By Paul Gardner
A couple of recent referee calls that are worth studying because they raise issues that the rulebook does not seem to accommodate. These are the details -- I’m leaving out the scorelines, as we all know that they are not to be considered when referees make decisions.
* March 30, 2013 - Major League Soccer
New York Red Bulls vs. Philadelphia Union.
91:46 -- Philadelphia defender Sheanon Williams sends a long high cross into the New York penalty area. As the ball drops at the edge of the six-yard box, NY goalkeeper Luis Robles charges forward to grab it, while Philadelphia forward Conor Casey runs in to meet it. Both players have their eyes firmly on the ball.
We can halt matters right there. At this moment, in my opinion, both players have a right to go for the ball. It is, as close as one can tell, a genuine 50-50 ball. Neither player is in an obviously advantageous position. But you know, or you strongly sense, that there is going to be a collision -- the ball is dropping right where Casey could expect to get his head on it, and right where Robles has an equal opportunity to snag it.
Which means that the goalkeeper will, in a fraction of a second, have the advantage -- reaching upward with his hands he must be able to get the ball before it descends onto Casey’s head. But to get that advantage, he must continue his forward charge. He cannot avoid running into Casey.
Casey’s actions suggest that, at the last moment, he gives up on trying to reach the ball but -- evidently aware that Robles is going to leap into him to get at the ball -- he lowers his head and bends his body forward, but with his back toward the approaching Robles. It looks like the action of someone trying to avoid the impending crunch ... or is it Casey compacting his body to make sure he gives as good as he gets when the collision comes?
The collision duly occurs. Robles leaps and reaches over Casey to get the ball, but the two bodies make contact at hip level. Robles, airborne, fails to get hold of the ball, then spins round and falls heavily to the ground, on his back. A nasty fall, one that shook up Robles enough to warrant a delay of over three minutes while he recovered.
Casey managed to stay on his feet throughout and was immediately yellow-carded by referee Silviu Petrescu. It seems to me that what the referee has to decide here is -- who ran into whom? Robles was certainly jumping into Casey as the contact occurred. There was no way that Casey could have got out of the way. But, the manner in which Casey was bending over (quite possibly to protect himself) more or less ensured that Robles would come a nasty cropper as he flailed for the ball.
I feel in a position of neutrality here. On the one hand, Casey is not my favorite player, I regard him as much too physical a player. On the other hand, I think that goalkeepers, far too often, are allowed to get away with highly dangerous physical challenges.
In this incident, I do not believe that Casey was at fault. He went for the ball, legally. He then did what surely anyone would do when threatened with a collision. I cannot see anything reckless in his actions. No use of arms or elbows, no kicking.
The recklessness came from goalkeeper Robles in throwing himself forward, over Casey, to get at the ball. But that is what goalkeepers do, and they are repeatedly allowed to do it. Robles did not jump in with his knees raised, which is often the case with goalkeepers. Even in those cases, goalkeepers seem immune to punishment. There was a terrifying example of this in last year’s L.A. Galaxy vs Metapan game in the Concacaf Champions league -- Galaxy goalkeeper Josh Saunders simply jumped wildly into Metapan’s Christian Bautista, slamming both knees into Bautista’s head. Somehow, Bautista recovered from the wipeout ... but nothing happened to Saunders. Nothing. A horrifyingly dangerous play that would have resulted in an instant red card for any field player was treated by the referee as perfectly acceptable for a goalkeeper.
No one denies that goalkeepers, reaching for a high ball, are vulnerable. They must be allowed to raise their leg as protection. But using that raised leg as a battering ram is something else altogether.
My suggestion is this: that the six-yard box, which serves absolutely no function whatever at the moment, should be reinstated as an area where the goalkeeper rules. Within which he cannot be challenged. Under that rule, Casey would get an automatic yellow card, no arguments. But, with that rule in effect, chances are that he would not have challenged for the ball at all, meaning there would have been no collision, and no jarring injury for Robles.
Outside the six-yard box, goalkeepers would not receive any dispensations or special treatment. Certainly, a challenge like that made by Saunders -- which occurred at the limit of the penalty area would result in a red card and penalty kick. But again, knowing they would face serious punishment, would goalkeepers make those reckless challenges?
* April 3, 2013 -- UEFA Champions League
Real Madrid vs. Galatasaray
77:01 Galatasaray’s Burak Yilmaz has the ball at his feet inside the Real Madrid penalty area. He moves the ball forward with his right foot just as Real’s Sergio Ramos comes in to tackle. Ramos gets a glancing touch of the ball with his left foot, which follows through and lands heavily on the instep of Yilmaz’s right foot. Yilmaz goes down, obviously tripped. No foul, says referee Svein Oddvar Moen from Norway, therefore no penalty kick to Galatasaray. But a yellow card to Yilmaz for diving (simulation if you prefer that word).
The call is a manifest injustice. Not only does Galatasaray not get a deserved penalty kick, but the yellow card means that Yilmaz will have to sit out the return game.
Another problem call, then? The problem here is the attitude of the referee. He does not believe there was a foul. That is a tenable opinion, because Ramos did get a touch of the ball, knocking it away from Yilmaz. But the rest of Moen’s version is sheer invention. Even if he did not see Ramos stamp on Yilmaz, there is still a big imaginative leap to be made before accusing a player of cheating.
So for this problem call, and for so many like it involving simulation, there is an easy, straightforward solution. Referees should simply stop actively looking for a dive. When you’re intent on finding something, you’ll likely find it, whether it’s there or not.
You can see why referees might like making simulation calls. Such dodgy calls can -- as might well be the case here -- add seeming confirmation to the referee’s decision not to award a penalty kick. The calls also carry an aura of gloating, of the referee telling the player and the watching world “You’re not clever enough to bamboozle me ...”
Referees might also take some satisfaction from feeling they are part of current opinion, that they are helping to “clean up” the game. In fact, referees -- our one hope for honesty and unbiased action and opinion during a game -- should be ashamed of joining the diving witch-hunt.
They’re caving in to the shrill demands of a group of loudmouth coaches and moralizing TV commentators -- most of them in England. And how unusual it was, in the Yilmaz case, to hear the commentators, both English, admit that Yilmaz had been fouled. Even then, we got a classic comment: “Well, he doesn’t go down in the most graceful way ... but it should have been a penalty.”
Remember that, forwards. Next time you get tripped or trodden on, or have your legs kicked out from under you, be sure to fall gracefully to the ground.
To imagine that you can stamp something out when you yourself are in fact busy inventing fictitious examples of it in every game must rank pretty high up there in the imbecility league standings.
Two problem calls, then. One that needs attention from IFAB, the rulemakers -- which means we might expect action on it in time for the 2018 World Cup. The other needs action from the referees -- for their own good. Action that would show that they are capable of resisting the odious witch-hunt against diving that has entered the sport. A witch-hunt that will boomerang on the referees as it is more than likely to involve them in making rotten calls -- ask Mr. Moen who, one hopes, will by now be aware that his witch-hunting fervor led him to get things badly wrong.