We're not going to solve this mystery of exactly what it is that referees see when they do or not give penalty kicks. Well, not this week, anyhow. Two prime examples of mystifying calls happened over the weekend -- one penalty that wasn't given (that should have been), and one that was given (that should not have been). The comments in brackets represent my opinions, of course.
Firstly, the one that was given -- by referee Mark Geiger. On the wrong end of this one was the Chicago Fire defender Wilman Conde. Guillermo Barros Schelotto scored from the kick, enabling Columbus to tie the game at 2-2. This is a problem call that crops up regularly in soccer -- I won't say in every game, but maybe every other game. Quite frequently, then.
It's a 50-50 ball -- genuinely so, two players are going for it, both with an equal chance of getting it. Under such circumstances, they are usually moving rapidly, trying to be the first to the ball, and both have raised their legs to snare it. Then comes the inevitable collision as the raised legs collide -- either with each other or with some thigh- or waist-level part of the opponent. Both go down -- it looks nasty -- indeed, it may benasty. But should one player be singled out for blame in this?
In the example I've cited, both players involved -- Conde, and Columbus forward Steven Lenhart left their feet, jumping toward each other. Conde got to the ball first, fractionally. Then the collision, by which time Lenhart seemed to be indulging in a flying scissor kick. Forget about intent -- that is irrelevant. What we're looking for -- what Geiger would be looking for, I'd think -- is evidence of 1) a player "jumping at an opponent," and 2) that the jump was "careless, reckless or using excessive force."
I'd say the first three of those four conditions were met by both players. In which case -- what does a referee do? Geiger chose to punish Conde -- though I cannot see why he was any more guilty than Lenhart. I would have the same problem if Geiger had called the foul on Lenhart (though slightly less so -- I rate Lenhart's leap more reckless than Conde's).
Here is where I insert the usual disclaimer. I have not that much patience for Chicago's whining that the call took a win away from it. The Fire should have been up 4-0 at halftime anyway (of all people, Brian McBride was the chief culprit in the Fire's failure to take simple chances). The Fire has only themselves to blame for the tie, not Geiger.
But I would be intrigued to know what Geiger saw that made him so sure that Conde had committed a foul, and Lenhart had not. I find I often have this reaction when these 50-50 calls are made. It's almost as though the referee feels obliged to make a call. But he has other options -- he could simply allow play to continue -- thus, in effect, allowing matching fouls to cancel each other out -- or he could blow his whistle and signal for a dropped ball. I'll admit I'm not too sure whether this is the correct procedure -- but why not? The rules say "If, while the ball is in play, the referee is required to stop the game temporarily for any reason not mentioned elsewhere in the Rules of the Game, the match is restarted with a dropped ball."
Well, I can't find any mention of simultaneous fouls in the rules, so I think a dropped ball -- contested, of course -- would be a good solution. (Then again -- you may not know that the rules also state that "there is no minimum or maximum number of players required to contest a dropped ball," which raises visions of a wild, hacking free-for-all, hardly what I have in mind). No doubt some clever referee-type person will let me know about this.
My other PK happening came in the EPL game between Chelsea and Tottenham. This was refereed by Howard Webb, who seems to be considered England's best referee at the moment, for reasons that completely escape me. Now what on earth did he see when Chelsea defender Ricardo Carvalho, without making contact with the ball, upended Spurs' Robbie Keane? Webb's positioning was good, the incident occurred right in front of him, well inside the Chelsea penalty area, but he ignored the foul.
Keane, with some reason, went slightly ape -- and what he seemed to be indicating to Webb was this: if that wasn't a penalty, then how come I'm not getting booked for diving? Good point. This is a quandary that the sport -- especially the referees and the bosses at FIFA -- have brought on themselves. And how right that it should be Webb who gets caught out by it. This is the same Webb who, quite outrageously, gave Lionel Messi a yellow for diving in a Champions League game earlier this year -- another bad decision that meant Webb didn't have to give a penalty kick.
Spurs coach Harry Redknapp put the whole thing down to the recent brouhaha over Arsenal's Eduardo and his alleged dive against Glasgow Celtic. Keane, he said, was too honest -- he should have gone down immediately, but he tried to stay upright -- so he didn't get the call. But he was scared that if he did go down quickly, he'd get a yellow.
That's all quite possible. The diving witch hunt has created a situation where referees have been encouraged to look for diving. But UEFA's flip-flop in the Eduardo case has brought some reality to the picture. When asked by Arsenal's lawyers to take a closer look at the "evidence" for Eduardo's dive, UEFA had to admit that there was no evidence. Leaving the referees where? With both feet firmly planted in mid air -- not unlike attacking players who, when fouled in the penalty box, have the choice offered by the egregious Webb, of either getting a yellow for a non-existent dive, or not getting a penalty kick.