By Paul Gardner
A look at three recent episodes that starkly reveal the problems created by pre-judgment. Which is a fancy word for bias.
* June 16, 2012: Euro 2012, Greece 1 Russia 0, 62nd minute. Swedish referee Jonas Eriksson doles out a yellow card to Greek captain Giorgos Karagounis for diving. A terrible decision. The replays show a clear trip by Russian defender Sergei, therefore a penalty kick to Greece. What was Eriksson thinking? He could not have seen that Karagounis was diving, since that is not what happened.
Because Eriksson was looking at the incident from behind Ignashevich his view of the contact was blocked. This is not a criticism of Eriksson -- we cannot expect referees to always be ideally placed. What we have a right to expect, though, is that referees will not invent calls that they have not seen. But that is what Eriksson did.
Why? Possibly because Eriksson, along with many referees these days, was actively lookingfor evidence of diving. And possibly because, along with that bias, there is the unfortunate suspicion that the dive was called as cover for Eriksson not doing what he should have done -- i.e. calling a penalty kick.
Eriksson got it totally wrong. He failed to penalize Russia with a penalty kick. And he punished Karagounis, the innocent party, with a yellow - which tarred Karagounis as a cheat, and meant that Karagounis had to sit out the vital quarterfinal against Germany. One might think that sportsmanship, or just common courtesy, would tell Eriksson he owes Karagounis an apology. But Eriksson has not been heard from.
* July 4, 2012: MLS, Seattle Sounders 0 Real Salt Lake 0, 49th minute. This time we did -- eventually -- get an apology. It came from TV analyst Kasey Keller, who had made an awful hash of his original assessment of a tackle by Seattle’s Brad Evans on Javier Morales. Listen to Keller, as his voice rises with indignation: “There was no contact. There was two yardsdistance between them [as Morales went down]. If you’ve ever seen a call for the board to look at someone simulating a foul, it’s right there.”
In other words, Morales -- who last season suffered a broken ankle that sidelined him for five months -- took a blatant dive, and referee Hilario Grajeda bought it and gave RSL a free kick. We all watched the same replay as Keller and surely, we all saw Evans jab his leg dangerously at Morales. There was no “two yards” of separation. But there was the clear possibility of rather nasty contact. Keller’s version was simply inexplicable.
Twenty minutes later, Keller returned to the theme, offering an apology to Morales, saying there hadbeen contact -- and basing his revised opinion on the same replay we, and he, had watched earlier. Contact indeed -- a hefty stamp on Morales’s ankle.
How could Keller get it so completely wrong? Once again, the only explanation is pre-judgement. That Keller was actively looking for a dive -- and he found one, even though the evidence wasn’t even close to supporting such an opinion.
* July 22, 2012: Exhibition game, Chelsea 1 Paris Saint-Germain 1, 9th minute. PSG’s Argentine forward Ezequiel Lavezzi, the ball under control, outpaces Chelsea defender Gary Cahill and approaches the Chelsea penalty area. Out comes goalkeeper Petr Cech to make a sliding tackle on Lavezzi -- just outside the area. Down goes Lavezzi -- and up comes referee Edvin Jurisevic to give him a yellow for diving.
The call was highly questionable - for the same reason that Eriksson’s call in #1 above was doubtful. Because Jurisevic did not have a clear view of Cech’s “tackle.” But the interesting thing here is the reaction of the TV commentator Warren Barton. His first comment, slightly delayed, was “Well done the referee!” Followed quickly by an arrogant “There’s no contact” at the very moment when the replay was showing -- but certainly not proving -- that there might well have been contact.
Barton then attempted to justify his snap opinion by pointing out that goalkeeper Cech is “not gonna come out and make a rash tackle.” The stupidity of that remark, when we had all just seen a replay showing Cech doing exactly that, is hard to credit.
Barton, with all his experience as a defender, must know that when goalkeepers try to make sliding tackles, the chances of a foul are high. In assessing such a tackle, one of the first things that usually gets noted (though not by Barton) is whether or not the goalkeeper got the ball. In this case, Cech was nowhere near the ball, never touched it, because Lavezzi had moved it away from him as he continued his dribble. At that point, Cech’s legs slid right across Lavezzi’s path. Either Lavezzi could stay on the ground and risk injury from Cech’s late tackle, or he could jump and try to avoid contact. Lavezzi jumped. Did he entirely clear Cech’s left leg, or was there contact -- not massive contact, but enough to unbalance Lavezzi as he hit the ground?
Barton’s offensive certainty was not soundly based. So why was he so sure of himself? Yet again, this is a case of finding what you’re actively looking for, seeing what isn’t there.
Worse -- in Barton’s case there is a strong suspicion of pro-Chelsea bias. Barton went on and on about the iniquity of Lavezzi as a diver, apparently shocked that the crime he had invented for Lavezzi should occur “Even in a game like this ...” But how odd that, in all this castigation of Lavezzi, Barton could not once mention the guy’s name. Barton informed us “That’s not what we want to see from him ...” which left me wondering what Barton did want to see from him, or indeed from PSG.
Not much. PSG seemed not to matter to Barton. PSG’s goal was barely noticed by Barton. He yakked merrily away during the entire buildup -- talking vacuously about Chelsea -- until JP Dellacamera had to break in as Javier Pastore’s shot hit the post, and Nene netted the rebound. All the clever work on the goal, very neat close ball-control, was done by Javier Pastore. Yet Barton’s first comment was “Chelsea will be disappointed. You’ve gotta defend better -- there’s gotta be better defending there. It’s a sloppy goal for Chelsea.”
Having earlier avoided all mention of Lavezzi, Barton now managed a wildly biased critique of the PSG goal without once mentioning Pastore. And so it went. Late in the game Pastore had two shots that brought good saves from goalkeeper Ross Turnbull. Barton maintained his silence on Pastore, being more interested in Turnbull’s goalkeeping technique.
As the game ended, Barton was yet again emphasizing that PSG’s goal was “A sloppy goal, very much a preseason goal [for Chelsea] to give away.” Pastore was the only player, from either team, who played the full 90 minutes. He barely got a mention from Barton. At the end of the game, the microphone switched to Eric Wynalda who immediately said “I was very impressed with Pastore tonight ...”
The London Daily Mail, which might be expected to show some leaning toward Chelsea, commenting on the diving incident, reported that Lavezzi “looked to be tripped by Cech,” and had this to say about the player so assiduously ignored by Barton: “the impressive Pastore hit the post after a bewildering jinxing run in the Chelsea area.”
Bias abounds in this incident. Referee Jurisevic’s contentious diving call could only have been made by someone looking for diving; Barton’s unquestioning support for the call could only come from someone with an anti-diving obsession. Barton’s game-long insistence on seeing things from the Chelsea angle led to an incomplete “analysis” of the game -- not necessarily always pro-Chelsea, but repeatedly explaining incidents in terms of what Chelsea was doing -- either rightly or wrongly.
Fox, should it want to, could immediately solve the television bias, I suppose, by limiting Barton to EPL games where he does pretty well. The referee bias on diving calls is more worrying.
I believe most of these calls to be either flat out wrong, or so doubtful that they should not have been be made. They involve a deplorable referee mindset that, at the moment, is being encouraged by FIFA and the other high soccer authorities: When in doubt, call the dive.