Smiting the FIFA gods with a bit of technology


United States' Michael Bradley, left, argues with Mali's referee Koman Coulibaly during the World Cup group C soccer match between Slovenia and the United States at Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa, Friday, June 18, 2010. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

“I’m so glad the World Cup is here!” I exclaim in front of my colleagues out here in WVU’s Coliseum. I’m surrounded by true sports aficionados—men and women who research all manners of sport, sport management, sport psychology, kinesiology, fitness, physical therapy—and my exclamation is met with a sound rebuke:

“Ah, I’m not a soccer fan.” “Soccer is boring.” “What a ridiculous set of rules they have!”

And the tirades go on and on as I try to get people to join in a World Cup bracket pool. “What’s wrong with soccer?” I say. “It’s a beautiful, global sport!”

One peer looks at me dryly, “For one thing, everybody falls down like they’ve been shot,” referring to the players that take dramatic dives in order to draw fouls from the ref. “And another thing, I really hate how the refs are treated as gods.”

Boom. He got me there. And I began to think—mind you this was before the first game kicked off this summer in South Africa—why are the refs treated like gods? And before my train of thought left the station, I was witness to the first hideous call by a ref: a disallowed goal called on USA vs. Slovenia. Malian native Koman Coulibaly took away a good goal from American Maurice Edu. No one was offside, and the multitude of high-definition cameras, placed at every conceivable angle (inside the goal, from the sky, close-up on the feet, above the goal, from the sidelines, etc.), and shown at super slow motion, recorded the fact that there wasn’t one thing that should have disallowed the goal. In fact, the Slovenians had three different Americans in headlocks or bear hugs. An Announcer proclaimed, “That’s one of the worst calls I’ve every seen in World Cup history.” What’s even better? Coulibaly didn’t have to explain anything—to anyone. He was certainly playing the part of a god. The goal was taken away, and thus the U.S. was forced to a draw, stopping an improbable comeback from a 2-0 Slovenian run in the first half.

But I’m not a huge USA fan. Honest. I also used to defend the archaic system of World Cup rules and gods to my NFL, MLB, and NHL-loving friends. “It’s a global sport, guys,” I’d say. “You can’t have instant replay in a lot of cities in third world countries.” And then I’d say something about how we should look outside our country’s mindset, or something similarly pithy.

Additionally, I don’t like how instant replay can bog down a game. I can understand why the NFL uses it, because the rules are vast and complicated, the game is fast and frenetic, and a lot of speed and bulk are crammed on a field much smaller than soccer. Having “video refs” takes away part of the game; it can stop the ebb and flow of a game’s twists and turns.

My turning point was, however, once FIFA started using their dozens of beautiful camera shots, replaying to the world all of the referees’ major blunders over and over again. And in HD, too. I think once you start negating the officials with television, it’s time to make a change, or you’re forever going to face scrutiny.

But don’t take my word for it. Look at the camera shots. What have they captured so far?

• Luis Fabiano and his handball goal; Ref: Stephane Lannoy—Brazil’s Fabiano whiffed past two Ivory Coast fullbacks, doing some fancy foot- and hand-work, and scored. The non-official instant replay—i.e., the television set—showed Fabiano using his hands. Twice. Lannoy didn’t have a good view, so he asked Fabiano if he used his chest instead of his hands. Guess what Fabiano said?

• Yellow card mania!; Ref: Alberto Undiano—Truthfully, this game started nothing close to dirty. There were no flinging Argentine legs, no headbutting, no dirty elbows, just some leg traps and tumbles. But Undiano decided to start throwing out enough yellow cards to slow traffic down. In just over 25 minutes, there were five bookings on the record. And in just over a half hour, Germany’s Miroslav Klose was given his second yellow card of the game, and was sent off, leaving his team down a man for the entire second half. Undiano seemed to realize his zealous actions, and let everything slide in the second half. Talk about inconsistency.

• Kaka sees red; Ref: Stephane Lannoy—Ivory Coast’s Keita runs straight at Brazilian star Kaka. Kaka clinches up, waiting for the collision. Keita falls to the ground, and clutches his face. The ref cards Kaka with a red for elbowing Keita in the face. Unofficial instant replay show that Keita’s face didn’t even come near any part of Kaka’s body.

• Offside goal, part I; Ref: Unknown assistant referee—This ref first got a similar call right, by disallowing New Zealander Shane Smeltz’s offside headed goal, but then turned around and fell asleep when Smeltz ran offside and scored. Again. The opponents? Returning champions Italy, who were subsequently knocked out of the first round.

• Offside goal, part II; Ref: Unknown assistant referee—Okay, I’m not being picky here, because it’s obvious Argentina should have beat Mexico. But, for the sake of my argument, Argentina’s Tevez was VERY offside when he shot against Mexico’s Perez, which created a deflection that Messi easily knocked in. Nonofficial instant replay clearly showed that the assistant referee on the line—the man whose sole job at that particular instant was to monitor the offside line—must have been thinking about Vuvuzelas and bad South African beer.

• The goal that clearly was, wasn’t; Ref: Mauricio Espinosa and Jorge Larrionda—Germany clearly beat England 4-1, but in the middle of it all was the goal that wasn’t. Assistant Espinosa didn’t, or couldn’t, see the goal that was struck by England. The ball hit the top crossbar, and bounced in the goal. Larrionda disallowed the goal, but was “visibly stricken when he was shown the replay after the game.”

• Honorable mention: Guess who also made the list of World Cup referees? Martin Hansson, the Swedish ref that made an epic blunder when he missed Thierry Henry’s (France) handball against Ireland, which ultimately knocked out Ireland from the qualifiers. And guess what? Instant replay ignited the ire of Ireland when it showed in a very clear picture that Henry’s blatant handball was a massive failure on behalf of the officials. I guess it’s just as well that France has been eliminated, too.

Clearly, the video technology is doing a better job at making the referees look like partisan and/or sleepy officials. When my wife, the tennis player, who smiles politely and absently at me when I talk about the World Cup can exclaim, “They let the refs do that?” in response to the disallowed England goal, then obviously FIFA needs to re-examine their lack of on-field technology. And, as if on cue from the pressure, usually technology-tepid FIFA president Sepp Blatter apologized to England and Mexico for being knocked out of contention, perhaps in part by bad officiating. AP Sports Writer Graham Dunbar reported Blatter’s comments: “Naturally we deplore when you see the evidence of referees mistakes,” said Blatter, who also added that it would be “a nonsense” for FIFA to not reexamine goal-line technology with the governing body of rule-makers.

But here’s my own conclusion and advice:

If you’re not going to use instant replay, then don’t offer it to the viewers. Use some goal line technology that lets the refs know when the soccer ball crosses the line (hello, NHL?). Get another two officials to monitor the goalie boxes on each end. Make sure officials have to explain themselves—like when they call a foul, say what the foul is, and who is responsible (hello, NFL?). Don’t let refs use homemade “mood rings” to determine how snarky they’re going to be each game. And, above all, don’t give red cards “based on a hunch.” The whole world is watching in high definition, slow motion video that is well beyond the capacities of the referee that is frantically trying to keep pace on the field, chasing down men like Fabiano.


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