In the end -- and certainly this was not an easy process -- Spain squeaked past Paraguay by the same minimal scoreline that it had managed against Portugal: 1-0.
The result seems fair -- it was Spain that had done most of the attacking, that was looking to score. Paraguay preferred the defensive approach. Whether justice was done, though -- that is more debatable. Because of a couple of decisions by referee Carlos Batres that went against Paraguay.
First incident: with the score at 0-0, Nelson Valdez had the ball in the net for Paraguay. The goal was disallowed -- evidently for offside (I say “evidently,” for at first there appeared to be a possibility that Valdez had handled the ball, but a replay showed this was not the case). So, offside it was. Or was it? As the ball came looping into the Spanish penalty area, Valdez was not offside -- he was level with the Spanish defender Pique. But another Paraguayan forward, Oscar Cardozo, was offside.
The ball did not go to Cardozo. He, along with Spain’s Sergio Busquets jumped, but neither player made contact with the ball. It sailed over their heads and fell to Valdez who fired it into the net.
By that time the assistant referee’s flag was up. But who was he calling offside? If Valdez, he was flat-out wrong. If Cardozo, a number of questions about the interpretation of the offside rule present themselves.
TV commentators Ian Darke and John Harkes both declared that the goal should have been allowed. Their reasoning being firstly that Cardozo, who was offside, did not play the ball, and secondly that Valdez was clearly not offside. I find that convincing.
But at half-time, we were whisked back to the studio for more expert opinion. We got the view of Roberto Martinez, who had presumably been studying the replays, and who declared that the offside call was against Cardozo, and that it was a good call (it needs to be mentioned that Martinez is Spanish). His reasoning, as far as I was able to follow it, was this: that although Cardozo did not play the ball, when he jumped for it he “became active.”
The offside rule says “active play” means: #1 interfering with play, or #2 interfering with an opponent, or #3 gaining an advantage (as a result of his offside position). Later in the rule book those categories are explained. As far as Martinez’s opinion goes, we can rule out #1 and #3, which both involve “playing or touching” the ball.
The Martinez view, then, stands or falls by #2 -- defined as “preventing an opponent from playing or being able to play the ball by clearly obstructing the player’s line of vision or movements ...” As it is quite clear that Cardozo did not do any of that, I frankly cannot see any merit in Martinez’s opinion. Paraguay was robbed of a goal.
Second incident: The game -- still at 0-0 -- exploded into frantic life in the 57th minute. As Paraguay’s Edgar Barreto swung in a corner kick, the usual free-for-all between attackers and defenders was breaking out in the Spanish goalmouth. This time referee Batres saw something that he deemed too outrageous to ignore: Defender Pique yanking hard on Cardozo’s arm, and pulling him down. Penalty kick to Paraguay, yellow card to Pique.
So far so good. The problems -- for both the referee and for commentators Darke and Harkes -- started when Iker Casillas saved the penalty. At that point the referee should have ordered a retake -- not because Casillas advanced from his line (though he probably did) but because of flagrant encroachment by Spain’s Sergio Ramos and Cesc Fabregas.
The encroachment was clearly visible on the live TV pictures as Cardozo approached the ball, and on the two subsequent replays it was even clearer. Neither Darke nor Harkes spotted it. Nor did referee Batres.
So Casillas was credited with an important save when there was one cast iron reason, and another quite probable reason (his own movement) why the save should have been over-ruled.
Things immediately got more complicated. Within 45 seconds, Batres had (correctly) awarded Spain a penalty kick at the other end. But this time Batres did see the encroachment as Xavi Alonso scored from the penalty spot (there is no explanation for that, as the encroachment was less obvious than that preceding Casillas’s save). On the retake, goalkeeper Justo Villar made the save and immediately brought down Fabregas for what ought to have been yet another penalty.
To close out this shambles, there came another replay of the Casillas penalty save -- one that showed the encroachment with total clarity, and also showed that Casillas had indeed come off his line. Watching this, Harkes once again completely failed to spot the encroachment, noted that Casillas had come off his line early -- and then, having just admitted that Casillas had cheated, called it “a great save by Casillas.”
Obviously, the more important aspect of all this is not the confusion sewn by Darke and Harkes (the Martinez version of the offside rule didn’t help matters, either) but the inability of referee Batres to spot the encroachment on the first kick.
This raises a question that I have brought up before: does the referee take up the best position at penalty kicks? He has an assistant on the goal line, watching for goal-keeper movement (assistants who rarely see any movement, even when it’s blatant), while he himself stands in line with the penalty spot. Which means that, if he’s watching the kicker, which he presumably is, he is not likely to be able to spot encroachment. But that position is, I gather, the “official,” or at least the recommended, referee position. At any rate, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a referee take up a different position. Though it seems to me that one behind the kicker would make more sense.
If the referee were to stand in the middle of the penalty arc line, his vision would take in both the actions of the kicker, and any players encroaching.
One of the most frequent -- and genuine -- problems that referees face is not being in the best position to see an incident clearly. Which makes it downright perverse for them to choose a penalty-kick position that almost guarantees restricted vision.