By Paul Gardner
Despite the USA's failure to qualify for the U-20 World Cup there was an American presence at the tournament after all. A pretty important one, as it happens.
Referee Mark Geiger -- well enough known in this country as an MLS referee -- was given charge of three games: Brazil 3, Austria 0 in the first round, the round-of-16 Spain vs. South Korea game that went to a shootout after a 0-0 tie, and then, maybe surprisingly, the final between Brazil and Portugal.
But surprisingly only if you hadn’t watched Geiger in action in his first two games, which he refereed with considerable aplomb -- always up with the play, giving quick, and correct decisions, not shirking the difficult ones. Geiger issued two yellow cards in each of his first two games, then eight in the final (six to Portugal) -- with one exception, all justified.
Possibly his firm control was the reason things never got heated, why there was never the necessity for a red card. A highly impressive performance -- made all the more so when you consider that among the referees whom Geiger beat out for the final was Mark Clattenburg, an Englishman with considerable Premier League experience.
Of course, it wasn’t perfect, nothing is in refereeing, but I’d consider only two decisions as plain poor. The first of them, possibly, was not Geiger’s fault. It’s always unclear, this -- who is supposed to be watching for goalkeeper movement in a shootout? I would say that it is the main responsibility of the assistant referee -- in which case he is the one to blame for allowing Spanish goalkeeper Fernando Pacheco to get away with what I can only describe as massive forward movement when he saved South Korea’s third kick, by Lee Ki Je. This was a vital save, as Spain’s Koke had just missed his effort. And Spain went on to win the shootout 7-6. As I say, spotting this is primarily the AR’s job -- but when the movement is as massive as this, surely the referee ought to be able to see it and make the call?
The other blot on Geiger’s record was a yellow card he issued to Portugal’s Roderick at the 28 minute mark of the final for diving. At first viewing, during live action, this never looked like a dive, and I cannot see how Geiger could have been so sure about it, sure enough to issue a yellow. The replays made it quite clear that Brazil’s Danilo, attempting to tackle, had stamped on Roderick’s foot.
Again, I’m going to soften my criticism of Geiger, because this was not a crucial decision, the offense did not take place in the penalty area. Geiger is caught up in the FIFA diving witch hunt; he is evidently looking for dives.
There had been earlier, much worse, evidence of that mind set in the third-place game between Mexico and France. In the 23rd minute, France’s Alexandre Lacazette had chased a ball into the Mexican penalty area, had caught up with it and had actually played it past the diving Mexican goalkeeper Jose Rodriguez. The goalkeeper’s movement took him into a collision -- quite a spectacular one -- which upended Lacazette.
Referee Antonio Arias, from Paraguay, gave Lacazette a yellow for diving, and a free kick to Mexico. A decision that defied what the eyes had seen, not to mention the clear evidence of the replays, that defied just plain common sense. An awful call. It is quite impossible to see this action as anything other than a penalty kick to France and red card to Rodriguez (for snuffing out an obvious scoring opportunity).
Later that day -- it was Saturday -- we got a domestic MLS replay of that action during the New England-Red Bulls game. At the end of the first half, with the Revs leading 2-0, the Bulls’ Dax McCarty was given an absurd yellow for diving. The action was virtually identical to that in the France-Mexico game: McCarty chased a ball into the area, got there first, played it away from Revs goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth, who then clattered into him and brought him down. According to referee Juan Guzman -- who appeared, briefly, to consult his assistant -- that all added up to a yellow to McCarty for diving, and a free kick to the Revs. When it should have been a penalty kick to the Red Bulls and a red for Shuttleworth.
Two incidents in which a goalkeeper never got anywhere near the ball, but did bring an opponent down. I'm not in any doubt at all about just how wrong these two calls were. Ludicrously, but appallingly, wrong.
Looking for reasons for such utterly ridiculous decisions, it needs to be noted immediately that both incidents happened in the first half and -- had the referees made the obviously correct calls -- they would have (probably) been giving the fouled team a goal, and would (definitely) have been reducing them to 10 men. Plus the added no-no of sending off a goalkeeper (and anyone who does not believe that goalkeepers get specially lenient treatment in these incidents has his head you know where).
So, once the referee has made the decision not to make the difficult call, he can now rely on this safety net provided by the diving witch hunt. Having let off, unscathed, the guilty player and the guilty team, he can now make it all look justified by punishing the innocent player and his team.
If the game is to be played according to the rules as interpreted by referees like Antonio Arias and Juan Guzman, then we have a sport in which goalkeepers, short of actually machine-gunning their opponents, can get away with anything ... and then have the added satisfaction of seeing their victims turned into villains.