By Paul Gardner
We now have PRO, the Professional Referees Organization, which is supposed to bring about significant improvements in the standard of MLS refereeing. We await developments on that front. In the meantime, PRO is giving us a spiffy website (www.proreferees.com) that includes a “Play of the Week” section that explains unusual or controversial calls from MLS games. Something I always find interesting -- if only because I don’t think referees do nearly enough explaining.
Mind you, I do believe that things are changing. There is quite a lot of evidence that the old attitude -- that referees are not obliged to explain their calls -- is crumbling. Referees may not yet grant coaches and players and fans and journalists a “right to know,” but I find them much more open and willing to discuss their actions than used to be the case.
Television, of course, with its endless slo-mo replays, has made the huge difference. Thus, the PRO website can make use of excellent video clips to make its points. Another plus for the “Call of the Week” is that it has already included an example where the referee was adjudged to have got his call wrong. How long that sort of honesty will last, who knows.
The latest example (the assistant referee gets it right) is taken from the April 20 Dallas vs. Vancouver game. It hinges not so much on the specifics of an incident, but on general refereeing attitudes. One of those goal-line incidents where the ball was hooked away -- but had crossed the line. Paul Rejer, PRO’s training and development manager, pointing out that the assistant referee was in perfect position, on the goal line, to make the call and confirm the goal, has this to say: “If the AR is in any other position, apart from the goal-line, he will not be able to make the call. Instead, he would have to take a guess, and we instruct officials never to do that -- only give what you see is the message.”
Now that sounds sensible and, really, indisputable. But is it?
In the example given, the referee faces three possibilities: he saw the ball cross the line; or he saw that the ball did not cross the line; or he’s uncertain. The third situation is the tricky one. Rejer, and no doubt virtually all referees would agree with him, is advising “when in doubt, do nothing.”
Except that “doing nothing” is not an option here. By choosing not to make a call, the referee is making a decision. And once again, as far too often in refereeing, it is a decision that favors defensive play.
Why, when the referee cannot say with certainty “what he saw” (that is the ostensibly reasonable criterion cited by Rejer) should he make a negative no-goal call? Because he did not see that the ball was definitely over the line? OK, but he is in doubt, which means that he also did not see that the ball was not over the line.
Either decision -- to award a goal, or to do nothing -- violates Rejer’s dictum that the referee should only call what he has seen. There is no middle ground here. By choosing to do nothing, the referee is, in fact, saying that he did see that the ball was not over the line. Charitably put, that is a guess.
It is, of course, precisely these impossible moments that have led to the birth of Goal Line Technology. GLT will, in theory, relieve referees of the onus of having to make questionable and negative calls when they’re not clear in their own minds exactly what happened.
But the “don’t guess” advice has wide implications. I can be sure that it is widely ignored when we come to the vexed question of simulation. Diving. I know from my own research, and because I have been following and analyzing diving calls ever since the current war on the alleged divers started, that at least 50 percent of these calls are either flat-out wrong, or dubious to an extent that they should not have been made.
Simulation calls present an acute problem for referees, because there is an almost personal element to them. When there is simulation -- obvious simulation -- the diver is deliberately trying to deceive the referee. No one likes being conned, so it’s understandable that a referee will be quick to punish a player who, in his opinion, is trying to make a fool of him in a crowded stadium.
Which leads to referees guessing ... guessing that there was no contact. Far too often the replays show that there was indeed contact -- not necessarily massive, but enough to bring a player down. The referee has guessed, he has got it wrong. He has called a non-existent foul, he has tagged an innocent player as a cheat, and he has failed to punish the real foul. And once again, he has favored defensive play.
I have immense sympathy for referees and the complications of their work. I find most complaints made against referees by players and coaches trivial, often worthless because based on ignorance of the rules, and usually biased. But on this question of simulation I’m allowing the referees no slack at all, because far too often they get it wrong, badly wrong -- and they’re getting it wrong because they’re allowing simulation to get to them as a personal affront, and -- please note Paul Rejer -- they’re guessing.
It is a most curious reality that eye-witnesses quite often give the most unreliable sort of evidence. Dangerous evidence, because it is assumed that an eye-witness must be telling the truth. After all, he’s not guessing, he saw.
“Don’t guess”, and “only give what you see” are honorable guidelines. But they need help. I don’t think soccer refereeing would be possible without a certain amount of guessing. But the guessing should be -- and usually is -- educated, expert, and unbiased guessing. So expert, in fact, that it’s excusable to call it something less opprobrious. Understanding, perhaps. The sort of thing that an experienced referee feels, knows instinctively, when he can’t be sure he’s seen. I’d rate it a key skill in the make-up of a good referee.