By Paul Gardner
Once in a while, a glimpse of undeniable reality disturbs the comfortable certainties of English refereeing attitudes. The least acceptable -- and the least explicable -- of those certainties is the notion that whenever a referee is uncertain about a call, he gives the benefit of his doubt to the defending team.
Because defenders could be confident that border-line fouls would not be called, that has meant an English game full of vigorous tackling, much of it -- given the prevalence of soft, damp fields in England -- slide tackling.
This is not to imply that the English have played dirty soccer. For decades another strong English certainty -- that of fair play -- acted as a break against excessive roughness.
Sadly, the increasing professionalization and commercialization of soccer left little room for a romantic idea like fair play. The more hard-nosed winning-is-everything attitude began to prevail. The fouling increased, the referees, sticking to their permissive traditions, allowed far too many of them, and the English game began to deteriorate.
Things came a head, appropriately enough, at the cathedral of English soccer, Wembley Stadium, during the most iconic of English games, the FA Cup final. The year was 1980. In an all-London final, West Ham United was leading Arsenal 1-0 with three minutes to go.
That was when West Ham’s Paul Allen -- at 17, the youngest player ever to appear in a Wembley final --broke away and headed for a 1v1 confrontation with the Arsenal goalkeeper and the chance to score a memorable goal. Allen never made it because Arsenal defender Willie Young, giving chase, blatantly tripped him. An utterly cynical foul -- Young made sure his trip occurred before Allen entered the penalty area. The referee called the foul and yellow-carded Young -- the maximum punishment that the rules allowed.
The incident caused considerable disquiet, even outrage, in England. Fans did not take well to seeing a veteran player illegally and shamelessly depriving a teenager of a chance for Wembley glory. This was a comparatively new type of foul -- one that made a mockery of fair play. It was termed a “professional foul.” The English decided to ban it -- they told FIFA that they would in future mandate a red card for such fouls.
FIFA rejected the idea, maintaining that there was no such animal as a “professional foul.” The English knew better, and would in future use the option of serious foul play to issue red cards for these fouls. It took FIFA another eight years before it included the “professional” foul in the 1991 rulebook (in the “decisions” section). It was eventually spelled out in the 1997 rulebook -- the foul had to deny an obvious goalscoring chance, and it was to be red-carded. After 10 more years, (with the professional foul now being dubbed a “tactical” foul), the 2007 rules called for a mandatory yellow for any foul committed “for the tactical purpose of interfering with or breaking up a promising attack.”
That rule, surely acknowledged by referees more in the breach then the observance, is still in the rulebook.
The English were right and FIFA was wrong on this issue. At least, the English got it half right. Harsh punishment for cynical fouls was the right way to go. But it was a great pity that the English did not choose this moment to ponder whether their philosophy of favoring defenders in disputed plays was any longer viable in the modern game.
That was not done -- has still not been done. So we arrive at July 12, 2013 and a statement from the English FA announcing a change of its policy on retrospective action -- by which is meant, deciding on the criteria necessary for the FA to revisit a referee’s non-call, and apply punishment to player(s) if warranted.
The statement is particularly interesting because not only does it, once again, draw attention to the inaptness of giving the benefit of doubt to defenders, it also raises fundamental questions about what can be reasonably demanded from a referee.
The change in policy follows an incident in a game in March this year, when a particularly dangerous foul went unpunished. Under the old guidelines, the FA could only take retrospective action when none of the match officials had seen an incident. That could only mean a foul off the ball, but the March incident was a run-of-play challenge for the ball. Without a doubt, the referee saw the incident.
The FA has now changed its guidelines to include such incidents -- with the wording that retrospective action can now be taken “where the referee’s view of an incident has been completely obstructed and the assistant referees or fourth official are not in a position such that they could be expected to judge the challenge, based on factors such as their distance from or line of sight to an incident ...”
That sounds comprehensive enough, but it cannot really be reconciled with the statement of the referee involved, who said that he would have red-carded the tackler had he seen the incident clearly. It cannot be true, therefore, to say that his view was “completely obstructed.” He saw two players “coming together” (the phrase is used in the FA statement), he saw a player go down, evidently in pain.
Is that not enough to call a foul? No, not when your refereeing ambience has always encouraged you to favor the defender. So no foul was called -- but the injured player was taken quickly to hospital.
The biggest problem with all this is that word “clearly.” How often does the referee, or anyone -- you? me? -- see any incident with total clarity ... with instanttotal clarity?
TV replays get rid of the necessity for an instant judgment, and they allow a much closer inspection. But we demand too much of our referees when we expect them to see in a split-second what might take a minute or two of replay re-runs and freezes to establish.
We cannot expect referees to see everything clearly. What we can expect is that a referee will use his experience and his judgment and whatever are the more obscure senses that make a good referee -- instinct? ESP? knowledgeable guesswork? -- to come up with the correct call.
The referee in this incident (I am deliberately avoiding naming anyone) did not make the correct call, but I don’t see how that can be put down to his view having been “completely obstructed.” He hadto have seen the two players coming together. What he got wrong was to translate his uncertainty about what happened into giving the benefit of the doubt to the defender (i.e. the tackler).
It does not seem fair to blame a referee for doing what his peers and bosses assume to be correct. But by blaming -- very dubiously, it seems to me -- the circumstances (complete obstruction of the referee’s view of the incident), the FA has missed -- or is it dodged? -- yet another opportunity to take a hard look at a pro-defense tradition that simply does not fit in today’s game.