Excusing the inexcusable: 'don't guess, don't allow the goal'

By Paul Gardner

To his credit, PRO’s Paul Rejer has not refused to deal with referee mistakes in his “Play of the Week” feature on PRO’s website. They make up a minority of his cases -- for the simple reason that referees, by and large, get things right.
Rejer has not sought to make excuses for refereeing errors. Not until now, when he confronts a colossal gaffe in the Seattle Sounders x L.A.Galaxy game -- the disallowing of a headed goal by the Galaxy’s Omar Gonzalez. This time he is intent on making excuses for AR Greg Barkey. Excuses which simply do not add up.
First there is the general argument that the ref has a difficult task and that he has to react to a situation instantly, without benefit of slo-mo replays etc. Agreed. That is a good argument -- when the play is not clear, when it needs repeated runs of the replay to see what really happened.
But can that argument be credibly advanced in the case of the Gonzalez goal? An incident in which the ball was at least two feet over the goal line and was then kicked out by a player (Seattle’s Osvaldo Alonso) standing even further inside the goal net.
Rejer -- correctly, I think -- defends Barkey’s positioning, and admits that it was not ideal: “From the angle he [Barkey] is at, he has the post in his line of vision to the ball and it would have been difficult to see ‘daylight’ between the post and the ball.”
Which is where, for me, the problems begin. This business of “seeing daylight” is totally unpractical. I think Rejer knows this -- else why did he put the phrase in inverted commas?
How much daylight? Technically, it need only be unmeasurably small -- certainly too slight for the human brain to register it. So Barkey -- and the whole AR tribe -- are being asked to do something that is impossible. It is physically out of the question for them to make that judgment -- they would need wondrously exceptional visual acuity.
That is the main reason why we now have GDS (Goal Decision System), which presumably can make the call accurately, though I’m not at all sure how we know that.
But the problem with Barkey’s non-call gets a lot worse as Rejer continues, as he spells out what is standard referee reasoning: “We advise ARs never to guess in these goal line situations. They can only act on what they see. We say, if you have seen the whole of the ball over the goal line then signal the goal. If you haven’t, don’t guess something that may not have happened.”
Reasoning that is faulty -- to say the least -- from start to finish. Because the AR is guessing either way -- whether he allows or disallows the goal. He did not see the scientific minutiae of the play -- that is not his fault, how could he? But he is then told by his mentors to, in effect, guess that the ball did not enter the net. Rejer’s “don’t guess something that may not have happened” is meant to avoid the AR awarding a goal that didn’t happen. But it is just as likely, as here, to result in a decision not to award a goal that did happen -- where the referee or AR is equally guessing “something that may not have happened” -- i.e. he is guessing that the ball, all of it, did not enter the goal.
If I assume that everything Rejer says about the difficulty of Barkey’s sight lines is correct (I have major doubts about that), that means that Barkey must have been guessing where the ball was. In this case, he made an terrible guess. (The alternative is that Barkey could see the position of the ball, and therefore made an even worse error).
I’ll go with the lesser error. Barkey did not get a clear view. What he did next was hardly his own fault. He was following instructions: Don’t guess, don’t allow the goal.
If the AR didn’t see the play clearly, any decision he makes is going to be a guess -- so the advice “not to guess” is worthless.

Any argument that Barkey, by not doing anything, did not make a decision is a non-starter. Opting not to do anything is a decision.
PRO -- and refereeing in general -- would do well to face up to the fact that there is quite a lot of guesswork involved in refereeing. But it is intelligent, informed, guesswork. The experienced referee or AR, working with that experience and his instincts will be right far more often than he is wrong on such calls.
When referees and ARs do screw up -- as here -- I suggest that the majority of wrong calls come because the referee’s guesswork is, quite unreasonably, supporting the defensive side of the game. A very good example can be seen in the case of diving calls -- the majority of which are flat out wrong, or questionable. Guesswork is at work big time in these calls -- but the guess usually goes against the attacking player.
Why? The phrase “benefit of the doubt” crops up often in referee discussions. It refers to those situations where the referee has to make a decision on less than perfect evidence -- where he has to guess. And in most -- nearly all -- cases that benefit is awarded to the defense.
There is absolutely no logical reason for this bias. I do not see how it can be justified by reference to the rule book, which has nothing to say on the matter, dealing as it does only with certitudes.
The Gonzalez case then did not show refereeing at its best. Firstly -- whatever excuses can be made for AR Barkey cannot wipe out the enormity of his error. But secondly -- the advice he is given about “not guessing,” which Rejer repeats with almost religious respect, is impractical. That is clearly not Barkey’s fault.
The biggest error here lies with the ingrained referee bias in favor of defensive play. Let us turn that bias around and suppose that referees are to be told, tomorrow, that in future the benefit of doubt must always go to the attacking team.
What do referees imagine would happen? What are they afraid of? Are we asked to believe that would be the end of soccer? Quite the contrary -- it would likely invigorate a game where defensive play is far too dominant. It would also mean that honest men like Paul Rejer would not find themselves trapped into excusing the inexcusable.
14 comments about "Excusing the inexcusable: 'don't guess, don't allow the goal'".
  1. Allan Lindh, November 5, 2013 at 2:49 a.m.

    And once again Mr Gardner carefully avoids the obvious. VIDEO REPLAY!!!!
    Doesn't cost much, already used in most other sports, clearly resolves these kind of errors. But speaking of bias, Mr Gardner, Blattner, Platini etc, have a bias against using an already existing technology. And why are they so afraid? Because then they'll have to deal with erroneous offside calls, penalty kicks, diving calls, etc. And that is more than they can conceive, so they decide if favor of preserving all the errors. However as in many things, they too will pass, and the next generation will implement a sensible use of video replay.

  2. Ginger Peeler, November 5, 2013 at 8:15 a.m.

    Alan, Gardner does mention the GDS, which is supposed to indicate when a ball has completely crossed over the goal line. It's my understanding that MLS is not using this technology, at present. Years ago, I used to attend Sam Diego Sockets indoor games. They had something that sensed the ball going over the line and a red flashing light would spin on top of the goal. For the most part, referees don't often make such blatant errors. I don't think we need instant replay to niggle over diving, offsides and penalty kicks. We do need something to certify that the entire ball has crossed the goal line.

  3. Jeff EAst, November 5, 2013 at 8:52 a.m.

    zzzzzz.... zzzzzzz.... zzzzzz....

  4. Charles O'Cain, November 5, 2013 at 9:05 a.m.

    Should refs/AR's adopt the approach advocated here, i.e. that they "guess" that the ball may have crossed the line when they are less than certain that it did (beyond a reasonable doubt), the inevitable consequence will be that goals not actually scored will be "allowed". Is that really a great step forward? Is that really more "just", and will soccer be the better for it? I'm not at all convinced. But I am sure that video replay/challenge is not the answer.

  5. R2 Dad, November 5, 2013 at 11:06 a.m.

    Attackers are given the benefit of the doubt on offside calls if they appear to be even with the second-to-last defender. But otherwise I'd agree with PG on this one. There has been a raft of poor referee decisions this year that have cost teams points.

  6. Kent James, November 5, 2013 at 11:40 a.m.

    Although PG is right that referees refusing to guess often benefits the defense, that is not the purpose. Referees are taught to minimize their role in the game; the best reffed games are games where you don't notice the referee (the point is not that referees don't do anything, but by calling appropriate fouls and issuing appropriate cards, the players understand what is allowed and what is not and act appropriately). So there are two reasons refs should not guess on big calls (goals, pk's, red cards), but only make them if they are sure. The first is to avoid punishing someone for something they didn't do; practically speaking, pk's & red cards not given are less memorable than those given incorrectly. The other is that by refusing to act unless you're sure, there is a level of consistency. Guessing opens up a new can of worms. While it is not good, players can accept a referee who was screened and didn't see a foul more readily than they can understand a referee punishing someone because he "guessed" that the player did something. So I think the bias is appropriate. On the other hand, video replay (or goal line technology) can eliminate these errors on something as black and white as the goal/no goal decision, and there is no excuse for not using them in such situations. That should not be a judgment call.

  7. Brian Something, November 5, 2013 at 2:51 p.m.

    Here's the problem: the post is ALWAYS a factor for an AR in a decision like that. What the director is saying is that the AR CAN'T get that call right. If so, then it only proves that technology is needed.

  8. Millwall America, November 5, 2013 at 3:39 p.m.

    Paul, once again -- on average there are 20 diving calls *per season* in the EPL (and equivalent amounts in other leagues). As there are 380 games in the EPL season, that is one diving call every nineteen games (19). So for the avoidance of doubt, your claim that: "A very good example can be seen in the case of diving calls -- the majority of which are flat out wrong, or questionable" is just WRONG, Paul. Not "iffy", not "questionable", not "open to interpretation". It's just WRONG. There is not a soccer fan on Earth who will believe that soccer players dive only once every 19 games. You are just WRONG, Paul. This has been pointed out to you before, so either you're so stupid you can't understand statistics, or you're deliberately lying. LYING. Please stop spreading this falsehood, Paul. Diving happens much more frequently than it is punished in actual games. Stop pretending otherwise because of your pro-offense / "I wish soccer was more like basketball" insanity. Thanks.

  9. Millwall America, November 5, 2013 at 3:51 p.m.

    For the avoidance of doubt, I believe that soccer players dive a great deal, even in the EPL. I believe there should be on average one diving call per game, or 380 over the course of a typical EPL season. That feels about right to me in terms of how much diving actually occurs in the sport -- one clear dive per game. Instead, the referees only call it once every NINETEEN (19) games. That is absolutely ridiculous -- but PG claims even that is too much. Unbelievable.

  10. uffe gustafsson, November 5, 2013 at 6:52 p.m.

    Oh no, don't bring in replay or the game will be nothing but TV commercials in the middle of the game. It's very simple if you don't see it then don't call it. Why is that such a hard thing to understand.
    The NFL still don't always get it right with replay in place.
    Stop the everything have to be perfect Philosophy
    It's part of life that mistakes happens.

  11. R2 Dad, November 5, 2013 at 11:09 p.m.

    Millwall, the correct response to diving is a non-call. Yes they're giving cards for it now, but for anything short of the top professional leagues it's not necessary.

  12. Millwall America, November 6, 2013 at 11:18 a.m.

    R2 Dad, the correct response to diving is a yellow card. Attempting to trick the referee into penalizing your opponent is unsporting behavior and is against the laws of the game.

  13. Kent James, November 6, 2013 at 11:18 p.m.

    R2 and Millwall, there may be ambiguity in the word "diving" that generates a difference of opinion that may seem greater than it actually is. When I reffed, I distinguished between someone who made up a call (pretending to be fouled when he was not) and those who merely exaggerated fouls (trying to make a foul look worse than it was). Although both might be considered dives, I penalized the first category with a yellow card and the second by either not calling the foul, or calling the foul and telling the player that their exaggeration (especially if it was obvious that it was exaggeration) made it difficult to call the foul (since it looked like I was being convinced by the dive). I think yellow cards should be given to those who purposely choose to violate the rules because they think it will benefit their team to do so; one hopes the yellow card changes the calculus.

  14. Randy Vogt, November 7, 2013 at 7:18 a.m.

    While people question how AR Greg Barkey missed that goal, let's give credit to AR Daniel Belleau of Sainte-Hélène-de-Breakeyville, Québec, who worked the MLS Cup Final last year. He saw last night that the shot by the Dynamo's Omar Cummings in overtime just went over the goal line in a very tight call, giving Houston the playoff series win.

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