'A flag on the play' -- something soccer could learn from football

By Paul Gardner

From Saturday's FA Cup game in England: Leicester’s Andrej Kramaric gets clean through the Tottenham defense, ball at his feet, only goalkeeper Michel Vorm to beat. As Kramaric tries to dribble around him, Vorm makes a slide tackle. Something goalkeepers are not very good at (if you doubt that, take a look at the video of Manuel Neuer’s recent attempt -- this one from a keeper who is widely hailed as the best in the world).

Kramaric goes down, Leicester expects a penalty. It doesn’t get it. Instead, Kramaric is yellow-carded for diving. The replays, as ever, are not 100 percent conclusive. But from those replays, it’s clear that the likelihood of contact is much greater than no contact. It is also utterly clear that Vorm does not get to the ball.

Given that he called the least likely option, it’s legitimate to ask what referee Robert Madley was thinking. And I think it’s also legitimate to wonder whether Madley’s dominant thought was nothing more complicated than to avoid giving a penalty kick.

We’ve seen too many of these incidents to be naive about that possibility. This season, think back to Diego Costa’s yellow for diving in his very first game for Chelsea, and later the scandalous yellow given to Sergio Aguero after he had been flagrantly tripped inside Southampton’s penalty area.

When calls are -- as it seems -- this difficult to get right, and when they are open to suspicion of being deliberately made to avoid a more difficult decision -- then these are calls that referees should not be making. Yet, at the moment, referees are being encouraged to make the calls, being encouraged to make calls that are more likely than not to be wrong, or are of questionable motivation.

Just why referees would want to put themselves in a situation where they are more than likely to make a bad -- even a shockingly bad -- call is a question crying out for an answer. From the referees.

From the players’ point of view, these calls -- the inaccurate ones -- are highly irritating. As soon as the referee shows the yellow, he is calling a player a cheat.

I find it extraordinary that a player can be slurred so easily, when we know that the calls are frequently unjustified. The player has no way of defending himself. A yellow card cannot be appealed, and therefore cannot be rescinded. It is added to the player’s bad-behavior record. And of course the insinuation that the player is a cheat will stick -- especially in the minds of referees who have been instructed to be on the alert for diving and simulation.

The FIFA Fair Play campaign, usually thought of as a guideline for players, has equal relevance to referees. It has never been seen in that light because, until now, it has never needed to be. It is an accepted part of the calling of referees that they be fair in their judgments, and in my experience they have always maintained a high level of probity.

But the diving and simulation calls that we are now seeing do not meet that level. Referees should simply not be making calls that have a high chance of being doubtful or just flat-out wrong. A simulation call -- which is an accusation of cheating -- should only be made when referees are solidly certain of their decision. At the moment, they are relaxing their professional standards and making too many poor -- and unfair -- calls.

That is something referees need to sort out. If the referees are not prepared to put this right, there is an alternative -- the use of replays. As we rarely, if ever, hear from referees as a group, we don’t really know what the opinion of the “referee community” might be on replays. I suspect we have here one of those issues that would be publicly condemned but secretly welcomed.

After the Tottenham-Leicester game, with which I began this column, Leicester coach Nigel Pearson was in good spirits because his team ended up winning the game. But he did diplomatically mention that poor calls -- such as the one that denied Leicester a penalty kick and saddled Kramaric with a yellow card -- could be avoided if the action were reviewed quickly on replays, before a decision is made:

“These things can cost people their jobs. I am big believer in the need to introduce more technology to aid the officials. The media have monitors to see the incidents, and I think in the Premier League there should be no issue in having another official who has the capability to see replays -- once the referee has blown the whistle, it would not take too long to refer it. For the supporters as well, it would clarify situations in the game ... I don't see why we don't look to utilize it more.”

What I would add to that would be football’s practice of flagging plays. In the incident under discussion, if the referee were in doubt (which he certainly should have been) he would throw the flag (yellow, bright red, black, whatever color is agreed on). If a goal kick or a corner kick or a throw-in was coming up, the restart would be delayed while the guy watching replays made his decision. If no restart, play would continue until the next stoppage, when the replay judge’s decision would be applied. But during that continuation of play everyone concerned -- coaches, players, fans, journalists -- would be aware that the play might be called back to give a PK or (though surely not in this case) to give a yellow card.

11 comments about "'A flag on the play' -- something soccer could learn from football ".
  1. Kent James, January 25, 2015 at 9:49 p.m.

    PKs are often tough to make, and a challenge to get right. PG is right that referees should not give a yellow for simulation (diving) unless he's sure (the default option should be no call, no card). The play in question was not an obvious dive. As a former referee at a relatively high level (college and lower division pro), I would like to have replays review controversial calls. It is more important that the right call is made, than that the referee be the one who makes it. There's nothing worse for a referee than to know you've blown a game critical call, and any way to salvage that would be welcome. I'd recommend video review of any penalty kicks or red cards, or potential offside calls that lead to goals (those that don't, would not require review). This could lead to referees being less reluctant to call penalties (since a bad call could be withdrawn) and AR's keeping their flags down (since an offside play that led to a goal would be reviewed and presumably corrected). I would think this would only happen a few times a game (at most), and taking an extra few minutes to make sure the game is played fairly would be worth it in my book.

  2. John Soares, January 25, 2015 at 10:17 p.m.

    Kent, good points/suggestions but I don't see it happening any time soon. Until then (in these circumstances) maybe simply NOT making any call unless you are certain is the answer. Just because a player goes down does not mean an infraction was committed or a "dive" took place. With a player often off balance trying to control the ball and body movement, it doesn't take much to knock him/her down. What I don't understand is this "need" to call something. If it the contact does not warrant a PK then it must be a dive... NOT SO. Keep the card in your pocket and the whistle out of your mouth until you are sure. As to criticism; you will get it either way (welcome to the world of referees:).

  3. Gonzalo Munevar, January 25, 2015 at 11:22 p.m.

    Excellent article. What Paul recommends should be done at the pro level. At the amateur level, if it is not clear, then make no call. Sometimes the contact is enough to make the player fall, as I recall from my playing days as an attacking midfielder, even if there is no foul. Or you may just lose your balance. It is absurd for the ref to take out the yellow card unless it is clear that the forward was trying to fool him into calling a penalty.

  4. R2 Dad, January 25, 2015 at 11:41 p.m.

    FIFA has so committed to making their referees infallible that video replay is somehow a challenge to their priest-like calling. How do you compensate an official that must be unerring, yet paid like a civil servant? Immune to corruption, yet effectively invisible when performing at the highest level? And now this--the diving crusade. 15 years ago they wrote Intention out of the LOTG, as it was impossible to prove. Now, referees are being told, Don't Just Stand There, Whistle For Something. The English FA is going down a rat hole on this one and the quality of refereeing this season has fallen as a result. Let's hope MLS doesn't feel compelled to do the same; they have enough trouble just getting the basics correct.

  5. Kenneth Barr, January 26, 2015 at 8:28 a.m.

    Kindly stop trying to Americanize association football. TV already has an outsize influence. Not every match is televised. Train officials better, especially their positioning. One more thing, commentators are far more fallible than they want to admit.

  6. Bobby Bluntz, January 26, 2015 at 8:50 a.m.

    I really don't want them stopping the games to review decisions. I agree 100% with John who said it above. Just because a player goes down, it doesn't mean that he A)dove, B)was fouled warranting a penalty. There is option C)none of the above and play on. If more of the commentators would remember back to their young playing days where most of them probably started as attackers, I think they'd remember just how easy it is to go down when running full speed and attempting to change direction all while controlling a ball at your feet. When the guy clearly pretends to be shot under absolutely no contact, yes, yellow. If there is any doubt and it was close, going to ground was probably merited and probably a reaction to avoid injury in most cases.

  7. Paul Levy, January 26, 2015 at 10:17 a.m.

    Once soccer learns to pause the game to allow video replay determinations, maybe we can learn another thing from football - how to milk as much advertising revenue as possible from broadcasts by breaking away for commercials while the replay judgments are made. And once we get used to breaks in the flow of the game, we can go whole hog learning from football with have commercial timeouts

  8. beautiful game, January 26, 2015 at 11:07 a.m.

    Paul, there is no need to pause for anything. The replays can be adjudicated within seconds while the argument between the players and the ref is done. Your idea is quite boring. You fail to consider the "flow of the game" consequences with stoppages.

  9. Dan Phillips, January 26, 2015 at 2:50 p.m.

    They should also use the electronic clock. No more guessing about how much stoppage time should be added. We have the technology. use it. this would stop stalling tactics.

  10. Barry Thomas, January 26, 2015 at 4:20 p.m.

    No, Dan, you don't want the clock! We did that in the early days of MLS, and it completely drained the last minute of stoppage time of any drama or excitement it would have otherwise provided. It encourages the leading team to boot the ball into Row Z rather than play the game if they can see those final seconds ticking down for certain. And what happens if the ball is in flight when the 0:00 shows on the clock and then flies into the net? Nothing more boring than hearing the advantaged team's supporters counting down, "3, 2, 1 . . . "

  11. Footballer Forever, January 27, 2015 at 11:28 p.m.

    ROTFLOL. Paul, the clown , Gardner is at it again. An Englishman with a Not For Literates fetish. Why don't you write for eggball, old man?

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