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 A yellow card cannot be appealed, and therefore cannot be rescinded.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.