By Paul Gardner
I have to return to the case of Andre Marriner, the English referee who recently misidentified a player, causing him to red-card the wrong guy. A mistake that, as I pointed out in a previous column, could probably have been avoided, and certainly corrected immediately after it had been made, if only the sport of soccer would get its act together and give referees some common sense help and some technological aid. In this case: frontal numbers for the players, and TV replays to identify the players. Really, quite simple.
But the soccer powers -- from FIFA and IFAB on down -- do not think like that. They do not do simple. And the proof that they are actually more likely to complicatematters than to simplify them has emerged from the decision handed down by the English Football Association in the Marriner case.
The decision deals with the mistaken-identity issue. It then takes up the matter of whether a red-card was warranted on the play anyway. Arsenal’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain dived athletically to tip away, with his hand, a shot from Chelsea’s Eden Hazard. Marriner issued the red-card (erroneously to Kieran Gibbs) because he believed he was seeing a player denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity (DOGSO). And a DOGSO offense hasto be punished with a red card.
Well now. Marriner saw a hard shot at goal, he saw an Arsenal player who flung himself in a prodigious sideways dive and deliberately handled the ball to keep it away from the Arsenal goal. How can his call be wrong?
Wrong, wrong, says the FA report. Because the FA, with benefit of replays, has established that Hazard’s shot was going wide of the goal. A ruling that loads an almost impossible duty on to the referee. How can a referee possibly judge, in a split second, the exact trajectory of a fast-moving ball?
This is exactly the same sort of millimetric, split-second accuracy decision that it has been deemed impossible for referees to make in the case of goal-line decisions. Hence the arrival of the goal decision system (GDS) and its elaborate technology.
Fourteen years ago, an exactly similar case to Marriner’s arose in MLS in a game between the Columbus Crew and San Jose. The Crew’s defender Robert Warzycha went flying through the air, arm out-stretched, to keep out a San Jose shot with a hand ball. Or so it seemed. Referee Ali Saheli -- then considered one of the best in MLS -- gave the penalty kick. But -- after a lengthy discussion with his assistant -- Saheli decided not to give a red card to Warzycha. Same reasoning -- the San Jose shot (it was a header from Jimmy Conrad) was judged to have been missing the goal frame. That particular decision, taken by the officials on the field, was absurd. Because it was clear that Saheli’s line of sight was blocked, and the AR was at the wrong angle to make the call.
But why should the officials have been discussing the matter at all? If a defender decides to deflect a shot by handling the ball, common sense surely tells us he, at least, thought the shot was going in. And that should be enough. Why on earth should a committee watching replays take, yet again, the defender’s side and absolve him of a crime he was perfectly willing to commit, and quite probably did commit? If a defender is so easily ready to cheat, why should he get a break?
I am not denying that, under the wording of the DOGSO offense, a shot that is going wide cannot be interpreted as a goalscoring opportunity. If a horrendously mis-hit shot, heading for the corner flag, should be handled by a defender, no referee is going to call a DOGSO for that. But when it’s close, a matter of inches maybe -- would the ball go in? Hit the post? Hit the inside of the post? -- surely the referee must be allowed to use his judgment and make the call? And there the matter should end.
It is sheer madness to second-guess, with access to replays and slo-mos, those referee decisions. For a committee, after watching replays, to nix the referee’s call amounts to re-refereeing the game. Something that most parties seem to agree is not acceptable.
In both the cases described above, the referee and the defender made the same error: they believed that a shot was on target. Video replays showed the shot was going wide. For his version of the error -- a genuine mistake in trying to apply the rules of the game -- the referee is held to be at fault, and he is belittled by having his judgment publicly over-ruled. But the defender is treated very differently: For his version of precisely the same error -- but which involved the defender’s willingness to cheat -- he is absolved of all wrong, his red card, and any suspension, are canceled.
More pertinently, what on earth is the FA thinking when it clears a player who has shown his willingness to break the rules, to cheat, and at the same time -- and for the same “offense” -- basically labels a referee inept?
This is not an argument in favor of the FA -- or any other administrative body -- always taking the referee’s side. But in matters where there is genuine uncertainty, I think the administrators have only two options: either clarify (disambiguate is a favorite term) the wording of the rule, or be guided by common sense.
It seems to me that Marriner has taken a lot of totally unwarranted criticism -- largely because the FA, merrily thumbing its nose at common sense and evidently forgetting that soccer is supposed to embrace the concept of fair play, has opted to complicate matters rather than to simplify them.