This past Saturday gave us a sharply well-defined view of just how big a mess the English EPL referees have got themselves into. Simulation is the problem -- or rather, their problem. That is to say, the English referees have created this problem.
We’ll start with the Sunderland-West Ham United game. Final score 1-1. But did Sunderland’s Adam Johnson take a dive to secure the PK that Jordi Gomez converted?
Johnson went down under challenge from West Ham’s James Tomkins. We saw the replays, several of them, and, as is often the case, they’re not conclusive. My view was that there was contact, and that referee Phil Dowd made the correct call. The game commentators, not to mention West Ham coach Sam Allardyce, made it known, vehemently, that they thought otherwise.
Dowd gave the PK. For him, there was contact and no dive. But the moaning about Dowd’s call -- the accusation that he had been conned by Johnson -- rumbled on.
For me, the worst aspect of this incident came back in the USA, during the post-game comments of panelist pundit Robbie Mustoe. Mustoe can usually be relied on to give a measured, if over-elaborated, view of EPL games. Not this time.
Right away, Mustoe mounted the moral high horse that the English like to ride during these discussions. “No contact,” he pronounced immediately, followed by the usual display of shock and horror that the righteous adopt when confronted by suspected simulation. “We’ve got to put a stop to this ...” and all that stuff.
This was very disappointing from Mustoe. I’d suggest he takes another look at the replays and lets us know just how he can be so certain there was no contact. And just why he is so ready to convict Johnson of diving on such flimsy evidence?
Well, we know the answer to my second question: Mustoe has bought into the English diving witch hunt. But for once, in Phil Dowd, we saw a referee who dared to swim against that tide.
Just two hours later, in the Chelsea-Hull game, things reverted to normal, with referee Chris Foy dishing out two yellow cards for simulation ... but that was a display of anti-simulation bravado that landed Foy in a dilemma.
This is how things developed: in the 30th minute, Chelsea’s Willian pushed the ball past Curtis Davies of Hull. As Willian chased the ball, Davies clearly stepped into his path. There was at least glancing contact. Willian went down. Yellow card, decided Foy. In the 58th minute Chelsea forward Diego Costa was tripped just outside the Hull area. No trip said Foy -- yellow to Costa for diving.
Both those calls were questionable. But it was a decision that Foy made in between them that caused a good deal of trouble. Chelsea was on the attack in the 53rd minute, and their central defender Gary Cahill was in the Hull penalty area. He chased a loose ball and took a tumble ... involving an obvious, clumsy, theatrical dive. Not much doubt about this one, the only unarguable “dive” of the day. Yet Foy did not call it.
How so? Well, as he’d already yellow-carded Cahill, to call the dive would have meant ejecting him, so Foy chickened out on the call. That’s one explanation. There is another, even less acceptable possibility. Cahill is English. The other two players whom Foy did nail for diving, Willian and Costa, are both Brazilian. (Costa, you may recall, was yellow-carded for diving in his very first game for Chelsea, a call that replays showed was flat-out incorrect. More recently, we’ve seen Sergio Aguero -- an Argentine -- the victim of a horrendously wrong diving call by referee Mike Jones).
It is easy to blame Foy for this mess. But ultimately the blame lies with the referee leaders, the people at the Professional Game Match Officials group that oversees referees, and its manager, Mike Riley.
They are the ones who encourage their referees to be on a constant watch for even the slenderest of evidence of diving. The result is a slew of awful calls that punish the wrong players. These calls also seriously damage the standing and integrity of the referees themselves.
There are not many diving calls as indisputable as Cahill’s. Most are either obviously wrong or highly doubtful. In short, there are not nearly as many incidents of simulation as the English referees would have us believe. This is a crime that they have created, and it is now their problem to find a way out of what looks like a classic tiger-by-the-tale situation.
Unfortunately, the problem has been exported ... to the USA, where MLS referee boss Peter Walton is determined to mold American referees in the English image. An image that, while ruthlessly demanding yellow cards for anything that even looks like simulation, also includes a policy of avoiding the issue of cards for much more serious offences.
The Chelsea-Hull game provides evidence for that: The tackle that resulted in Cahill’s yellow card was bad enough to warrant a red, while a week back we had the astonishing sight of Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez being held in a choke-hold for several seconds by Stoke’s Charlie Adam. For which Adam received only a yellow card.
Somebody at MLS should be asking himself whether that’s the sort of refereeing we want here. The trouble is, I cannot fathom who that somebody -- it needs to be a respected and authoritative soccer voice -- might be.