By Paul Gardner
A great shame, this. What promised to be -- what surely should have been -- an immensely pleasing semifinal between Switzerland and Colombia at the Under-17 World Cup was quickly turned into a disappointing occasion -- by the referee.
That much is quite certain. But whether any blame attaches to Referee Michael Hester for ejecting Colombian defender Santiago Arias just 13 minutes into the game -- of that, I am not so certain.
This was the situation. Swiss forward Nassim Ben Khalifa, having beaten goalkeeper Cristian Bonilla to the ball, shot toward the empty net. Then, quite definitely, there was solid contact between the ball and the right hand of Arias. That much is indisputable. What happened next is a matter of interpretation.
The referee did not hesitate. He saw the handball as a deliberate attempt by Arias to keep the ball out of the net -- and thus red-carded Arias and awarded Switzerland a penalty kick. Ben Khalifa scored from the kick -- giving Switzerland an early 1-0 lead, and leaving Colombia to play the remaining 75 minutes with only 10 men in the sweltering heat of Lagos.
Switzerland emerged as comfortable 4-0 winner -- a result that was made more than likely, possibly inevitable, by that early referee decision. I should say, at this point, that I think Switzerland would have won the game even had it remained an 11 vs. 11 contest. This is a very good Swiss team -- it had beaten Brazil, Germany and Italy to reach the semifinal, and had always played excellent soccer.
So, while the referee's decision may not have altered the result, it did ruin the game, draining it of any suspense or tension, turning it into a poorly written play of which one already knew the ending.
A farce then, rather than the anticipated drama. The ostensible culprit for this distortion was referee Hester. But culprit is too strong a word. There was no crime here. The referee called, at once, what he believed to be a deliberate piece of impromptu goalkeeping by Arias. So the red card and the penalty kick followed automatically.
The handball was obvious, clear to everyone -- so clear that it almost demanded to be punished. How could the referee ignore it? Nevertheless, it's not by any means clear, even after repeated replays, that this was a deliberate play by Arias. It could be interpreted as a ball-to-hand -- i.e. unintentional -- incident. While it is reasonable to praise Hester for making a brave decision by issuing a red card that early in the game, I think an even braver decision would have been to judge the handball unintentional and make no call at all.
There is a further point -- a rather picky one, admittedly -- which is that Ben Khalifa's shot did not look like a particularly accurate one, and may well have missed the goal anyway. In which case Arias, even if judged to have deliberately handled the ball, did not prevent a goal -- hence a penalty kick, but a yellow card rather than a red.
But to make that sort of judgment is asking too much of a referee. And so to the real culprit here: the rules of the game, which demand that a red-carded player cannot be replaced.
This is a rule that needs revising. Unbalancing a game in this way is hardly a sensible move, if only because it is almost certain to wreck the game as a spectacle, as a realsoccer encounter, i.e. an 11 vs. 11 game.
Reducing a team to 10-men should be the ultimate punishment, reserved for straight red cards given for violent play. For other ejections -- for technical offenses or following a second yellow card -- a team should be allowed to replace the ejected player.
Maybe only one replacement should be allowed; a second red card in the game, for whatever reason, would mean that a team was down to 10 men.
No doubt there are many variations that could be introduced. They should be investigated. We are talking about a game-distorting, if not game-destroying, rule. Common sense dictates that it should be used sparingly -- much more sparingly than at present.
Under the current rules anyred card means playing short-handed. To insist on the same draconian punishment for such a variety of widely differing offenses -- they can range from an utterly trivial second yellow to a violent, leg-breaking tackle -- smacks of medieval laws that demanded the death penalty for anything from minor theft to murder. That is manifestly unfair, which is bad enough. It is also not too bright, as it calls for virtually unthinking application of a rule that is more than likely to ensure a poor game.