By Paul Gardner
Great. No sooner do we move -- finally, after many a delay and much equivocation -- into the modern age with FIFA's approval of goal line technology (GLT, aka GDS or Goal Decision System) than we are plunged back into the dark ages with an utterly absurd decision over a disputed goal in Germany.
Bayer Leverkusen’s Stefan Kiessling headed the ball -- and it ended up in the Hoffenheim net. Goal said referee Felix Brych. Which it wasn’t, because the ball had hit the (outside of) the sidenet and squeezed its way into the goal through a hole in that netting. Hoffenheim’s attempts to draw Brych’s attention to the hole, to get him to reverse his decision, got nowhere. The goal stood. By the time the game was over, with Bayer Leverkusen winning 2-1 (and thus going top of the Bundesliga), everyone -- thanks to television -- knew the goal should never have been allowed.
A clear-cut case, with the Leverkusen sporting director Rudi Voller admitting that the goal was not a goal (though he did suggest that Hoffenheim might want to invest in some decent nets).
What to do? There seemed to be precedent here. Nearly 20 years ago, a Bundesliga game between Bayern Munich and Nuremberg was replayed after Bayern had been awarded a similar “ghost” goal. So Hoffenheim appealed to the German federation, the DFB. And the DFB nixed the appeal.
Listen to Judge Hans Lorenz, the man in charge of the tribunal that heard the appeal. He had, he said, “no alternative” but to confirm the goal. And the referee’s decision, though it may have been wrong, is “irrevocable.”
Mr. Bumble, in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist had his say on the absurdities that the law, and those who interpret it, can attain: “If the law supposes that, the law is a ass -- a idiot.”
Sadly, the law far too often seems to delight in being a ass. Here we have a case of something that is obviously, glaringly wrong, everyone knows it, a major injustice has been done ... but the law says it’s OK. To arrive at that utterly absurd point, Judge Lorenz needs to tell us that “the question isn’t whether this judgment satisfies us from a sporting perspective”.
Actually, that is exactly the question. Soccer games are played as sport, not as court procedures. They are played under sporting rules, which have been carefully constructed to ensure fair play. To see top legal figures picking holes in those rules, spouting legal pedantry to claim that they have "no alternative" but to deliver a fatuous verdict, is thoroughly irritating.
Of course something can be done, should be done. Hoffenheim should be compensated in some way -- either by awarding the goal and changing the result to a tie, or by replaying the game. Of course those things can be done. And one of them should be done, in the name of fair play (a FIFA catch phrase, you know) and sportsmanship.
Am I certain I’m getting this right? No, I’m not. But I am certain that, where sports are concerned, the major, over-riding issues should be those where sporting values need to be upheld. And that is clearly not the case here. No doubt replaying a game carries the threat of setting a precedent ... but so what? That is something that can be dealt with by adjusting the rules (and, please note, I mean the RULES -- not the Laws) of the game so that they can handle these matters “from a sporting perspective” -- the Judge’s words.
In either case, the crucial point is that neither the rules nor the law should act like “a ass, a idiot.” In this Hoffenheim case how can the law make out it is anything other than a ass when it so conclusively insists on confirming an obvious injustice?
* * *
Absurd indeed. And we have another absurdity right here in New York. The New York Cosmos are about to play in the North American Soccer League’s Soccer Bowl championship game. They have earned the right to do that by winning the Fall Championship (i.e. the second half of the NASL season).
The absurdity is that the Cosmos did not play in the first half, the Spring Championship. Seven teams did, each playing 12 games, with the Atlanta Silverbacks coming through as winners.
So now here come the Cosmos, joining NASL for only half of the 2013 season. They win the Fall championship. There is nothing to complain about there -- Coach Giovanni Savarese has quickly and expertly assembled a winning team.
But, should that team, which has played only half as many games as the other seven NASL teams, now be within one game of winning the NASL’s 2013 title -- a title that takes in the Spring season, in which the Cosmos were not participants?
It does not make any sense. Nor, from a “sporting perspective,” is it fair or sportsmanlike. In this case, there are no legal aspects to consider -- but there are what can be considered as business and diplomatic issues.
It surely cannot be in the interests of the NASL to adopt regulations that seem designed to favor its richest club. But that is the impression that is bound to come through.
Worse is another impression -- that the NASL cannot be taken seriously, that it is a rinky-dink league willing to apply ludicrous regulations that, surely, no other top soccer league would even consider.
But the sporting considerations should still be foremost. At the very least, the NASL should make sure that, in future, whenever the Cosmos 2013 record is mentioned, it should be festooned with prominent asterisks.