If there were any doubts that referee Peter Frojdfeldt and his assistant had made an absurd error, they were quickly put to rest -- by UEFA's own "clarification" that attempted to defend the decision.
This is exactly the sort of pontifical clarification that gets referees and refereeing a bad name. Trying to excuse Frojdfeldt for a lousy call, UEFA's general secretary David Taylor begins his task by belittling virtually the entire soccer world, accusing us of not knowing the rules: "Not many people, even in the game, and I include the players, know this interpretation," he tells us.
Indeed. He's referring to an interpretation of Rule 11 -- the rule that deals with offside. Van Nistelrooy, says Taylor, was not offside, because Italian defender Christian Panucci kept him onside -- even though Panucci was lying on the ground several yards outside the field of play. Panucci, by this interpretation, was the necessary second defender -- goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon being the other one.
So: we are asked to believe that the rule states that a player lying on his back, well beyond the field's boundary, is actually to be considered still on the field, and becomes the crucial element in a goalscoring situation. How could that be? Does Rule 11 really state that clearly? No, it does not. In fact, Taylor had to admit that Rule 11 "does not deal with this situation directly at all."
Quite. Soccer has never adopted the attitude that every possible incident that might occur has to be spelled out in the rules. A great deal has always been left to the referee's judgment. To his common sense.
Here was a perfect moment for a referee's common sense to prevail. But it did not. Instead, we're told by Taylor that a "widely known" (among referees, apparently, their own little secret) interpretation allows them to take wording that was designed for a totally different situation, and bend it into a justification for not applying common sense.
I use the term "wording," because we're not even talking about a rule here. There is nothing at all in Rule 11 that covers this situation. The wording that Taylor is hiding behind, occurs in the "Additional Instructions" section of the rule book - and dare I say that, contrary to Taylor's imputation of widespread ignorance, it is wording that is well known to the entire soccer community. Namely, that a defender cannot deliberately step off the field of play in an attempt to put an opponent offside.
The essence of that play is that the defender's action has to be deliberate; as such it can be seen - should be seen - as a form of cheating, a way of subverting the game's rules. The rules demand that the player involved in the cheating is to be given a yellow card.
Most reasonable people would agree with that interpretation -- simply because it is a reasonable interpretation. But Taylor cannot use this interpretation to make his case because it leads immediately to a colossal contradiction. Panucci was not given a yellow card -- for the very obvious reason that he clearly did not step off the field voluntarily. He was not trying to cheat. He was involved in a hefty collision with his own goalkeeper, Gianluigi Buffon -- a collision that left him lying on the ground, several yards outside the field.
So Taylor must scrape the barrel for a justification, which he claims to have found in the following situation: when a defender is racing full speed toward his own goal line and his own momentum carries him -- unintentionally -- off the field. This is what Mr. Taylor says we don't understand: that defender is also considered as being still on the field; in fact he is considered as standing on the goal line, right where he left the field, and he is therefore virtually certain to be keeping opposing players on side.
That is not quite so reasonable, but it can be justified as necessary - for any other ruling would involve the referee in impossible decisions about whether the player had run further off the field than he need have done, whether he was truly trying to scramble back into play, and suchlike.
So, tough luck on Panucci and the Italians, says Taylor, and then proceeds to make his already feeble case even weaker with a statement that flies in the face of the facts, by commenting that "the Italian defender was off the field because of his momentum." That is the key element of Taylor's defense of referee Frojdfeldt -- and it is just plain wrong. Either Mr. Taylor has not bothered to look at the incident, or he is being decidedly economical with the truth. Because Panucci's exit from the field had nothing to do with "his momentum" -- he was barged off the field, quite accidentally, by Buffon, and ended up lying on the ground, possibly injured, possibly stunned.
This constituted a highly unusual situation, for which there is no allowance in the rule book. Frojdfeldt should have used his common sense and disallowed the goal. But referees, as a breed, are not all that good at applying common sense. They prefer to behave like petty civil servants, proud of their ability to quote chapter and verse from obscure regulations. Better to distort an existing rule, and apply it to something that it clearly does not cover, than to be guilty of doing the sensible thing.
Whatever, it is pretty clear that Taylor is well aware that his apologia is unconvincing. Why else would he virtually invite the International Football Association Board to step in and decide if a clarification is needed, or if a loophole exists?