neutral spectator watching a match between Ghana and Australia or Japan and Cameroon can only hope for one thing to give him pleasure: Spectacle, excitement, goal scenes, goals. The true fan may be capable of suffering and be satisfied with a 0-0 draw without any scoring chances, hoping for an improvement in the next match, even celebrating the point scored against a favourite. The neutral spectator will switch off in the absence of scoring scenes, not look, get lost as a potential fan, turn his passion to another sport where things are fairer and more dramatic.
Basically, the tension is the criterion that one would have to take into account. The tension can only arise if goal scenes take place at reasonable intervals, preferably all the time. Let no neutral deny that, there would only be one argument against it: Too many goals will dull your senses at some point and you will no longer perceive a single one as “increasing tension”, as exciting at all, great, see handball as an example. The goal scenes should still lead to goals here and there, then it’s fun. At the moment, the waiting time is too high until one occurs. Cause: See above, the interpretation of the rules to the disadvantage of the attackers, which constantly prevents the so desirable goal situations. Just briefly mentioned: With a goal average of 2.6 goals per game, calculated worldwide in the top leagues – a goal is scored every 35 minutes. A single attack can hardly be perceived as exciting, since the outcome – as rare as the error – is already known: “This won’t work.”
Such a sloppy interpretation of the rules has another consequence: every player and coach is aware that only a single carelessness in the defence can decide the game by a goal conceded as a result. The idea that you simply score a few goals after a 0:1, because you might even field the better team, is illusory. You are behind, you lose. That’s what happened in many of the matches in this World Cup. The balance before the last day of the last 16 today, 29 June 2010: of 48 games in which a team took the lead at all, 38 were won. That is almost 80%. That is far more than just a clear tendency to fall behind, so to speak. The consequence, quite clearly, is that games are designed far more defensively, the mindset of players and coaches is fundamentally defensive. Just contrast this with the possibility that there would be more (allowed) goal chances and thus more goals: the spectators – preferably the neutral ones, but far outnumbered, if not even those of the losing team, as was the case recently with Germany-England – would be thrilled by more action anyway. Consequence: The players and coaches could preach offensive thinking with a clear conscience: The spectacle to be expected would be gigantic in its impact. The only tiny counter-arguments: 1. it has always been like this, 2. football will never break down, 3. who knows if it would be more interesting with more goals? And then you’ll scare away the fans? Well, unimaginable, isn’t it? The fact is that FIFA has long had the idea that more goals should be scored. They just don’t know how to implement it. See the attempt at the three-point rule, which – statistically proven – has brought nothing, unless stagnation is seen as “progress” compared to decline.
Triggered by only a minimal rethinking process – which, by the way, just led to the World Cup held in the USA in 1994 once formulation firmly anchored in the rules with regard to offside decisions –: When in doubt, give the attacker the benefit of the doubt.
2) An extremely vague theory:
Since the events of the game do not provide sufficient reason for spreading joy about the game of football, other points of discussion are sought, which can subsequently lead to excessive fervour and on which all tempers can heat up. One could use as motivation – perhaps in some analogy to ice hockey or even Formula 1, in the former of which the prospect of a few violent brawls with teeth knocked out and in the latter perhaps the possibility of a spectacular crash for more than a minority part of the motivation, to follow the sport – that they are watching today’s match closely, looking for more evidence of refereeing blunders and hoping to get the adrenaline pumping that they had hoped for but have so far missed in the multitude of encounters.
The vague theory is that FIFA, aware of the lack of spectacle, the empty arenas, the falling ratings, has even instructed the referees to first tie the spectators to the couch with a few “thoughtless” whistles and then let them spontaneously jump up to berate the whistle-blower? Well, yes: Vague…
3) Not everything that is bad does not shine
Well, in this country there is enough reason to ridicule (the rest of) world football. All it takes is a major tournament to bring out the index finger, which has been kept neatly covered for the duration of the national championships and, above all, the top European competitions, and point to the failures of the “Grande nation”, the “motherland of football” or even the “Squaddra azzura”, who actually have and can do next to nothing apart from beautiful beaches and good looks. It was the same in 2006, it is the same again in 2010: The German performances provide the football spectacle on this planet. The whole world has seen it, and even — let it be noted and used elsewhere — applauded it. Even the losing team and their supporters have tipped their hats, offered fair congratulations and shook hands in earnest congratulatory intent. The world bows down and the world gives thanks that the so long restrained joy of such a tournament could after all break out in purely footballing terms.
Just think with a little humility of the many finals reached when this spectacle was far in the background and the Germans simply muddled through relying on their luck. Just remember the 2002 World Cup, when in the preliminary round the equaliser only came against Ireland in injury time and in the final game, when a defeat would have meant elimination, the Germans were outplayed for a half against Cameroon, but the Cameroonians were unable to make use of their almost enforced numerical superiority after Ramelow was sent off, and on the contrary they even became more insecure and had to concede the 0:1. Later, the heavyweights Paraguay, USA and South Korea were swept aside, each with Kanter 1:0 victories. Let us understand the envy of the other nations, who have so much objectivity, applaud deserved successes – like this year’s – but maintain the same objectivity when it comes to the undeserved ones, and have identified the almost proverbial (not here, of course!) luck as the cause.
4) Perpetrators and victims
Now, to come very briefly to the real failures: It is certainly unpleasant when a goal is not recognised, like the English 2:2 against Germany. From this point of view in particular, the objectivity of the English should be brought to the fore even more, since they did not use this goal that was not given as an excuse – although they certainly would have had a good reason — but simply accepted the superiority of the Germans. Nevertheless, one can see here: It was a decision against a goal. These decisions are generally much easier to make, as discussed in detail above.
By the way, there was once a similar (non-)goal in a ManU – Tottenham game in England, when ManU pressed the whole game, but simply did not manage to score the winning goal – so the score was 0: 0, the most typical of all football results — , then Tottenham shot once on goal shortly before the end – an unlucky shot, too, that the goalkeeper had to rush after – and the ball crossed the line by about a whole metre- This goal was also disallowed, although it could not have remained hidden for any spectator standing in the top rows with his back to the pitch. This can never, ever be a visual problem. The will not to have seen the goal, due to the clearly perceived injustice from the point of view of the home team(!) ManU may have caused all eyes to be closed here.
Of course, one could counter this statement with the fact that Argentina just scored a goal against Mexico, which was clearly offside and thus contrary to the statement made. Very true. But one can object here: The offside situations in which the player movements are opposite – defender out, striker in – are very often judged wrongly, because the attacker is suddenly completely alone in the open. The eye is not really responsible for the whistle (wrongly stopping the striker) at that moment, but the reflex: “Oops, but he’s free. Surely he was offside.” On the other hand, the Tevez goal for Argentina was one where the attacker was moving backwards towards the ball and was not offside when he scored with his header because there were two defenders rushing back in his path towards the goal. This might have triggered the reverse reflex, or better put, prevented the reflex: “He’s not ‘sideways’ at all.”
The numerous yellow cards, some of them red, due to minor, seen assaults should be explained here as follows: there is a physical misconduct and a verbal misconduct. As the 2006 World Cup final tragically proved – because of its importance and the greatness of one in particular, Zinedine Zidane — this one time it became obvious and audible worldwide: there are verbal attacks, also called provocations. No one knows what is really being said on the pitch. The referee would not even have the chance to perceive such a violation because of the multitude of languages. This is indeed anarchy. One can even pronounce words in one’s home language that one knows by chance that the opponent knows. One can throw an appropriated word of the foreign language at the opponent’s head or whisper it in his ear, just among oneself, in a duel at a corner kick, for example; one could even talk one’s way out of it if caught, citing ignorance of the language. There is always something meaner. All this remains hidden for the spectator and the referee forever.
What is visible is that now and then someone has had enough. Other minor unsportsmanlike conduct may also cause one to lose one’s nerve: Why is the opponent allowed to constantly slap me on the feet, pull my shirt when no one is looking, inflict verbal abuse on me, but I am never allowed to do anything? There is no legal remedy that promises me compensation for what I have suffered. The fact that it is very often the playfully better attackers who are the victims – in a certain analogy to the above – who no longer get a chance to play up to their class because they are permanently, if only minimally, obstructed, are the little things that could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. You extend your elbow once because you can’t stand it. The extended elbow, however, is the unsportsmanlike act which, seen from all sides, pronounced and found to be right, one must not allow oneself under any circumstances. But one does…
What happens now, however, makes one think a little more about the distribution of perpetrators and victims: A player who goes flying into headers on the turf, ignoring the opponent’s feet and if off shakes once, gets up and continues to play, a player who has a gaping wound on his head tackled reluctantly and demanded by the rules on the sidelines without local anaesthetic, who gets a ball fired at close range at over 100 km/h, into the stomach area and continues to play without hesitation or flinching, not even going down, this player suddenly goes down as if stung by a tarantula after a touch that would not even cause a hypochondriac pain. The acting is immediately and readily apparent. Everyone, including all the fellow players, know, even as they kneel over him in concern, that this gentleman has now guaranteed to do himself no harm. He makes the most of it. It is always the case – as was demonstrated not only by Norbert Meier during the simulated but unrealised headbutt — that the alleged victims have to draw attention to the misdeed that has just been committed against them. But do they have to be successful? Where, pray tell, is the perpetrator here?
According to their own assessment, the offences are more or less balanced. In other words: the players are (regrettably but understandably) like children, actually kindergarten children. They only see which action, which behaviour brings success and which causes them harm. They only see that it was unfavourable for them, but that it was rewarded. So, if one achieves success with the action of sinking theatrically to the ground so that the opponent is henceforth no longer allowed to take part in the action – he achieves a decent success rate without having to fear even the slightest harm — he will do it. The only question is whether the boiling popular feeling will be directed against the “right” person.
5) The real causes of whistles
Referees have a vocation. They have ambition and are vain, certainly no more and no less than other people. They like to get good reviews and hate to get negative headlines. They generally try to make decisions that don’t rub them up the wrong way and that do well for them (even when they are criticised, so they are graded). This is a fundamental consideration that is largely ignored.
There are many critical situations in a game, and thus many critical decisions. There is even a tendency to avoid a critical decision. You see a corner kick flying into the penalty area. You see players fighting with each other. You blow the whistle before the question can even arise as to whether this results in a dangerous goal situation. And you point in one direction: away from the goal. Free kick. For the defence. The criticism afterwards then says: “Sovereign refereeing. The critical situation was anticipated and averted by a precautionary whistle. Nothing but applause, at most a shrug of the shoulders, “What was that all about? So what do you do? Whistle! And point away from the goal.
Incidentally, it is often enough the case with foul play near the penalty area that the referee is delighted to be given the chance to move the scene of the offence outside. It relieves him of the otherwise over-critical question: “Do I have to whistle a penalty kick for this offence or can I get away without a whistle? He moves the scene of the offence outside, stops as soon as he can so that the striker does not get even closer to the goal and thus force a penalty.
The same applies, of course, to the assistants (who are interchangeable with the referees), who always raise the flag as a precaution when it looks critically like offside or not. The consequence? “Here and there he erred in offside decisions. But no serious damage was done. That could only have happened if he had let the ball go and it had resulted in a goal.