Soccer has a secrecy problem

[MY VIEW] The USA scores what looks like its third goal for an incredible comeback victory over Slovenia. Referee Koman Coulibaly rules no goal. Why? The players don't know nor do the coaches. Nor do 45,573 fans in the stadium, nor hundreds of millions watching on TV. It's the ref's little secret and just one more example of a major problem with soccer refereeing.

U.S. forward Landon Donovan said the U.S. players asked the Malian referee in a non-confrontational way about the call, “And he ignored us.”

But not only do the players deserve to know what the call is, so do the fans. Why should the whole world be left in the dark?

Up until 1997, the FIFA rulebook included, "... it is not the duty of the referee to explain or mime any offense that has caused him to give a particular decision ..." That phrase has been taken out, but no action has been taken to require or enable referees to share the reasons for their calls.

What should have happened by now is the creation of a universal set of signals that referees must use whenever they blow the whistle. Soccer America columnist Paul Gardner, who has advocated for such a policy for decades, recommends that MLS take the lead on this, because the USA is a country where sports fans are used to and expect clear referee signals. Americans, from their other sports, have experience in this and would likely do a good job with it.

The replays of Maurice Edu’s goal didn’t help reveal why Coulibaly nullified it. Edu was not offside. Pairs of Slovenian and U.S. players were caught in wrestling matches that actually indicated cause for a U.S. penalty kick call, if anything. But referees tend to rule in the favor of defenders in such goalmouth tussles.

This goal-area tussling is endemic in soccer, and serves as another reminder of soccer’s ridiculously inadequate ratio of officials to players. One hopes that UEFA’s current experimentation with two extra officials to monitor the goal areas leads to implementation and ultimately deters players from scrapping for position with their hands and arms.

Regardless, there’s no excuse for not requiring referees to explain their calls. First, they should signal the offense -- and the offender -- after they blow the whistle. This may also keep players from surrounding the referee after a call, as they so often do.

After the game, refs should make a statement to explain their crucial calls. In many cases, referees are likely to prevent unnecessary controversy from brewing if they enlightened us about the decisions.

Maybe if they didn’t discipline without explanation like junta police, refs would get more respect.

18 comments about "Soccer has a secrecy problem".
  1. Robert Heinrich, June 18, 2010 at 4:45 p.m.

    Isn't there some kind of internal review process for officials? Even if it's not a matter of public record, doesn't a supervisor review the game with officials to determine where mistakes may have been made? I know MLS has such a process, which is intended to help referees improve their decision-making. At least if I knew someone was going to tell this guy, "What were you thinking? There's nothing there" I would feel a tiny bit better.

  2. Eddie Rockwell, June 18, 2010 at 4:55 p.m.

    RH, fortunately, there is. In every international game there is an assessor. And in tournament games such as the WC, usually the assessor and a committee. After each performance, they meet with the officials, give them their assessments/comments, and then make assignments for future matches based upon the performance of the referee. Based on this, it would be both a shock and a disgrace if this referee is permitted to officiate another match in this World Cup.

  3. Robert Lanza, June 18, 2010 at 5:16 p.m.

    Any football-type set of signals is unnecessary. There are 10 major fouls, 5 minor fouls, plus off-side. How many different signals should there be. The only ones who need to know anything are the players, not the coaches, fans, or announcers. That said, the refs need not be so cryptic. Simple example from ENG-ALG: the ref catches Rooney pulling a shirt. He gives a quick tug on his own shirt to indicate to Rooney what he saw. Message received. How hard can it be? Soccer is unique in that all three official signals ("play on", indirect free kick, and basically pointing for everything else) tell the players what happens next, not what has already occurred.

  4. Drew LeWay, June 18, 2010 at 5:20 p.m.

    Don't be suprised to see this ref end up with a new car... or boat... or even a house after the Cup is over. When you make a call with no intelligent reason and refuse to explain it to the rest of the world, what are you hiding?!
    FIFA better get off their butts and start doing some internal policing. If you want respect then earn it! The sport's officials need to lay down their egos and try to be apart of the game not the deterent to progression of this wonderful sport.

  5. Ken Mcmahon, June 18, 2010 at 5:50 p.m.

    Questionable call? Yep, without question. Would signals have helped in this case? Not a chance. As HS referees, we were forced to use American Football-like signals to show the type of foul we called (this is changing this year). Trust me, when calls are questionable, all the signals in the world don't help. If the call is clear, then the signals are unnecessary.

  6. Joey Tremone, June 18, 2010 at 7:34 p.m.

    I disagree in one aspect, Ken. The world would like an official announcement of who (allegedly) committed the foul. I think the refs owe the fans that much.

  7. George Harrison (Jr.), June 18, 2010 at 7:51 p.m.

    Robert, I agree that it shouldn't be too complicated. I think most players know when they have an infraction, even if they argue the call, however, from my viewpoint if they never have to expalin a call, how does the player know how to avoid it? And how does the coaching staff know what to tell the players not to do? In this instance, if the players says how do I avoid that ruling, no one has any idea what to tell him. Hope that made a little sense. I guess the real bottom line is that USA should not have gotten themselves in that position in the first place...

  8. Charles Stamos, June 18, 2010 at 8:07 p.m.

    It's no secret. The referee missed the call and no explanation or signal will change that. The Slovanian players knew that they were in trouble on the free kicks and prejudiced the referee to call the next one their way. He had his hand up to his mouth to blow the whistle as the play was beginning. He blew the whistle, he blew the call...He will not be seen at this level of play again.

  9. Mark Wallis, June 18, 2010 at 9:46 p.m.

    Everyone knows there's a huge amount of money bet on soccer games, especially in the World Cup. Here's a ref from an impoverished country whose regular job probably doesn't pay very well. Would he be tempted by a bribe of a significant amount? The possibility must be considered (in addition to the possibility that he is totally incompetent or was stoned).

    What will FIFA do? Nothing as usual. They really don't care about fairness and the outcome of games. All Sepp and his crew care about is making money and enjoying power. If you've ever met Blatter, he literally thinks that he is a king, with the associated absolute power (and he is!). If you don't like the king's decisions or perspectives, tough.

    The last person who tried to topple the king (his second in command, Zen-Ruffenen) who seemingly caught Sepp with his hand in the till, was figuratively "executed". Sepp's stranglehold on FIFA is absolute and no one is going to go against the goose that lays the golden eggs and who will also chop your head off if you cross him.

    Blatter knows that he can get away with virtually anything because the world can't live without soccer and will sit still for the most unreasonable and illogical behavior on FIFA's part.

    Right now, there is a lot of focus on the that ref. In 6 months it will be forgotten about and he might be living like a prince in Mali. Even if he's caught red handed, FIFA won't do a thing. They're crooks too.

    The beautiful game - controlled by ugly people.

  10. James Madison, June 18, 2010 at 11:25 p.m.

    Mhy guess is there was a considerable amount of post-game discussion between the match inspector and Mr. Coulibaly about an array of issues, ranging from the decision not to caution Dempsey early on to the recall of the apparent third U.S. goal, and that he will not be assigned to officiate another match. That having been said, I am as hopeful as anyone that the basis for the at best puzzling and at worst erroneous decision will leak out to someone who will contribute it to the blogosphere.

  11. Tyler Miyashiro, June 19, 2010 at 3:08 a.m.

    As we all know, Findley got his 2nd yellow card of the tournament and is supposed to miss the next game because of it, does anyone know, is there a rule like in the NBA where FIFA can go back and take back the yellow card, since he obviously didn't deserve it at all?

  12. Manuel Trejo-von Angst, June 19, 2010 at 6:40 a.m.

    I don't know if the ref should be required to give a full explanation during the match to the players as it just increases the crowding around and yelling.

    He SHOULD indicate in someway GENERALLY what the foul was (which usually happens but not in this case --he was obviously paid off) and he should tell the 4th official via the headset in more detail what the call was so the managers know what the hell is going on.
    After the match all explanations on calls like this should be in the report. I'm not saying every foul but ones that delete goals and goal scoring opportunities, yeah, put 'em in. They get paid enough money where spending an extra 30 minutes to write this up isn't asking to much.
    I really smell a rat with this call.

  13. Manuel Trejo-von Angst, June 19, 2010 at 6:43 a.m.

    @Tyler, they can review cards but they don't do it all that often because they don't like to support any belief that the refs are idiots. They do lower suspensions. They just might in this case but I wouldn't hold my breath since it's a 1 game suspension. If it was 2 games, I bet they would have. (that's what they did for Cahill's hard straight red card vs. Germany)

  14. Terence Chu, June 19, 2010 at 10:20 a.m.

    Call it a mixed blessing. Findley has been awful this tournamment.

  15. Kyr-Roger St.-Denis, June 19, 2010 at 12:21 p.m.

    Formal signals from referees is a cure worse than the disease. The players know what happened; most of the fans know what happened; any that don't will see it on replay. OK, on rare occasions it's not clear, but do we really want to stop the match every time there's a whistle so the referee can make a generally-unnecessary signal? I prefer the occasional quick free kick.

  16. David Bristol, June 19, 2010 at 8:13 p.m.

    I disagree. The signals would be helpful to all and there's no reason any quick restarts would be prevented by a signal.

  17. Jiminez Hernandes, June 19, 2010 at 11:07 p.m.

    To S. Collin, is soccer for the fans or for the players?
    If you have questions about Referees and their work attend a referee course and pass the test. I'm sure thereafter you make better comments.

  18. Adam Becker, June 20, 2010 at 11:39 a.m.

    Part of the problem with using signals is that a lot of fouls are half one thing and half another. Two people could see the same thing and one would call it pushing and the other would call it striking, or one would say it is tripping and the other would call it kicking the opponent. All that really matters is who fouled who. A self-confident and proactive referee can usually recognize when additional clarification is actually necessary.(Such as when there are lots of players crowded into the penalty area and there may be more than one potential foul)

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