Diego Costa, the man Chelsea hopes will solve its goalscoring problems, got off to a great start in his debut game on Monday, scoring after just 17 minutes.
Thirteen minutes later he managed another first in his Chelsea career: His first yellow card for diving. The call, like so many of these calls, was utterly wrong. Costa was clearly tripped by Burnley goalkeeper Tom Heaton. Referee Michael Oliver made a mess of it -- or maybe he simply wanted to dodge giving a penalty kick to Chelsea and a red card to Heaton. Instead he gave a free kick to Burnley and a yellow card to Costa.
This was Oliver, considered a rising star among English officials. Yet, like all the English referees, he has allowed himself to be caught up in that country’s anti-diving witch hunt. He is out there actively looking for diving -- so, of course, he finds it, even when -- especially when -- it isn’t there. That is English refereeing, and it is frankly pathetic.
None of that would be of importance to this country -- were it not for Peter Walton, the Englishman who was ill-advisedly appointed to oversee refereeing in MLS. Walton, as I pointed out vociferously at the time of his appointment in 2012, brings English thinking to American refereeing. Logically -- Walton’s experience is narrowly limited to England.
During a long interview with Walton last year, I asked him for his views on diving. No hesitation -- he replied at once: “The scourge of the modern game.”
That is already a ridiculously exaggerated view of things, but it is made much, much worse because the English have somehow contrived to turn diving into a cardinal sin, a heinous offense with moral implications. For the English, diving has become an obsession, and a fit target for a witch-hunt.
A situation that puts Walton and his like firmly on the side of righteousness, while non-believers like me are made to feel downright wicked.
So Walton has brought his anti-diving zealotry to the USA. I have already commented on the dreadful call made recently by referee Allen Chapman -- a splendid example of just how far astray zealotry can lead a referee. New England’s Charlie Davies was clearly fouled by the Red Bulls’ Ibrahim Sekagya. New England should have had a penalty kick. From Chapman they got nothing -- apart from the yellow to Davies for diving.
No amount of sophistry can turn that into anything other than a thoroughly rotten call. Yet, to my despair, PRO’s Paul Rejer has used his online “Play of the Week” column to offer what purports to be a reasonable explanation of why the call wasn’t really bad after all, and why, if there was anything wrong with it, that was all Davies’ fault, not the referee’s.
I despair because I am an admirer of Rejer’s columns and give him plenty of credit for being willing to criticize MLS referees when they make errors. Yet here, he has made a lamentable error of judgment in attempting to justify referee Chapman’s disastrous call. (It is, significantly, precisely the same lack of judgment that Walton recently displayed when trying to excuse another terrible call to ESPN.FC’s television panel. He was, very properly, roundly ridiculed by the panel).
Inevitably, Rejer’s reasoning makes no sense. He starts off by undermining his own argument: He admits that, yes, there was a foul and that, yes, New England should have had a penalty kick. Which doesn’t leave him much to discuss, does it? But Rejer has plenty more to say -- about how sneaky and cheating Davies is and how difficult Chapman’s job is.
Taking the second point first -- of course the referee’s job is a difficult one, I have no argument with that. But that cannot be used as an excuse when a referee makes a clamorously bad call, ignores a blatant foul and then invents another foul that simply isn’t there.
But it is in his assessment of Davies’ action that Rejer really lets himself down. The crux of the matter, according to Rejer, is that although Rejer was fouled he didn’t fall down correctly.
This is Rejer: “Davies then propelled himself in the air in a very unnatural manner and proceeded to roll around on the ground.”
There are two things wrong here. Firstly: Davies was fouled -- Rejer admits that. So why should it matter how Davies falls? The foul has already been committed. It should have been called. Secondly: Rejer’s description of Davies’s fall is nonsensical. What, exactly (and I mean exactly ) is “an unnatural manner”? Who defines that? Is it written down anywhere? (It’s certainly not in the rulebook).
Perhaps PRO has published “The Peter Walton Guide to Falling Down Properly”? I haven’t seen it.
Davies’ tumble may not be to Rejer’s liking, but there is nothing inherently wrong with it. When a player is moving rapidly, when, as here, he is in the middle of rapid leg movement designed to fool an opponent -- yes, maybe that’s “unnatural” by normal walking or running procedures, but it’s intended to be different, he’s trying to deceive the defender, for heaven’s sake -- when that movement is interrupted by a defender sticking his leg (his whole leg, be it noted, not just his foot) in front of the moving player ... well, what is the “natural” way of dealing with that? It won’t, for sure, be quite as straightforward, as “natural,” as Rejer imagines.
Davies, already cutting sharply to his left, sees a leg stuck out -- there’s no way he’s going to avoid that, there’s going to be contact. So -- is Davies allowed to jump up in order to minimize the contact? If he does jump up, surely that is going to affect how he goes to ground?
You would think so. Rejer does not think so. But, just in case the unnatural tag won’t stick, Rejer says that Davies then “proceeded to roll around on the ground.” Something else that needs defining. How many rolls is too many? Davies hits the ground, his impetus means that one roll cannot be avoided. But Davies makes a second roll. And why should he not do that?
Just two rolls, then, but that is one too many for Rejer, and apparently for Chapman too, who “somewhat understandably” says Rejer, “cautions him for simulation.” Somewhat understandably? How odd. Because Rejer assures us that, when it comes to awarding a penalty kick, a referee has to be “100% convinced” -- but evidently much less stringent criteria apply to simulation, in that case a “somewhat” will do. Double standards would you say?
According to Rejer, Davies was definitely trying to convince Chapman to award a penalty kick, but “his theatrics convinced the referee that this was an act of simulation and not a genuine PK.”
We then have Rejer’s considered opinion of the whole incident: “You can argue that this was an error by the referee but in this case the player only has himself to blame.”
There you have it. Honest referee Allen Chapman, trying hard to do a difficult job, is exonerated. It’s all the fault of the devious Charlie Davies.
Oh, come on. Enough of this nonsense. It is getting silly, and it is silly.
It is silly because a referee has gone into the game with the thought of diving preying on his mind. Chapman, whom I’ve seen refereeing quite a few times, is not a favorite of mine - too indulgent to fouling. That, no doubt, will have endeared him to Walton.
And I think that is where we can put the blame for this horrible call. This was not Chapman’s call. This was Peter Walton’s. Paul Rejer tells us that this was a case of “the referee earnestly carrying out one of the season’s initiatives by punishing an act of simulation …"
Ahah! A “season’s initiative ...” Now that does interest me. So, before this season began, MLS referees were evidently given guidance -- or initiatives -- as to how to referee games. That guidance can only come from Walton. Knowing that Walton is a self-righteous warrior who fights the good fight against simulation, I (speaking from the depths of my contrarian wickedness) would expect nothing less than an order to clamp down on simulation and -- as in this case -- anything that might just look like simulation.
Rejer’s reference to the “season’s initiative” is virtually an aside in his column. Another aside -- this time in an SI.com interview with World Cup referee Mark Geiger -- contained a further revelation about the workings of MLS referees.
“I may call a few more fouls in an international game than worry about promoting the game-flow model they want in MLS,” said Geiger. This game-flow model, Geiger explained, involves not calling what are regarded as “trifling” fouls. Let ‘em play, as the saying goes. A saying that comes perilously close to Let ‘em foul.
I’ll have more to say about the season initiatives and the game-flow model in another column. But one conclusion is already inescapable. The obsession with diving (as evidenced by the Costa incident cited at the head of this column), and the determination to allow “trifling” fouls (yet again, we are in need of a definition) are both notions that flourish in the EPL -- where Walton used to referee.
English referees have a formidable record of congratulating themselves on being the world’s best. It is an opinion that is not widely shared, because English refereeing is so obviously permissive. Mike Riley, the head of referees in England, thinks it is a good thing that the average number of fouls per game in England is around 23, considerably lower than anywhere else in the world. Of course, what he means is that only 23 fouls are actually called.
But the bigger problem with these MLS “initiatives” is not their English origin, but that they are refereeing modes that favor defenders and -- a crucial point, I would have thought -- work against any idea of “protecting players,” a worthy aim that MLS has promoted in the past. That ought to worry the MLS top brass. Does it, I wonder?