By Paul Gardner
To his credit, PRO’s Paul Rejer has not refused to deal with referee mistakes in his “Play of the Week” feature on PRO’s website. They make up a minority of his cases -- for the simple reason that referees, by and large, get things right.
Rejer has not sought to make excuses for refereeing errors. Not until now, when he confronts a colossal gaffe in the Seattle Sounders x L.A.Galaxy game -- the disallowing of a headed goal by the Galaxy’s Omar Gonzalez. This time he is intent on making excuses for AR Greg Barkey. Excuses which simply do not add up.
First there is the general argument that the ref has a difficult task and that he has to react to a situation instantly, without benefit of slo-mo replays etc. Agreed. That is a good argument -- when the play is not clear, when it needs repeated runs of the replay to see what really happened.
But can that argument be credibly advanced in the case of the Gonzalez goal? An incident in which the ball was at least two feet over the goal line and was then kicked out by a player (Seattle’s Osvaldo Alonso) standing even further inside the goal net.
Rejer -- correctly, I think -- defends Barkey’s positioning, and admits that it was not ideal: “From the angle he [Barkey] is at, he has the post in his line of vision to the ball and it would have been difficult to see ‘daylight’ between the post and the ball.”
Which is where, for me, the problems begin. This business of “seeing daylight” is totally unpractical. I think Rejer knows this -- else why did he put the phrase in inverted commas?
How much daylight? Technically, it need only be unmeasurably small -- certainly too slight for the human brain to register it. So Barkey -- and the whole AR tribe -- are being asked to do something that is impossible. It is physically out of the question for them to make that judgment -- they would need wondrously exceptional visual acuity.
That is the main reason why we now have GDS (Goal Decision System), which presumably can make the call accurately, though I’m not at all sure how we know that.
But the problem with Barkey’s non-call gets a lot worse as Rejer continues, as he spells out what is standard referee reasoning: “We advise ARs never to guess in these goal line situations. They can only act on what they see. We say, if you have seen the whole of the ball over the goal line then signal the goal. If you haven’t, don’t guess something that may not have happened.”
Reasoning that is faulty -- to say the least -- from start to finish. Because the AR is guessing either way -- whether he allows or disallows the goal. He did not see the scientific minutiae of the play -- that is not his fault, how could he? But he is then told by his mentors to, in effect, guess that the ball did not enter the net. Rejer’s “don’t guess something that may not have happened” is meant to avoid the AR awarding a goal that didn’t happen. But it is just as likely, as here, to result in a decision not to award a goal that did happen -- where the referee or AR is equally guessing “something that may not have happened” -- i.e. he is guessing that the ball, all of it, did not enter the goal.
If I assume that everything Rejer says about the difficulty of Barkey’s sight lines is correct (I have major doubts about that), that means that Barkey must have been guessing where the ball was. In this case, he made an terrible guess. (The alternative is that Barkey could see the position of the ball, and therefore made an even worse error).
I’ll go with the lesser error. Barkey did not get a clear view. What he did next was hardly his own fault. He was following instructions: Don’t guess, don’t allow the goal.
If the AR didn’t see the play clearly, any decision he makes is going to be a guess -- so the advice “not to guess” is worthless.
Any argument that Barkey, by not doing anything, did not make a decision is a non-starter. Opting not to do anything is a decision.
PRO -- and refereeing in general -- would do well to face up to the fact that there is quite a lot of guesswork involved in refereeing. But it is intelligent, informed, guesswork. The experienced referee or AR, working with that experience and his instincts will be right far more often than he is wrong on such calls.
When referees and ARs do screw up -- as here -- I suggest that the majority of wrong calls come because the referee’s guesswork is, quite unreasonably, supporting the defensive side of the game. A very good example can be seen in the case of diving calls -- the majority of which are flat out wrong, or questionable. Guesswork is at work big time in these calls -- but the guess usually goes against the attacking player.
Why? The phrase “benefit of the doubt” crops up often in referee discussions. It refers to those situations where the referee has to make a decision on less than perfect evidence -- where he has to guess. And in most -- nearly all -- cases that benefit is awarded to the defense.
There is absolutely no logical reason for this bias. I do not see how it can be justified by reference to the rule book, which has nothing to say on the matter, dealing as it does only with certitudes.
The Gonzalez case then did not show refereeing at its best. Firstly -- whatever excuses can be made for AR Barkey cannot wipe out the enormity of his error. But secondly -- the advice he is given about “not guessing,” which Rejer repeats with almost religious respect, is impractical. That is clearly not Barkey’s fault.
The biggest error here lies with the ingrained referee bias in favor of defensive play. Let us turn that bias around and suppose that referees are to be told, tomorrow, that in future the benefit of doubt must always go to the attacking team.
What do referees imagine would happen? What are they afraid of? Are we asked to believe that would be the end of soccer? Quite the contrary -- it would likely invigorate a game where defensive play is far too dominant. It would also mean that honest men like Paul Rejer would not find themselves trapped into excusing the inexcusable.