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Ruud's goal: A rotten decision
by Paul Gardner, June 11th, 2008 6:30AM

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I'd better begin this one with a disclaimer: I think the Italians played poorly against the Netherlands on Monday, and were soundly beaten by a better team. But ... Ruud van Nistelrooy's obviously offside goal for the Netherlands should not have been allowed.

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?

 



0 comments
  1. Brent Crossland
    commented on: June 11, 2008 at 8:19 a.m.
    Gee, maybe Taylor thought that it was unlikely that the press would understand the offside law since it was so clearly demonstrated that professional players didn't understand it! I'm sorry, but a law that penalizes an attacker for offside because some defender decided to stay on the ground for a few minutes would simply open up a whole new avenue for 'diving'. The game already suffers from attackers who fall over in the penalty area at the slightest touch and players on both sides of the ball who clutch their face when an opponent bumps their shoulder. Do you really want to add defenders hurling themselves to the ground off the field of play because they are beaten by an attacker along the touch line or are hopelessly out of position along the goal line? What about corner kicks? Instead of the defense pulling up when a ball is cleared, would we see a 'graceful one & half' across the goal line to put the attackers offside? The Italians played typical "arm in the air" defense instead of continuing to defend & 'remarkably' Panucci required no treatment and was able to jog back to position for the kickoff. The Italian defenders should have followed the advice given to every youth player -- "Play To The Whistle"!


  1. commented on: June 11, 2008 at 8:32 a.m.
    I have to agree. While the rule can be interpreted to support the decision, it really doesn't make much sense. However, I'm not inclined to plaster all the referees with label of petty civil servants. There was a moment in the Portugal-Turkey match when a player prepared to take a throw-in, only to have the ball slip from his hands and onto the field. While the embarrassed player scrambled to retrieve the ball, the others looked to the referee to whistle the illegal throw-in. The referee merely smiled and signaled for a second chance --- to the dismay of some of the crowd. The legal decision? No. But it was the sporting decision, which earned no dissent from anyone on the field. Kudos to this referee...and thank goodness for the two wonderful goals which left the Dutch superiority on this day beyond dispute.

  1. Bruce Gowan
    commented on: June 11, 2008 at 9:05 a.m.
    Before I had an opportunity to see the game and this controversial call I was called and asked to render my call. I am a soccer referee and since I read the advice to referees from FIFA and USSF I knew the correct answer. The attacking player was NOT offsides and the goal is good. I understand the "fairness" logic of the folks who don't like this nuance of the Laws of the Game. I can't imagine how difficult it would be to make an offside call if we allowed defenders to jump off the field of play to put an attacker offsides. Paul, I think you are on the wrong side of this situation.


  1. commented on: June 11, 2008 at 9:28 a.m.
    I agree that the decision to allow the goal was the correct one. In the hustle and bustle of a game, especially in a goal scoring situation, you cannot expect a referee to make a split second decision that a player was too injured to have "voluntarily" taken himself off the field, in which case the "sporting" decision is to disallow the goal, or was faking an injury in the hopes that a "sporting" decision would be made in his favor. No one has suggested that if Panucci had merely been lying on the ground in the box that VanNistelroy was offside. In that case the goal clearly would have counted. It is impossible to have a rule to cover every situation and sometimes it is necessary to allow a referee the discretion to make a difficult call. I personally do not see that this was a difficult call. The fact that Panucci was injured was just bad luck for the Italians.

  1. Kent James
    commented on: June 11, 2008 at 9:50 a.m.
    This is a tough call, but the referees got it right. Unfortunate for the Italians, but to rule the goal offside would be unfortunate for the Dutch. Someone is not going to be happy either way. (Ah, the joys of being a ref...) And the benefit of the doubt should go to the attacking team, not the defensive team that is trying to use the offside rule to avoid defending. Had the Italians simply stayed and defended, they would have adjusted to Panucci's being off the field. Asking referees to interpret the rules on the field opens the door for inconsistency and feeling that decisions are arbitrary. While the rules do not deal with this situation exactly, the closest parallel is a defender cannot move off the field to take himself out of offside equation. Although Panucci did not "voluntarily" leave the field, who knows (and how could a referee possibly judge) if he voluntarily chose to remain off the field to prevent himself from putting the Dutch attackers onside? What about a situation where a defender was clearly injured (say twisted an ankle while challenging a cross in the corner, where he stays down but is in no danger of further injury), but remains on the field. Should the referees use "common sense" to no longer consider that player part of the offside equation, since he can clearly no longer defend? What if he's not injured, but so far on the flank that he could not possibly be involved in a play in the center of the field, why consider him part of the offside equation? Where does the interpretation end? Do we want to be ruled by laws or ruled by men? Rules aren't perfect, but it is generally fairer to use them as much as possible to avoid leaving things open to interpretation ( "in the opinion of the referee" is probably the part of the rules that creates the most dissent).

  1. David Hardt
    commented on: June 11, 2008 at 9:50 a.m.
    The Referee got it right!

  1. Harold Delhommer
    commented on: June 11, 2008 at 11:09 a.m.
    Why does everyone complaining about the decision say it is unfair? Unfair to which team?? They only consider Italy. If offsides is called because two Italian players messed up and ran into each other, you are being very unfair to the Dutch!! But more important than fair/unfair are the rules. The rules (which include mandatory interpretations) and the logic behind them are clear. Paul, you have missed it this time.

  1. Rob Schneiderman
    commented on: June 11, 2008 at 1:32 p.m.
    There is an interesting variation on this kind of play: If a defender and an attacker both slide across the endline of the penalty area during the flow of play, and the defender grabs or otherwise fouls the attacker while both are off the field of play, it surely must result in a penalty -- even thought the foul did not occur in the penalty area!

  1. Joe Kee
    commented on: June 11, 2008 at 1:32 p.m.
    Paul, you are the Andy Rooney of the soccer world, only more annoying. All of your writings are negative and confrontational and make you sound like a bitter old man that hates the game of soccer. The referee's decision was immediate and correct and was further supported by the linesman's judgment to not raise the flag. Although I initially disagreed with the call, as I suspect most did, I was satisfied with the clarification of the rule, as I suspect most were, with the exception of, oh lets see, YOU. This rant of yours is clearly complaining for the sake of complaining. Half as many words dedicated to the beauty, brilliance, speed, skill and pure attacking grace of the second Dutch goal would have been a much better use of your time.

  1. Charles Huffer
    commented on: June 11, 2008 at 3:59 p.m.
    Paul, I know that it seems like a minor distinction, but as a referee myself it always grates when someone talks about soccer's "rules"; sorry, but soccer is governed by the Laws of the Game. For a very good discussion of Law 11 and its interpretations and Q&A's, go to http://www.corshamref.org.uk/offside.htm . Question 26 actually covers the situation in this case pretty well: (a) An defender's momentum, takes him out over the goal line where he remains injured off the field of play. (b) An defender's momentum, takes him out over the goal line but he is not injured. Was the player or was the player NOT injured; apparently "in the opinion of the referee" made in a very brief time frame, not. Please note that the discussion is about the "defender's momentum"; it does NOT specify that the momentum was caused by the player himself or by another player, attacker or defender. Please read the complete descriptions of both scenarios carefully: of course even the world's best referee wouldn't have time to think through all those nuances, but after the fact it would seem clear that the official's judgment was correct.

  1. Newman w Stemple
    commented on: June 11, 2008 at 4:29 p.m.
    I often agree with Mr. Gardner's comments but here he has gotten it wrong. I'm happy to see that most of the responses from readers disagree with Paul's comments. The US Soccer publication, Advice to Referees, in paragraph 11.11 makes the decision perfectly clear, i.e., van Nistelrooy's goal was NOT offside. And, this publication is not a secret; it's on the US Soccer website for all to see.

  1. John Soares
    commented on: June 11, 2008 at 4:34 p.m.
    Unfortunate situation...YES. Correct decision by "Laws of the Game"...absolutely. Mr Gardner, with all due respect, and I have considerable. It is you who missed this call. However I suspect you are doing it, "just for the hell of it"!

  1. Manuel Trejo-von Angst
    commented on: June 11, 2008 at 8:54 p.m.
    refs got it 100% correct. If they allow players, especially ones, who popped up and jogged down the field un-phased 2 seconds AFTER the goal went in, the luxury of going to the ground to make a player offside we are doomed to 0-0 results from now until eternity. The only reason Panucci was off the field at all is because he was already at the goal line and just hit the ground and rolled out of the way as the ball was being delivered back into the 6 yd box. If someone can't see how unfair it would be to allow defenders who screwed up in the first place the chance to just hit the deck to make up for their error...then I don't know what to tell them.

  1. Manuel Trejo-von Angst
    commented on: June 11, 2008 at 8:59 p.m.
    @JOHN MUNNELLsays: actually John, there was nothing sporting about that. The ref simply had his back to the player when he muffed the throw in. Had be been looking as he should have been, he should have called and illegal throw in or handball (hard to tell if the Turkish player only used one hand to throw it or not or if it slipped out of both hands at the same time) Either way it was a blown call.

  1. David Grundy
    commented on: June 11, 2008 at 10:42 p.m.
    My reaction was the same as the majority of respondents here, especially that of Joe Kee, who perceptively charcterizes Gardner as "the Andy Rooney of the soccer world." I do have a question about another goal in the first round, the first one scored by Germany. Why was not the scorer there offside? This seems to be some kind of standard procedure I haven't figured out yet - perhaps any pass parallel to the goal is not regarded as offside?


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