By Paul Gardner
I've been trying to come to terms with this for decades -- but I think understanding is further away than ever. Why is it that, when there is doubt in crucial situations -- scoring a goal, or an offside decision, for instance -- soccer’s rulebook comes down firmly on the side of defense?
To say that this attitude is nonsensical really doesn’t come close to spelling out the magnitude of the nonsense. Euro 2012 has given us an excellent -- exemplary, really -- demonstration of one such absurdity. Poor Greece! That awful diving call against its captain Giorgos Karagounis in the Greece-Russia game had been preceded by a very dodgy offside call that annulled a Greek goal in their 2-1 loss to the Czech Republic. This was a header by Giorgos Fotakis, and the replays showed that the eagle-eyed assistant referee had managed to reduce the art of flagging for offside to a matter of centimeters.
Yes, a sliver of Fotakis did appear to be ever so slightly offside as Vassilis Torossidis delivered his cross. Maybe some 15% of his body. So -- when 85% of Fotakis is onside, why is it that soccer opts to go with the 15%, and approve an offside call?
There was, a couple of decades back, a notion going the rounds that offside calls should be made only when the linesman could see daylight between the attacker and the last defender. An idea that soon disappeared -- probably because it was too radical, and would likely have the opposite effect to that required -- i.e. would result in a more defensive game by making defenders even more cautious.
Getting back to Giorgos Fotakis and the various parts of his body. There was a further complication with the call against him because it was quite likely that most, if not all, of the offside part of Fotakis’s anatomy consisted of his arm. And the rulebook is quite clear about that, specifying that “any part of a player’s head, body or feet” can be called offside, but emphasizing that “The arms are not included in this definition.”
But my objection is not so much to anatomical matters, as to the fact that a good attacking play can be obliterated because of a call based on assessing movement over a few centimeters. Given the low level of scoring in the modern game, that is not helpful.
You can see the same mean-spirited anti-offense mentality at work, at its most objectionable, in the clearest of all examples -- that of scoring goals. From the rulebook point of view, it is made as difficult as possible, by the insistence that all of the ball must have crossed all of the goal line.
This again comes down to measuring centimeters. Why must goalscoring be made so difficult? Why could it not be that a goal is scored when any part of the ball crosses any part of the goal line? I suppose it can be argued that the strict requirement is simply a continuation of what is required for a ball to go out of play over the side- or goal lines. Though, as the two situations are hardly similar in their impact, there is no reason why they have to be governed by the same rule.
Anyway, I’ll stress again -- we’re talking about centimeters here -- maybe even millimeters, and we’re trying to make out that we can measure these microscopic distances accurately? We can’t -- and nor, incidentally, will the much vaunted goal-line technology be able to do that. The best that can be hoped for is that GLT will measure the millimeters reasonably accurately, will do so without bias, and will have exactly the same margin of error for every decision that it makes. And we shall accept that if GLT says no-goal, then, it is not a goal -- even if our eyes are sure it was.
We’ve had one such incident in the Euro during the Italy-Ireland game, when Antonio Cassano’s header was correctly judged to have crossed the goal line before Damien Duff hooked it clear.
The goal followed a corner kick -- which meant that the AR was in good position, on the goal line, to see what was going on. Even better, the Euro is using additional ARs -- so this episode had both the AR and the AAR looking along the goal line.
Back home in MLS, the Chicago Fire was less fortunate than Italy. Dominic Oduro’s shot crossed the goal line before being “cleared” by the New York Red Bulls' Wilman Conde. The goal developed from open-play, which meant that neither the referee nor the AR was in a position (i.e. on the goal line) to make the call. No blame attaches to either official -- they were where they should be. But the result was that no call was made, so play went on, and the Fire, and Oduro, were deprived of a goal.
I think it’s pretty certain that the officials could honestly say to themselves that they had not seen all the ball cross all the line. But if the rules simply said that any part of the ball crossing the line was enough, it is much more likely that they would have made the call.
If you object that I am merely replacing pro-defense errors with pro-offense errors, I will happily plead guilty to that. Error-free decisions would, of course, be ideal. But until that happy day arrives, the game itself would be much better off without the Scrooge mentality that can’t seem to stand the idea of goals, and is prepared to rule against them on the basis of impossible-to-measure centimetric distances.