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Lucky Arsenal! Messi's disallowed goal was legit
by Paul Gardner, February 17th, 2011 1:40PM

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TAGS:  england, referees, spain

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By Paul Gardner

It is generally agreed that the sight of players complaining about the referee's decisions is not one we want to see on the soccer field. Even worse, is the spectacle of a crowd of players hounding the referee, chasing him and yelling furiously at him.

It shouldn’t happen -- not least because there’s a rule saying it's a yellow-card offense. That’s in Rule 12, which states that a player is to be cautioned for “dissent by word or action” -- we are left to assume that the rule is talking about dissent directed at the referee’s decisions. But it is a rule that is rarely enforced.

Yesterday, during the Arsenal vs. Barcelona game, we didn’t have to wait long for a blatant example of dissent -- that went unpunished. Arsenal’s Alex Song was booked for a foul, and immediately waved his arm, showing emphatic and obvious disgust with the call (which was a good call). But what referee, only 7 minutes into the game, is going to send a player off by giving two yellow cards, one right after the other, the second for dissent? Of course, it doesn’t happen very often.

The problem is that we have become totally habituated to seeing players complain -- to the point where, when the players don’t kick up a rumpus, we feel we can safely assume that the referee got it right.

Just how wrong that assumption can be was proved during that Arsenal vs. Barcelona game. Half an hour after Song’s violently expressed dissent went unpunished, Lionel Messi headed the ball into the Arsenal net for a goal that would have made it 2-0 to Barcelona. The goal was immediately annulled by the assistant referee’s flag, indicating offside against Messi.

We got a good camera shot of Messi looking baffled, and another of coach Pep Guardiola calmly accepting the decision on the sideline. Neither Messi nor any other Barcelona player ran over the remonstrate with the AR -- that is something that we see quite frequently -- and the game quickly resumed. But, something that I missed when I wrote earlier today (I’ve been helped out here by an eagle-eyed referee), there was absolutely nothing wrong with Messi’s goal. The replay reveals that at no time during the play that led up to his header was Messi in front of the ball. Hence he could not have been offside.

I’m not suggesting that a wild bout of protesting from Messi and Co., would have changed the referee’s decision (it was the assistant referee who got it wrong, of course). But the lack of any complaint undoubtedly meant that the incident was not reviewed properly on television -- nor by me, for that matter.

So -- what price fair play and sportsmanship? Messi is not known as a serial whiner to referees -- though, as one of the most-fouled players in the game he has plenty of justification for bitching about his treatment. Should he have complained yesterday? Vigorous protests to the referee may well be counterproductive, of course -- but, equally, they may sow doubt in the referee’s mind, possibly leading to a more favorable decision later on.

As far as yesterday’s incident goes, the more one looks at it, the more obvious it becomes that this was a pretty lousy call. Yet, it was accepted by Barcelona without demur -- most probably because they too, at the time, considered it to be a valid, or at least reasonable, call.

A sequence that invites the question: if referees are unlikely to punish dissent, and if even the most apparently correct calls can be wrong . . . then why not show dissent?

What’s to be lost by letting the referee, and the fans, and the TV commentators and the journalists know that it's quite possible that the ref or his assistant has just screwed up?

The old baseball adage about getting in the umpire's face surely also applies to soccer: the yelling and screaming is not about this call -- it's about the next one.



0 comments
  1. Jack Jack
    commented on: February 17, 2011 at 2:12 p.m.
    Ever heard of a referee named Tom Henning Ovrebo that refereed Barca and Chelsea game few seasons back? Try google it!! ;)

  1. T michael Flinn
    commented on: February 17, 2011 at 2:15 p.m.
    I thought the assistant was even more wrong later on when he called an offside against Barca on a swift counterattack and he was clearly out of position (not even with the next to last defender). From his angle he may have thought it was offside but he was behind the play and got it all wrong. Again, there was no real complaint from Barca.

  1. Josh Edgmon
    commented on: February 17, 2011 at 2:23 p.m.
    it would've still been a tie game. and giving up two goals in the last minutes of the game is what really shows

  1. Emmanuel Vella
    commented on: February 17, 2011 at 2:24 p.m.
    Paul...Did you actually watch the game? Barca were moaning for fouls that never happened and complaining constantly. You are one eyed!

  1. Tim King
    commented on: February 17, 2011 at 2:37 p.m.
    Your first piece on this match was fairly good. Now you engage in this idiotic dribble. Honestly, my Soccer America emails would be much better without your additions. Learn from Barca, and Arsenal for that matter, accept the decisions - there is no recourse anyway - and talk about football, tactics, skill, and the next leg. You are no better than the badgering fans you write about in influencing the referee. You are caught up in the same with this idiotic piece.

  1. Geren Nichols
    commented on: February 17, 2011 at 2:44 p.m.
    The problem with yellow/red cards is going a man down basically ends a game. Soccer nabobs should attend 6 performances of 'The Mikado' (preferably starting with a professional company and ending with a grade school performance) and then a hockey game. Perhaps the obvious the obvious way to make the punishment fit the crime would occur to them. So my proposal is first yellow 5 minutes off the field return only at a break in play. Second yellow card gets 10 minutes, (Dissent and none dangerous play fouls might be held to 5 minutes.) A straight red card would banish that player and he/she could be replaced after 15 minutes. True a youth level ref would have considerable trouble running a penalty box but in the Champion's league they have already got two fifth officials (who do not seem to follow the action in the goal mouth much or is it really legal for non Brazilians to air dribble with their head and then arm). A fourth official is more than enough. Get ready for 10 on 8 power plays and the domination of Canadian football.

  1. Chris May
    commented on: February 17, 2011 at 2:45 p.m.
    Paul, Messi WAS offside (based on the replay angle I saw). He wasn't offside when Villa took the initial shot, but the ball deflected off the keeper, and then back against Villa, before popping forward to Messi. It isn't Villa's shot that was the last touch, it was the ball bouncing off him on the deflection. By the time the ball had bounced off the keeper and off Villa, Messi was ahead of the ball. Correct decision.

  1. Ric Fonseca
    commented on: February 17, 2011 at 2:54 p.m.
    Oh ye folks of little faith! I haven't seen the replay of Messi's non0goal, and would like to have SA run a clip as it usually does from and for other games. Now here's an honest question to each and everyone of you who commented hereon: how many of you ever officiated a game, ran a line, was fourth official, or even an ref assessor? I am NOT saying the RA got it wrong or right, but I am saying is that many, perhaps all of you including Paul Gardner, ever put on an official's uniform. And as for G. Nichols' comment, I thought you were a hockey fan and possibly Canadian because what you propose has been discussed till everyone is blue in the face. Good for hockey, but not for real futbol. PLAY ON!

  1. Jim Romanski
    commented on: February 17, 2011 at 2:58 p.m.
    Paul you make a good point about whether or not complaining affects the ref and whether or not it should be tolerated. However, you picked a bad pair of situations to compare. Being offside is a technical infraction just like whether or not the ball is out of bounds (though much tougher to call). This is a matter of how the official saw it and really can't be changed. The decision over a foul is often quite subjective and based much more so on judgement. Arguing these types of calls are more likely to lead to a different future result than an offside call.

  1. David Hardt
    commented on: February 17, 2011 at 3 p.m.
    What do you have against Arsenal??

  1. Jason Michaelides
    commented on: February 17, 2011 at 3:01 p.m.
    Paul, sounds like you're Barca fan with sour grapes (I agree with Chris May below)...It seemed to me the officials got it right. Messi had a chance to score the opener and chipped it wide...that was most unfortunate play of the game...Those are my two teams going head to head...crazy matchup...Barca plays futbol in a way that makes me almost weep it is so beautiful... I would have thrown Song off the pitch after his 5th foul in a row AFTER his yellow card...As far as someone getting in an officials face, as you put it, I applaud Messi and the Barca crew for being classy. At some point you realize that you have made a choice to play a ball sport where there is an imperfect human element making judgement calls...you live with it because you know you're not perfect...Messi's miss proved that...you (Paul) send the wrong message when you are getting in an official's face so you can make sure they get the next call "right" you are insinuating intimidation and you soil the game in a way that is at once inappropriate and not necessary... Could Messi have hustled a little more in the last 12 minutes and should he have gone off instead of Villa? Of course, but that's a whole other conversation...

  1. Jason Michaelides
    commented on: February 17, 2011 at 3:11 p.m.
    Hate to say it but I went away from my computer last night after watching the game thinking Arsenal may have Barca figured out...While they gave Barca space to operate and play the beautiful futbol they play in the first half, they crowded the Barca players and stole space like some top Serie A team to force the giveaways and uncharacteristic play of Barca in the second half...Not to mention two mad crazy goals...Must have felt good to be Fabregas yesterday...

  1. Rob Gallo
    commented on: February 17, 2011 at 4:24 p.m.
    My word, How tedious and pedantic this column is. Why not address the real issue, which is the difference in interpretations of the Rules of the Game by refs in different countries. The "foul" that Song was carded for is something he might do 20 times a game in the EPL: but in Europe it is not allowed. And the fact that he "violently protested" (waving his arms?) represents the difference in those interpretations. Lord have mercy if a team is pumped up for an important game. Next time around Song will invite the ref for tea and biscuits to discuss their differences. I never thought I'd say this, but I was bored to tears with Barca's 600 passes in a row prior to them caving. Time to move on from the Universal, Abject and Wholesale Adoration of Messi & Co. Yes they are very good, even great: but they are also human, and fallible. Messi looked like he'd rather be at Harrods in the second half than actually do some work. Rob New York

  1. Kent James
    commented on: February 17, 2011 at 4:44 p.m.
    I watched the game yesterday (my 2 favorite teams going, what more could a man ask for??), and thought Chris May's interpretation was correct. Unfortunately, I deleted it so I can't look more closely (and if I recall, the camera angle they showed was not the greatest from which to judge). Ric Fonseca's comment about the difficulty of such a decision needs to be kept in mind (made in real time, no replays and trying to keep up with play). Of course Gardner's observation about there being no harm in "working the refs" is simply him poking the wasps' nest with a stick. Given his past views, I'd be hard pressed to believe he was recommending players do this, but rather criticizing the fact that players who do this may benefit from their behavior. But Gardner should have provided an alternative observation. Messi did not react for two reasons; first, he probably had no idea whether the call was right or not (given the pace of the play and the shifting of players' positions), but more importantly, Messi is a classy player who doesn't "work the refs"(which is one of the many reasons so many people admire him). Barca generally is a classy team in this respect (playing cleanly, not protesting everything, although Dani Alves is a huge exception to the latter part of that statement), and that is one of the reasons I like them. Song's yellow card was certainly warranted, and he was skating on exceptionally thin ice afterwards, but I was glad the referee did not give him a second yellow for persistent infringement. He was pretty much the only person committing fouls, but I did not think that those he committed (other than the one for which he got carded) were particularly malicious or cynical. I was glad when Wenger took him off, because playing a man down against Barca would have made it a very different game. But that raises my final point, which is I think making a team play short after a send-off is counterproductive. It is meant to deter players, but I think it serves more to deter referees from issuing red cards. Song probably should have been sent off for persistent infringement. If players who were ejected could be replaced (assuming teams have subs left), refs would be more likely to send players off, so players who commit bad fouls would be more likely to suffer punishment. And a team with a player sent off near the end of the game might still have to play short (if they'd used all their subs), but allowing ejected players to be replaced would mean that referees could send off players early in the game and not be killing the game. Then I think referees would be more likely to red card players for things such as violent tackles, which under the current rules they might be inclined only punish with a yellow to avoid "determining the outcome of the game."

  1. PHIL WORTHINGTON
    commented on: February 17, 2011 at 4:54 p.m.
    All dissent should be punished,first by a warning,followed by a straight RED CARD to the team captain.Additional dissent should also be treated the same for the offending player. Only the team Captain is to be allowed to ask questions of the referee under existing law.

  1. Rob Gallo
    commented on: February 17, 2011 at 5:10 p.m.
    No dissent = Authoritarianism Spirit v. letter These are professionals, competing at the highest level, not a bunch of U11's at an indoor tournament. A good ref get's this, and allows them to blow off steam, to a point. Song's "foul" for the yellow was in the 7th minute: no warning, no nothing. Again, those more didactic in the audience miss the point: how to deal with the national differences in the INTERPRETATION OF THE RULES OF THE GAME. Spain, Italy, etc. protect the ball player: EPL is much more physical and so allows more contact.

  1. Ian ether
    commented on: February 17, 2011 at 7:30 p.m.
    I'm starting to notice a theme in your writing, titles that have very little to do with the content of your article. From the camera angle it seems very close, and reasonable that Messi could have been even a step past the ball. As it was called. The ball is played forward, if it were played backward I could understand your conviction, but it is impossible to know for sure. Remember, even if he is an inch ahead of the ball he's off. I will have to trust the referee's assistant here, since he had the best view. Still, if you want to write about the offside call write about it, not about dissension. Then again there isn't anything in the call as it was a good one so you are struggling for content I guess. Get over it, Barca lost.

  1. Tom Enone
    commented on: February 17, 2011 at 8:22 p.m.
    This is a curious piece of writing. The spirit of this game was good on both sides. Compared to so many, many other games, there was precious little ref riding. The home team generally complain more than the visitors. There is obviously a great deal of doubt about the 'goal'. I thought it was off, for what its worth. While PGs comments about dissent are well taken, this was not the game to highlight that, by any stretch of the imagination.

  1. Chris Mitchell
    commented on: February 17, 2011 at 11:16 p.m.
    Would Song's sending off have been the right outcome? The desirable outcome? His dissent was a result of him being penalised for minor contact, which in many cases wouldn't be considered fouls in the EPL. None of them were particularly dangerous. Even his early yellow card was the kind of foul that is rarely carded in the EPL. Considering that the likes of Rooney, Fletcher and Terry routinely get away with shoving referees and calling them c**ts, have some sympathy for Song - a wave of the arm is nothing in comparison. Certainly not a yellow card, when you consider that many dangerous tackles are also only worth a yellow. Messi looked to be offside, btw. Haven't seen the slo-mo, but I don't blame the linesman for giving it at all, even if it was the wrong decision - twas a tough call.

  1. Amos Annan
    commented on: February 18, 2011 at 5:36 a.m.
    Change the rules to allow reasonable dissent. Players should be able to question a call or express some complaint about calls. With all the money and influence soccer has, one referee has too much control over outcomes. Teams should have a limited number of "challenges" like American football to make sure major mistakes don't change the outcome... like this game. The game and media have changed since the old gentlemen's game.

  1. Michael Canny
    commented on: February 18, 2011 at 9 a.m.
    There is a time and place for approaching the referee...but it is not DURING the game. Speak to the referee once the game is over. It is not right to try to influence a referee's calls during a game.

  1. Michael Canny
    commented on: February 18, 2011 at 9:02 a.m.
    And in answer to the question"why not show dissent?" Because it is AGAINST THE RULES. Play the game the way it is supposed to be played.

  1. Mike Gaynes
    commented on: February 18, 2011 at 9:16 a.m.
    Gardner is wrong. Flat-out, completely, indisputably wrong. As Chris May points out, Messi was clearly offside when the rebound struck Villa and caromed towards Messi. The official made a brilliant call. And Gardner, typically, is making an absolute fool of himself. Regarding Song, he probably would have been sent off in a league game, but referees are indisputably more lenient in big games like this one (or the World Cup final, where De Jong's early yellow should have been red). But a much better example this week would be Gattuso, who somehow stayed on the field against Spurs despite far worse conduct than Song's. Again, Gardner gets it wrong. As usual.

  1. Terence Chu
    commented on: February 18, 2011 at 3:08 p.m.
    Good comments everyone. Its amazing how a poorly written article can bring about so many more comments than most SA articles, which are generally good. For being so sure of himself, the author is just wrong.

  1. Chris Ogle
    commented on: February 19, 2011 at 2:07 p.m.
    I watched a clip of the Messi goal that was called offside on the internet in slow motion from a British broadcast and Messi was definetly onside,even the English announcers agreed that it was onside, although it was very close and could have gone either way.What no one said anything about was the hand ball by an Arsenal defender which happened seconds before the disputed goal.


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