By Paul Gardner
At the very point of this Euro 2012 tournament when I was reminding myself how good the refereeing had been -- not a single really contentious decision -- up steps Sweden’s Jonas Eriksson to make a mockery of that thought.
Eriksson’s decision, at the 61st minute of the Greece vs. Russia game, to give Giorgos Karagounis a yellow card for diving was almost bad enough to cancel out all the good stuff that had gone before.
The decision itself was atrocious enough. But the consequence of it -- that Karagounis, the captain and an inspirational figure on a Greek team that is not exactly awash with such players, will be suspended for Greece’s quarterfinal game reaches almost tragic dimensions.
I have, for over a decade now -- ever since the clamor against divers induced FIFA to include in the 1999 rulebook a compulsory yellow card for “any simulating action” -- been closely studying every one of these calls that I have come across. The games I’ve looked at cover the entire soccer spectrum -- from all over the world, club games, World Cup games, youth games.
I have not kept statistics, but my guess is that I must have studied, closely, more than 100 such calls. OK -- I’m sitting here with all the advantages of a non-pressure situation, not to mention replays and freeze frames. But the objections that I have to these calls are not really built on the use of those technical aids.
Right away, I can say, without any hesitation, that a high proportion of these calls -- as many as half of them -- are flat-out wrong. When you add in the dubious calls -- ones for which the evidence of diving is so feeble as to make the call highly questionable -- I am left with this: that up to 75 percent of the diving calls should not have been made.
Right at the top of that worrying 75% come calls like the one that Eriksson made against Greece. Forget the replays. Even during the live action it was absolutely crystal clear that there was a high likelihood of contact between Karagounis and the Russian defender Sergei Ignashevich. This because as Karagounis dribbled the ball, Ignashevich clearly stuck out his left leg across Karagounis’s path.
My question to referee Eriksson is how he could decide (and Eriksson had his yellow card out in record time), that there was no contact? Because that is the only possible explanation that would validate his decision. I cannot see how Eriksson could have been at all certain that this was a dive -- and if he’s not certain, then he should not make the call.
But there are evidently other factors at work in a referee’s mind when simulation looms. Firstly, there is the suspicion that referees -- reacting to FIFA’s warnings and the general diving witch-hunt atmosphere -- are actively looking for diving incidents. In other words their mindset is not to allow any doubts: if it looks like diving, then it must be diving, so flash the yellow.
On the grounds of unlikelihood, improbability, and just plain lack of convincing evidence, Eriksson’s call -- even without benefit of replays - is a stinker.
But the replays show, unarguably, that Ignashevich made substantial contact with Karagounis, did, in fact, trip him.
The word simulation does not appear in the rules themselves, but in the “Interpretation” addendum. It is a physical action by a player, and obviously it has to be intentional. There can be no such thing as accidental simulation, when the whole point of the action, as described in the rulebook, is an attempt “to deceive the referee."
In making a simulation call, then, the referee is called upon to read the player’s mind. He is asked to make a decision that labels the offender a cheat. That is quite a responsibility and I have every sympathy with the referee on these occasions. But my sympathy is heavily overshadowed by the frequently cavalier way that referees handle these calls.
Yellow cards for diving ought to be given only when the referee is virtually certain -- shall we say 90% certain? -- that the player involved is deliberately cheating. By those, admittedly draconian, standards, Eriksson’s call against Karagounis looks almost frivolous.
But it is far from being a frivolous matter, because -- quite aside from the unwarranted suspension of Karagounis -- it also carries a more sinister taint. Another of the factors that has emerged quite clearly during my attention to the details of diving calls is that they can be used by referees to avoid making a penalty-kick call.
As the Karagounis incident occurred inside the Russian penalty area, referee Eriksson can also be suspected of chickening out on the penalty call, and then trying to justify his pusillanimity by flashing the yellow.
This is what I totally fail to understand about the refereeing attitude to these calls. The high percentage of wrong calls has to be known to them. It has to be known to an international referee like Eriksson. Just as he has to know, by now, that he made a wretched call against Karagounis, turning the victim into the wrongdoer ... a travesty of what he should have done.
One might take a moment or two to consider the player on the receiving end of this injustice. Karagounis was clearly incensed, appealing to his Greek shirt, making frantic religious signs -- and his anger went on for some time, boiling up to the point where one feared he might well goad Eriksson into giving him a second yellow. Karagounis eventually calmed down -- but he was surely justified at least some venting of indignation at Eriksson’s flagrantly biased call.
I do not know whether the Greeks can appeal a yellow card. But if the card cannot be repealed, the injustice of the subsequent suspension should be. Karagounis should be on the field in Greece’s quarterfinal. And Eriksson should be on a plane back to Sweden.