Two cases in point arose in matches on Thursday of a second cautionable offense, and while both seemed clear examples of a sending-off, only one player was so punished. Such a crucial decision is never an easy one for the referee, and curiously, both situations involved a team captain.
Uruguayan captain Diego Godin wasn’t sent off despite forearming England forward Daniel Sturridgein the throat late in the first half. The foul stopped Sturridge as well as a promising English attack, yet referee Carlos Velasco Carballo took no action. Godin, who’d earlier been caution for handling the ball -- a ruling that he protested -- finished out the match, which Uruguay won, 2-1.
Not so fortunate was Greek captain Konstantinos Katsouranis. Cautioned in the 27th minute for crudely hacking Yuya Osako as Japan tried to launch a counterattack, Katsouranis tripped Makoto Hasabe 11 minutes later with a late sliding tackle and reacted in astonishment when referee Joel Aguilarpulled out a yellow card and then the red.
Are these examples of inconsistency among officials, or simply those dicey matters of judgment based on the situations and rooted in a referee's experience and interpretation?
Many teams scout the referees along with the opposition, and some are known to be quite reluctant to hand out a second yellow that would dismiss a player. Players can take advantage of this, and for many years in MLS, for example, second cautions were much rarer than they should have been. For some players, at least, carrying a caution didn’t really mean anything.
Other referees are strict enforcers that will judge each foul independently and don’t cut much slack if a cautioned player commits another such offense. No referee wants to short-hand a team yet the caution is an official notification that the player must adhere to the rules and will be punished if he doesn’t.
Might other factors have been in play in these examples? Godin’s caution for handball resulted from the ball bouncing amongst a cluster of players, and there were no definitive replays available to assess the decision adequately. It’s hard to believe that the referee could rule Godin’s forearm as anything but a cautionable offense, so unless the referee didn’t get a clear view of that incident, he might have taken a lenient approach if he was having doubts about handing out the first caution.
Referees aren’t supposed to officiate this way but the temptation to do so, to give a player the benefit of the doubt and keep the teams even if at all possible, is very powerful. (There’s also the belief that if a player is sent off the referee will be tempted to even things up if given the opportunity.)
In the case of Katsouranis, he may have indeed been trying to win the ball -- as ESPN commentator Steve McManaman repeatedly cited -- but he didn’t get any part of it while plowing into Hasabe’s ankle. Katsouranis clearly committed a deliberate foul when he stopped Osako and accepted his caution in that case; his reaction to the second caution mirrored the belief of McManaman that a late tackle isn’t cautionable unless it is excessively reckless. If a captain gets a bit more leeway, as in the case of Godin, why didn't Katsouranis?
A cautioned player, by definition, is under closer scrutiny. He doesn’t have the same freedom to foul as a player without a card. Fortunately, for Greece, it was able to hold out with 10 men and grind out a 0-0 tie that keeps alive its hopes of advancement to the knockout round.
English fans can only wonder what their team might have done with a man advantage for approximately the same amount of time. Instead, England equalized in the 75th minute on Wayne Rooney’s first World Cup goal, then conceded a second goal to Luis Suarez 10 minutes later.
Many more factors than the officiating will be examined in the wake of England’s struggles. Yet on the eighth day of World Cup group play, its fans can rightly wonder why the fickle Curse of the Second Caution smote one team, and spared another.