Baffling blunders by Brit refs worth pondering

By Paul Gardner

By now, we all know that the British soccer guys -- coaches, players, referees, journalists -- have immense problems with the offside rule.

Barely a week goes by without someone -- quite probably one of the dozens of ex-players who infest their soccer telecasts as analysts -- bemoaning what they see as a rotten referee call, maybe even adding that no one in the world really understands the rule.

The complaints are ongoing -- in no other country that I am aware of is so much criticism leveled at the rule. It seems likely to me that there may well be more offside calls, good and bad, in the English Premier League than elsewhere, simply because of the way that the game is played there.

The presence of foreign coaches has not changed much in that aspect of the game (anyway, only 5 of the EPL’s coaches are non-Brits). The preferred defensive lineup is a flat back four; maybe a flat back three. The use of a deeper defender -- some form of sweeper -- is shunned.

Without going into the advantages or disadvantages of the systems, it should be clear that a flat back line is likely to involve more offside calls than a defense that includes a sweeper.

Add in the fact that playing with a flat back line invariably induces teams to make use of, maybe even rely on, the offside trap, and one can plausibly argue that the Brits’ problems with the offside rule are largely self-engendered.

Most of the recent moaning and groaning has focused on the admittedly tricky business of deciding whether a player who is in an offside position is interfering with play (in which case he must be penalized) or not (in which case he is not penalized).

So what happened in the EPL this weekend came as something of a surprise. Sure, there were offside problems -- but they did not involve any arcane wording of the rule. They were utterly straightforward, yet the assistant referees involved got all three of them wrong, badly.

These were inexcusably poor decisions. All three allowed goals to be scored that should not have been scored. And all three goals were game deciders. Sadly, the goals were scored against teams -- Wigan Athletic and Queens Park Rangers -- struggling to avoid relegation from the EPL.

Both of the goals scored by Chelsea in its 2-1 win over Wigan on Saturday should have been canceled for offside. When Branislav Ivanovic scored at the 62nd minute, he was blatantly offside, and it seems incredible that the AR -- with an unimpeded view across the field -- could not see that he was.

After Wigan had fought back to tie the game at 1-1, Chelsea got the winner in the following way: a tremendous volley from Fernando Torres struck the post, rebounded into play, straight to Juan Mata who scored from about four yards. My reading of the rule here is that this situation corresponds exactly to that diagramed on p 108 of the current rulebook. In that diagram, the ball rebounds not from the post but from the goalkeeper -- the goal is disallowed because the scorer was in an offside position when the shot was taken.

In the Chelsea case, Mata was nearly a yard offside when Torres hit his volley, surely meaning that Mata should have been penalized for “playing the ball having previously been in an offside position.” If I've got that wrong, I shall no doubt be hearing about it.

On Sunday, QPR -- already facing the difficult task of taking points off Manchester United at Old Trafford --quickly found the difficult transformed into the impossible when ManU was awarded a penalty kick after just 14 minutes, when captain Shaun Derry fouled Ashley Young. Derry was red-carded for denying Young an “obvious goal-scoring opportunity”, and Wayne Rooney made the score 1-0 from the spot.

I have no argument with the referee’s decisions, but immediately before Young received the ball, he was clearly offside, and should have been penalized -- in which case there would have been no attempted tackle from Derry, no penalty kick and no red card.

As in the Chelsea case, it is simply baffling how the AR missed this one. He is looking directly across the field, and the penalty area line is literally serving as a marker; Young is maybe a yard inside the area, while all the QPR defenders are outside the area, except one, who has one leg inside the area, the other outside. The AR is in perfect position, looking straight along the 18 yard line. Yet he does not flag.

The point about these calls is that they cannot be excused as the result of trying to apply a difficult rule. They were all totally straightforward. Poor officiating is the only explanation. It was not that good a weekend for the EPL referees. Martin Atkinson, refereeing the Arsenal vs. ManCity game, missed an awful studs up red-card foul by Mario Balotelli on Alex Song, and failed to see anything wrong with Song’s dangerously clumsy tackle on Yaya Toure. Toure had to be substituted after only 16 minutes.

There were also two ludicrous diving calls. On Saturday referee Chris Foy gave Sunderland’s Sebastian Larsson a yellow card for going down after being clumsily blocked by Younes Kaboul. Given the amount of body contact, I do not understand how Larsson was supposed to stay on his feet. While Atkinson absurdly yellow carded ManU’s Rafael after he had obviously slipped over, and had made no attempt to claim he had been fouled. Incidentally, Larsson is Swedish. Rafael is Brazilian. The usual foreign suspects. But Ashley Young is totally English, and now he stands accused, by QPR, of being a diver for "going down too easily" under Derry's challenge.

I’m not about to claim that this incompetent weekend means that Brit officials are all poor. Certainly not. It simply shows that they can have their bad days. And it does demonstrate, for those who have eyes to see, that Brit referees are far from perfect. That is something worth pondering, given that the MLS biggies, Don Garber and Nelson Rodriguez, are trying to convince us that American referees are not good enough and that it was therefore necessary to import an English boss whose refereeing experience in England (and only in England) will enable him to tell Americans how to officiate properly.

10 comments about "Baffling blunders by Brit refs worth pondering".
  1. Allan Lindh, April 9, 2012 at 4:28 a.m.

    All quite true, and well stated. Only leaves out the obvious fact that video review, as is now used routinely in basketball in the US, would have made it possible for the fourth official -- in a matter of seconds -- to correct the errors by simply looking at the TV monitor. Soccer is now in the absurd position of everyone in the stadium seeing on the big screen what in reality just happened, but the poor ref has to pretend not to look at the screen, so he can continue pretending he doesn't know what happened. Get rid of Blattner, if that's not possible get rid of FIFA and start a new association that isn't run by crooks and morons.

  2. Tom Symonds, April 9, 2012 at 8:26 a.m.

    There is nothing 'premier' about Premiership referees and linesmen. Far too many examples of bad performances each week to cite. Suffice it to say, the English FA, the media, and the fans endorse a 'full-blooded' and 'robust' game, laud players for their 'craft' and 'guile'...natural ingredients contributing to absurd on-field judgments by the FA trained and employed officials.

  3. Charles O'Cain, April 9, 2012 at 11:48 a.m.

    PLEASE no "instant replay". I'm sure the media are all for it ... leads almost seamlessly to commercial breaks and more revenue for them. Keep your basketball away from our footie. Sure, mistakes have been and will be made by human refs, and not everything will be caught on camera either. EPL is faster-paced, aggravating the problem, but the refs in general are exceptionally accurate given what is demanded of them. Three decisions were (in retrospect) wrong, but how many were correct? I've no argument against a truly accurate goal line technology, but it must not be all that easy to come up with in some generally applicable form. Do you really think the Hawkeye (as in tennis) is infallible? Or does it just substitute an unchallengable computer-generated (not "real") image for the "eye/brain" image of the ref/linesman?

  4. David Sirias, April 9, 2012 at 1:38 p.m.

    I'm no expert on football in all the countries of the world, but from what I have seen the Spanish and German refs are the best. The do not hesitate to show red on potentially careering ending tackles and studs up challenges. But I think the whole world needs to update the offsides rule to the "daylight" rule. Games would require so much more skill and not juts speed with defenses no longer playing such insanely high lines, and there would still be more goal scoring chances. Win Win

  5. dan janz, April 9, 2012 at 2:38 p.m.

    This is one of the reasons why I think with a 3 man system, the ARs should run the entire side of the field and not just 1/2. They really need be able to see everything and with the ref watching other things, calls are bound to be missed. Would make calling offsides, I think, more accurate, especially with the way off-sides is now ruled....

  6. Bill Anderson, April 9, 2012 at 4:07 p.m.

    I know that we are all supposed to respect the integrity of the game, but it is obvious to me that the FA are gifting the title to Manchester United. They bring in the cash, and in a tight economy cash is king.

  7. Saverio Colantonio, April 9, 2012 at 4:30 p.m.

    On first inspection, I would quite agree with the poor calls that are being made in regard to the offside call. In defence of he Assistant Referee (aka the linesman), it is impossible to be looking at two places at the same time in order to call the offside, i.e. the front player(s) and the passer . Many times an AR needs to listen for the kick while watching the front players. Combine that with and incredibly loud audience and players moving in and out of offside positions it becomes very difficult to call. Having said that, it is still fun to be critical of the officials. The problem with adding technology is that it slows the game down. Instead of 9 minutes of added time at Old Trafford you will seed 15-20 minutes.

    The problem is the Offside Law, not the interpretation of it. It was put in place at a time when the fitness level of players was no where near what it is today. It only creates a lot controversy and most important of all, lazy defending.

    This is one "Law" that can be discarded. They did it with Field Hockey and they have hover looked back.

  8. Bill Morrison, April 10, 2012 at 5:02 a.m.

    You only have to look at the Chelsea - Fulham game played on Monday to see the problem. The foul that resulted in Meireles getting yellow carded never happened. The replay clearly showed that Meireles never made contact with the Fulham player. Yet the position of the Ref Mark Clatenberg(sp?), was directly behind and in line with Meireles; so to him it looked as if Meireles knocked the Fulham player over, thus earning the yellow card.

    An instant review could easily rescind the card without stopping the game. Just a thought.

  9. Clear the Ball, April 10, 2012 at 2:08 p.m.

    The offside rule is critical to encourage short passing, attractive soccer. Without the rule, every play would be the boring long ball. However, I do agree that the rule should be changed to a daylight rule. Mistakes would still happen, but it would make it an easier call and open up the game.

  10. Jack vrankovic, April 10, 2012 at 10:30 p.m.

    To be fair, some of these offside decisions are hard to make in real time. Anecdotally, it appears to me that EPL referees do give the benefit of the doubt to English players. IMHO, Bundesliga referees seem to be the most fair and consistent. Additionally, the Bundesliga seems to have the best game atmospheres, technically gifted players on every team, fiscal stability and consistently produce great German NT players.

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