[MY VIEW] About a year ago, the coach of a very good MLS team about to play a not-so-good MLS team told a reporter, "Unless the referee does something crazy, there's no way we can lose this game."
The referee didn’t do anything crazy and the coach’s team won the game comfortably. (Names and other details have been withheld to protect those involved.) But just the fact the referee had been mentioned in this manner came back to me in the wake of harsh criticism pelting down on Concacaf referees last week for controversial decisions in matches involving MLS teams.
In the case of officiating, we are the world.
The standard of Concacaf refereeing came under fire, once again, this week for red cards that left Toronto FC with nine men at the end of its 1-0 loss to Arabe Unido, and Crew players, coaches and officials dumbfounded when a goal by Andy Irowas disallowed because it had been set up by Emilio Renteria, who’d re-entered the match wearing a jersey with no number on the back.
Yet these are cases of decisions, not omissions.
Referee Marlon Mejia took a stringent view of a sliding challenge by Nick LaBrocca on Arabe Unido goalkeeper Jose Calderon and ejected the TFC midfielder, and also whipped out the red card when Fuad Ibrahim, cautioned early in the match, protested a foul called when he took out an opponent with a two-footed tackle. Harsh decisions, maybe, but not necessarily wrong.
The Renteria situation degenerated into a fiasco. He’d left the field to have a bleeding head wound bandaged and also changed his bloody jersey for a clean one. The new jersey had no number, a quirk the referee couldn’t have seen from his spot in the middle of the field, and that neither the fourth official nor the referee’s assistant on that sideline noticed.
When Renteria crossed a ball Iro banged into the net, the officials conferred and determined Renteria had re-entered the game illegally, or at least improperly dressed, annulled the goal and cautioned him. FIFA rules state each player must be wearing a numbered jersey to participate in the match, and since the Crew apparently didn’t travel to Mexico with a set of press-on numbers or a waterproof Sharpie pen, it paid the price.
Even if Renteria been waved onto the field by the referee, as Crew players and coaches contended, the rules allow the referee to stop play immediately if he notices something about the players’ uniform or equipment is amiss. That could include a broken stud on a shoe, or a torn jersey, or a potentially dangerous object, such as a ring.
On the other side of the Atlantic, different debates are ongoing. After a blatant handball by Tottenham striker Jermaine Defoe went undetected in the lead-up to his scoring of the vital goal by which Spurs advanced to the Champions’ League group stage on Wednesday, UEFA President Michel Platinidismissed any immediate need for technology to aid the officials.
“I will always defend it and with a lot of rigor as I believe it is the only solution,” he said Thursday. “In terms of technology, I'm very measured because I go on the basis that if you have an additional referee he can see it just as well as technology.
“Eyes have always functioned and have always worked, so I am more in favor of testing the experience of whether the referee there has seen whether the ball went in or not. Let's wait and see how the [five-official system] works before seeing whether goal-line technology is important.”
More eyes on the action is a remedy instituted last year for Europa League matches and expanded this year to include the European Champions’ League with the use of two extra officials, one stationed on the goal line next to each goal. They are empowered to monitor goalmouth action and act as judges to rule on balls landing or bouncing near the goal line.
Five officials should be better than three (the referee and two referee’s assistants), yet none of the five spotted the beautiful bicep trap by which Defoe controlled a chip before he lashed the ball into the net for Spurs’ second goal and a 4-3 lead on aggregate against Young Boys Berne. Unlike the situations in the Columbus and Toronto matches, and like the Frank Lampard shot off the crossbar at the 2010 World Cup, the officials just didn’t see it.
Yet Platini deserves more credit than FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who has waffled on goal-line technology to the extent he declared shortly after the World Cup, “We must protect refereeing.” Some referees apparently view changes as threats to their authority. They, and Blatter, need to be reminded that they serve the game, not the other way round.
Platini has assigned Italian former referee Pierluigi Collina, he of the smooth bald head and laser-sharp stare, as UEFA chief refereeing officer. Collina might be the right man, with enough acumen and clout, to make referees accountable, a task at which Blatter has utterly failed.
“The referees will have no more excuses,” Collina said. “If they're not good enough to be on the field, they will not be on the field anymore.”
That ultimatum isn’t practical but the tone sounds about right.