By Paul Gardner
In Anthony Burgess’ novel “The Doctor Is Sick,” the doctor (not a medical doctor, but a linguist) is in a hospital ward where his neighbor talks aloud in his sleep. He intones soccer scores:
Blackburn 10 Manchester United 5
Nottingham Forest 27 Chelsea 2
Fulham 19 West Ham 3
The fantastic scorelines are enough to show that the guy is off his rocker. No one but a loony could imagine those scores. Everyone knows soccer is a stingy sport when it comes to goals. Stingy? There are times when it seems the sport doesn’t even want goals.
We had such an example this weekend, in England -- where, I imagine, it passes for good refereeing. A quickly taken free kick from Liverpool’s Luis Suarez -- quickly and brilliantly taken, sending the ball, with one calculated swipe of Suarez’s right foot, sailing some 35 yards, over the Newcastle goalkeeper, and into the net. No goal, said referee Phil Dowd.
Why not? Well, it seems, Suarez had not waited until Dowd blew his whistle. Waited, in other words, until Dowd was sure that the defending team -- the team that had committed the foul! -- had got itself organized. Does an attacking player have to wait for the referee’s signal? No. The rules do not back up that assertion. Nowhere do the rules say that he must do so -- but twice the rules (or the Interpretation section) use the phrase “If a player decides to take a free kick quickly ...” which clearly acknowledges the right to take a free kick as quickly as possible, without any mention of what the referee may require.
Or maybe it wasn’t that at all. Maybe Dowd disallowed the goal because the ball was still rolling when Suarez kicked it. That would make it illegal. But the replay shown during the NBC telecast shows that the ball had just come to a stop at the moment when Suarez kicks it. That, at least, is my reading of it.
There may be -- well, there will be -- others who insist that the ball was still moving, though how they can be sure baffles me. This another of those millimetric soccer decisions in which the rulebook and referees seemed determined -- always -- to award the benefit of the doubt to the defensive team. After years of bitching and moaning about this, I’m still waiting for anyone in authority to give me a logical reason for that bias.
I won’t press the point because Dowd’s ineptitude was a lot worse than merely applying the standard anti-goal mentality. In this incident, the truth is that Dowd could not have made that absurdly millimetric decision anyway. Because Dowd wasn’t even looking -- dare one say, of this highly praised (in England, anyway) referee that he was not paying attention? -- when Suarez “scored” what was a pretty remarkable goal.
Replays available online show Dowd, having blown his whistle for the foul on Suarez, turning away from the play to talk to a Newcastle player. As Dowd had given no sign that he required the players (meaning the attacking players, of course) to wait for his whistle, what on earth was he doing turning his back on the play?
He was doing what English referees constantly do, doing something that he does more frequently than most. Chatting. Chatting to players. This comes under the heading of “man management” and is widely held to be a good thing. It obviously was not a good thing here, and I seriously question its value anyway.
The job of the referee -- the very difficult job of the referee -- is to enforce the rules. It is quite definitely not his job to explain the rules to the players. They are supposed - they are really required - to know those rules. That is part of the deal when you become a pro player, that you will know the rules, and that you will abide by them.
So all these little chats, most of them after a foul, most of them evidently offered instead of a yellow card ... what can the referee be saying? I have asked, repeatedly, over many years, and of many referee authorities, why we can’t be let in on the secret, why we cannot be allowed to know what is being said by the referees.
Obviously, I’m not very persuasive. Despite plenty of assurances from various people that all will be revealed, despite the fact that it’s a lot easier now that everything is recorded, I’m still waiting.
Dowd’s chattiness is particularly irritating. It’s no surprise at all to me that he would be found chatting to a player and ignoring a crucial moment in the game. He evidently enjoys having a chummy relationship with the players. But trying to come over as “one of the lads” is also not part of the referee’s job.
It ought to be part of the referee’s job to tell us what he is doing. After blowing for the foul, did Dowd give any indication that the free kick could not be taken until he whistled? Usually this is done by holding up the whistle and pointing at it. I can’t see any sign of Dowd doing that.
Of course, part of his problem was that Suarez was simply too quick for him. By the time Dowd turned to face the play, the ball was already in the Newcastle net. At that point, Dowd did give some sort of arcane movement with this left hand as he ordered the kick to be retaken, but it’s impossible to say what he meant. It looked like that gesture indicating too much talk, with the hand opening and closing. If it was that, it can only have applied to Dowd himself. That seems an unlikely signal to come from Dowd.
By not being alert, by turning away to talk to a player, and then applying the pro-defense referee mentality, Dowd made a total hash of this call. He canceled one of the cleverest, most artful goals of the season -- a goal that would have been Suarez’s 32nd, a new record for an EPL season. Appalling refereeing.