FA's re-refereeing absolves a cheat

By Paul Gardner

I have to return to the case of Andre Marriner, the English referee who recently misidentified a player, causing him to red-card the wrong guy. A mistake that, as I pointed out in a previous column, could probably have been avoided, and certainly corrected immediately after it had been made, if only the sport of soccer would get its act together and give referees some common sense help and some technological aid. In this case: frontal numbers for the players, and TV replays to identify the players. Really, quite simple.

But the soccer powers -- from FIFA and IFAB on down -- do not think like that. They do not do simple. And the proof that they are actually more likely to complicate matters than to simplify them has emerged from the decision handed down by the English Football Association in the Marriner case.

The decision deals with the mistaken-identity issue. It then takes up the matter of whether a red-card was warranted on the play anyway. Arsenal’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain dived athletically to tip away, with his hand, a shot from Chelsea’s Eden Hazard. Marriner issued the red-card (erroneously to Kieran Gibbs) because he believed he was seeing a player denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity (DOGSO). And a DOGSO offense has to be punished with a red card.

Well now. Marriner saw a hard shot at goal, he saw an Arsenal player who flung himself in a prodigious sideways dive and deliberately handled the ball to keep it away from the Arsenal goal. How can his call be wrong?

Wrong, wrong, says the FA report. Because the FA, with benefit of replays, has established that Hazard’s shot was going wide of the goal. A ruling that loads an almost impossible duty on to the referee. How can a referee possibly judge, in a split second, the exact trajectory of a fast-moving ball?

This is exactly the same sort of millimetric, split-second accuracy decision that it has been deemed impossible for referees to make in the case of goal-line decisions. Hence the arrival of the goal decision system (GDS) and its elaborate technology.

Fourteen years ago, an exactly similar case to Marriner’s arose in MLS in a game between the Columbus Crew and San Jose. The Crew’s defender Robert Warzycha went flying through the air, arm out-stretched, to keep out a San Jose shot with a hand ball. Or so it seemed. Referee Ali Saheli -- then considered one of the best in MLS -- gave the penalty kick. But -- after a lengthy discussion with his assistant -- Saheli decided not to give a red card to Warzycha. Same reasoning -- the San Jose shot (it was a header from Jimmy Conrad) was judged to have been missing the goal frame. That particular decision, taken by the officials on the field, was absurd. Because it was clear that Saheli’s line of sight was blocked, and the AR was at the wrong angle to make the call.

But why should the officials have been discussing the matter at all? If a defender decides to deflect a shot by handling the ball, common sense surely tells us he, at least, thought the shot was going in. And that should be enough. Why on earth should a committee watching replays take, yet again, the defender’s side and absolve him of a crime he was perfectly willing to commit, and quite probably did commit? If a defender is so easily ready to cheat, why should he get a break?

I am not denying that, under the wording of the DOGSO offense, a shot that is going wide cannot be interpreted as a goalscoring opportunity. If a horrendously mis-hit shot, heading for the corner flag, should be handled by a defender, no referee is going to call a DOGSO for that. But when it’s close, a matter of inches maybe -- would the ball go in? Hit the post? Hit the inside of the post? -- surely the referee must be allowed to use his judgment and make the call? And there the matter should end.

It is sheer madness to second-guess, with access to replays and slo-mos, those referee decisions. For a committee, after watching replays, to nix the referee’s call amounts to re-refereeing the game. Something that most parties seem to agree is not acceptable.

In both the cases described above, the referee and the defender made the same error: they believed that a shot was on target. Video replays showed the shot was going wide. For his version of the error -- a genuine mistake in trying to apply the rules of the game -- the referee is held to be at fault, and he is belittled by having his judgment publicly over-ruled. But the defender is treated very differently: For his version of precisely the same error -- but which involved the defender’s willingness to cheat -- he is absolved of all wrong, his red card, and any suspension, are canceled.

More pertinently, what on earth is the FA thinking when it clears a player who has shown his willingness to break the rules, to cheat, and at the same time -- and for the same “offense” -- basically labels a referee inept?

This is not an argument in favor of the FA -- or any other administrative body -- always taking the referee’s side. But in matters where there is genuine uncertainty, I think the administrators have only two options: either clarify (disambiguate is a favorite term) the wording of the rule, or be guided by common sense.

It seems to me that Marriner has taken a lot of totally unwarranted criticism -- largely because the FA, merrily thumbing its nose at common sense and evidently forgetting that soccer is supposed to embrace the concept of fair play, has opted to complicate matters rather than to simplify them.
9 comments about "FA's re-refereeing absolves a cheat".
  1. Brian Something, March 30, 2014 at 11:49 a.m.

    If you don't like the rule, change the rule. But don't blame the ref for enforcing the rule or the FA for judging based on its rules as they exist.

  2. R2 Dad, March 30, 2014 at 12:37 p.m.

    The dilemma with the red card is the automatic suspension that follows. Everyone seems to be in agreement that a sending off can be justified, but DOGSO has turned into a strategic weapon by the attacking players, especially in keeper-related events.

  3. Eric Schmitt, March 30, 2014 at 1:41 p.m.

    For once, I am in complete agreement with Paul Gardner; a very rare moment, indeed. As much as the ref made a hash of the red card call in the first place, the FA has now made an even bigger hash of it. Total nonsense.

  4. feliks fuksman, March 30, 2014 at 2:36 p.m.

    I actually agree with PG quite often and like his style of writing and making people discuss different matters dealing with our beautiful game.
    Can't wait for the games that are coming up this week and the WC of course!

  5. Kent James, March 30, 2014 at 3:23 p.m.

    As usual, PG packs a lot of issues into his column. While I agree with much of it, I disagree that a league correcting a decision that was made in error by a referee is (necessarily) disrespecting the referee. If only shots on goal can be considered goal scoring opportunities, and replays clearly show the shot is not on goal, then rescinding the red card is not making the ref look foolish. I don't know how it was presented (and certainly, how such a rescission is done could make the ref look bad), but for the league to recognize that during the course of play, referees will sometimes get things wrong, and if video evidence can ameliorate the damage, I say do what you can to make things right. That being said, I certainly agree with PG that a player who attempts to deny a goal scoring opportunity by cheating, should not be saved by his miscalculation on the path of the shot. So I would argue that any player attempting to DGSO should be ejected, and the angle of the shot or the path of the player should not be material to that decision.

  6. Andrew Bermant, March 30, 2014 at 9:16 p.m.

    This is actually a tricky one - FIFA does not allow video replays like in the NBA or NFL. So what the FA has done is counterproductive to the Laws of the Game. As the same time, it's probably the leading edge of change. Anyway, they all got it wrong! If the FA is going to change the referee's DOGSO call based on video replay, then they have a responsibility to correct the infamous wrong card and sanction Oxlade-Chamberlain. In the end, not only did the entire 4-man referee team make a poor decision (sanctioning the wrong player) but the FA made the wrong call for all the reasons given in Paul Gardner's article. Shame once and shame twice!

  7. Amos Annan, March 31, 2014 at 6:40 p.m.

    soccer administration is blissfully ignorant

  8. Amos Annan, March 31, 2014 at 6:41 p.m.

    administrators viewing replays to question a referee not allowed to view replays is the really dumb

  9. Kent James, April 4, 2014 at 8:49 a.m.

    Amos, when I suggested allowing video replays, I meant the referees (preferably the game referee) should review it. This would allow the referee to correct any mistakes he made. Where it would be tricky is if the ref thinks he got it right (and certainly some refs have an ego that would make it tough for them to admit error publicly), but a referee review committee disagreed. But at the very least, video should be used to correct the obvious wrongs (like the red card to the wrong player).

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