By Randy Vogt
Soccer America columnist Paul Gardner has lamented that championship games are generally not as good as the matches that proceeded it as the teams often are more concerned with not making a mistake defensively than going for the goal. Although teams might play title games more conservatively, should refs officiate a championship game any differently than other games?
I have watched many important matches on TV and heard the announcers make comments such as “because this is a championship game, let’s hope that the ref does not get too involved in the game and lets the players decides who wins the title.” Funny how they rarely mention that the officials were given the assignment because they were determined to be the best in the league, just as the two competing teams are the best in the league.
Yet I have a rather different take on officiating a final game. When asked if the referees should officiate a final different than any other game, my answer is an emphatic “No.” The officials are there to enforce the Laws of the Game, no matter the level of play or the importance of the game. If a penalty kick needs to be whistled, a player needs to be sent off or a goal should be disallowed, no matter the level or implications of the game, the call is made. Whether in the third minute or in second-half stoppage time.
For U-11 boys or U-16 girls competing in their first championship game, it could mean as much to them as the World Cup final means to the teams and countries involved.
Recently, I was refereeing a high school championship game and against the run of play in a scoreless tie, I awarded a penalty kick in the 60th minute when a forward was tripped by the defender. The goalkeeper who had gathered the ball after the trip said to me, “It was a dive, sir.” The TV replay confirmed the call was correct, which I knew when I whistled it. The defender who had fouled the forward started crying and her teammate said before the penalty kick was converted, “Don’t worry. We are going to come back from this.” Which is exactly what happened as that team wound up winning 2-1.
A much more dramatic decision occurred in the inaugural WPS Final in 2009 when referee Kari Seitz sent off Los Angeles Sol defender Allison Falk in the 27th minute for denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity. Sky Blue FC was leading 1-0 at the time and that became the final score an hour later. The sending-off was 100 percent correct yet that did not prevent the TV commentators from saying it was a “controversial call.” Nothing controversial about it as it was absolutely correct. Championship game or not, it would have been wrong to leave Falk on the field.
I “referee” games as I am watching them live on TV. Sometimes replay confirms “my call” was correct and sometimes I was off the mark. While watching the 2010 World Cup final, I thought Nigel de Jong’s karate kick to Xabi Alonso’s chest in the 25th minute was a clear red card for serious foul play. If you had made a tape of what a red card offense is to use at soccer referee clinics, that foul would be it. But only a yellow card was produced. To his credit, referee Howard Webb admitted he erred and stated, “I sensed very early on that the players were under a lot of pressure, they were very close to winning the ultimate prize for their country for the first time. We wanted to be that steadying hand but equally we wanted to do our job properly and if there was a clear red card, we would do it.”
“When I look back on the full two hours of that game, which of course I have done, there is not much I would change. One of the things I would change is the color of the card for De Jong's tackle. Having seen it again from my armchair several times in slow motion and from different angles, I can see that it was a red card offense.”
(Randy Vogt has officiated more than 8,000 games during the past three decades, from professional matches in front of thousands to six-year-olds being cheered on by very enthusiastic parents. In Preventive Officiating, he shares his wisdom gleaned from thousands of games and hundreds of clinics to help referees not only survive but thrive on the soccer field. You can visit the book’s website at http://www.preventiveofficiating.com/)