By Paul Gardner
I have been campaigning for decades now -- obviously, in a totally ineffectual way -- for a set of obligatory referee signals to be introduced in soccer so that we know, instantly, which offense has been called.
Over the years, I’ve spoken to referees and coaches and administrators and other biggies about this. Of course -- even though most of them have never given the idea a moment’s previous thought -- they immediately raise objections. That is what people tend to do when confronted with something new, an idea that upsets their comfortable mindset.
From referees, the most common thumbs-down goes like this: “Listen, we already have enough on our plate without having to explain every call we make.” No doubt. But they have not been listening. My intention is to get referees to identify their calls, not to explain them. Explanations may, or may not, follow later, after the game.
As it happens, I’m not wildly excited by referees explaining their calls, because they usually make a hash of things. Assuming that they graciously avoid the temptation to blame their assistant referee, there are still plenty of ways of confusing matters, and, in my experience, referees are pretty good at that.
There is also the unarguable fact that any explanation is likely to involve a defense of the rules. Here the referees have my sympathy because in many cases the rules are simply unclear and therefore cannot be relied on. More on that shortly.
Sitting up on the official MLS website right now, is a page titled “Referee Week.” In it, we find some comments from Paul Tamberino -- a vastly experienced referee who is “a director in the league’s Competition Department.” An authoritative person, then. He has been asked to revisit, and give an opinion on, an incident that took place back in April, when D.C. United’s Charlie Davies was awarded a 89th minute penalty kick (from which he tied the game) after a foul by the L.A. Galaxy’s Omar Gonzalez.
At the time, the incident caused much expostulating, rending of garments and gnashing of teeth among the sporting moralists (a decidedly motley drew, that lot) who swore that Davies had dived, and was therefore a cheat and scoundrel.
There is a lot wrong with this page. Before we get to Tamberino, we find a heading referring to “Davies’s Drawn Penalty” -- which already seems to imply that Davies was being sneaky. Then it poses the question: Dive or PK? A stupid question, because the incident does not have to be either -- it could simply be the famous “incidental” contact, with the referee taking no action.
Tamberino gives his opinion: it was a dive, there was no foul, there should not have been a PK, and Davies should have been yellow-carded. Tamberino gives his reasons for his opinion and -- as usually happens with referee explanations -- that is when things start to fall apart.
He lists five points to be considered. We need not bother with No. 13 -- the position of the referee -- because Tamberino says the ref was in an “excellent position.” Point No. 5 -- deciding whether this was a dive or a foul -- we can also leave till later.
Point 4 involves a look at the wording of the rules -- really the key to his explanation.
But Points No. 1 and No. 2 need to be dealt with first, because they are totally unacceptable:
No. 1 -- What is the time of the game?
No. 2 -- What are the player’s intentions?
I would strongly protest that the time of the game has nothing to do with anything. There is nothing in the rules referring to the time of the game as a factor to be considered by a referee in making his decisions. In fact, it is generally held -- I have heard it so maintained what must be hundreds of times -- that the referee must ignore that factor, must make the same decisions whether it’s the first or the last minute of the game.
Tamberino evidently senses that something isn’t quite right here, for he launches into a justification of his statement, and merely makes matters worse: “The time of the game is important as it is near the final whistle. Players that are looking to find the equalizer or the go-ahead goal will make every effort to score a goal at all costs.”
This is absurd. Not least because one can say the same of defenders -- that they will “make every effort to prevent a goal at all costs.” So the two will neutralize each other anyway. But Tamberino has already shown his hand -- he is looking for the attacking player to be the culprit.
As for the players’ intentions, this is even more puzzling. When the rules were extensively revised in 1995, the word “intention” was almost entirely removed -- it remains only when dealing with hand-ball offenses. It was removed, as was explained to me at the time by Scottish referee George Cumming, one of the authors of the new wording, because referees should not be “required to be mind readers.”
I simply do not understand what Tamberino is up to here -- his explanation merely says that Davies “knows that he needs the goal and the point.” While the role of defender Gonzalez “is to make every effort to prevent the attacker from getting the shot off.” Well, did you ever? A forward trying to score a goal and a defender trying to stop him. Amazing. And a meaningless consideration.
So Tamberino’s first two Points strike me as nothing more than typical referee obfuscation -- and obfuscation that is not supported in any way by the rule book. Indeed, it tends to contradict what the rule book has to say.
But it is with Point No. 4 that Tamberino runs into the most serious difficulties -- and in this case, it is more the fault of the rules themselves. Tamberino has studied the videos and admits that there was contact between the players. Yes, Gonzalez does reach out with his left arm, does make contact, at which Davies goes down.
Tamberino quotes the rule book -- Rule 12 --which says “a direct free kick will be awarded to the opposing team if a player commits any of seven offenses in a manner considered by the referee to be careless, reckless, or using excessive force."
Having identified Gonzalez’s action as “pushing” (one of the seven offenses) Tamberino says: “I believe we can rule out that the action is reckless or one with excessive force.”
Agreed. Tamberino then concludes that Gonzalez did foul, adjudging his contact to have been “careless.”
But there is a huge anomaly here, which undermines that sort of flat-out certainty. When a player is running at speed, trying to control the ball, and quite likely trying to sharply change direction, it does not take much contact to unbalance him and bring him down. The slightest brushing of the heel of his raised leg -- enough to knock it into the back of his planted leg -- will send him flying. (And we see plenty of that from defenders who run across the back of a player and then raise their hands in feigned innocence as the player goes sprawling.)
As Tamberino rightly says, such slight contact obviously cannot be classified as “reckless or excessive force” -- so it cannot be deemed a foul under either of those headings. It can, however, be a foul if it is “careless”.
At this point we need a definition of “careless”; the rule book does not supply one. My dictionary includes “not thinking before one acts,” which can only mean unintentional.
Hence the anomaly: if this type of slight-contact trip is careless (i.e. unintentional) it is a foul. With the inescapable corollary that if the trip is intentional, then it is not a foul. So -- if Gonzalez pushed Davies carelessly (unintentionally), it was a foul -- but if he did it intentionally, it was not.
That is the tangled reasoning on which Tamberino is relying for his opinion. It is utterly shaky, and it really calls for the rule to be re-written to get rid of the contradiction (after all, it applies to all of the seven fouls, not just pushing).
Tamberino completes his indictment of Davies by asking: “Is this careless action that warrants a penalty?” Then comes his Decision: "Although there is contact to the attacking player, the contact is not in a careless manner and therefore should not be considered a foul, and a penalty kick should not be awarded. On the question of simulation, the attacking player pretends to have been fouled and should be cautioned for simulation.”
It is an unsatisfactory conclusion, because Tamberino admits that there was contact, he defines that contact as “careless” -- which means it was a foul -- and then states that Davies “pretends to have been fouled.”
No wonder referees are wary of explaining their actions.