So who needs travel? My 9:30 am Sunday breakfast in New York was spent mostly watching a telecast from London ... featuring two of South America’s top teams, Brazil and Chile. A game without any direct English interest or involvement -- but the stadium looked pretty full, and you know the prices for these exhibition games are never peanuts in these days.
Actually, there was English involvement -- the game was refereed by Martin Atkinson, a Premier League official.
And so this global game ends up being nothing more exotic than an example of the way in which a referee can influence the playing of a game. Not ruining the game, certainly not. Not necessarily deciding the game. But shaping it, conditioning it.
I’m still wondering what Atkinson made of this game, this very South American game, which confronted him with a style of play that he is not accustomed to -- certainly not the style that he grew up with.
OK. I counted. This game, all 94 minutes of it, featured just five crosses, four from Chile, one only from Brazil. All five were -- as, to my eyes, seems usually to be the case with crosses -- comfortably dealt with by defenders.
Which leaves me asking, for the eleventyeth time -- why is the cross an almost revered part of the game in Europe -- well, northern Europe, and Britain in particular?
It is by now something of a feeble joke to hear British TV commentators -- the ex-players -- almost in apoplexy as they heap praise on some player for a “great cross” despite the fact that, even as they’re enthusing, the ball is quite obviously going straight to a defender.
But there is a sense in which the commentators are correct. To apply that sense, however, it is necessary to acknowledge that crosses have a goodly share of Hail Mary! in their make up. They are not, can only rarely be, accurate passes -- i.e. balls that are carefully aimed at one specific player.
Aiming to plop the ball meticulously on to the head of a targeted player in the middle of a turbulent goalmouth ... how likely is that to succeed? That chaos is aptly nicknamed “the mixer.”
Even aiming -- successfully -- for an area of the goalmouth where a teammate is supposed to be lurking holds a low chance of success. There is, after all, a crowd of defenders milling about whose job is to make a mockery of crosses. On the whole, I think they do it pretty well.
Even so, a “good” cross can be identified as one that has the right “shape” and the right “path” -- not too high, not too low, not too close to the goalkeeper, preferably swinging away from him, and with enough pace on it to impart power to a forward’s header.
But the good cross remains more of a theoretical concept than a practical reality. The problem is that a cross can have all of those positive qualities -- can even be a great cross -- but the odds are still in favor of the defenders dealing with it first.
Most of the attacking play from Chile and Brazil came with the ball on the ground. The only goal came from a long ball forward on the ground from Danilo up to Firmino who completed the earth-bound sequence by dribbling around the Chilean goalkeeper and rolling the ball into the net.
I’m inclined to think that the absence of crosses -- and the ugly aerial challenges that go with them -- ought to have simplified Atkinson’s job. Maybe -- but there was always the complicating factor that Atkinson had to deal with all those short, ground passes, played at speed. He did well, with plenty of nimble footwork, getting in the way of the ball only once, a rebound of no consequence as it sped the ball back to the Chilean who had made the attempted pass.
I’ve been talking of attacking play -- but there was little of that to be seen in the opening half hour, which was big on caution and passes back to the goalkeepers. Not the stuff that exhibition games should be made of.
Despite the tactical caution, the game was pretty feisty and Atkinson was kept busy calling fouls. Again, he did a pretty good job -- with one major exception. He missed the worst foul -- by far -- of the first half, when Chile’s Gary Medel stomped on Neymar’s leg. A red-card foul, for sure, that went unpunished.
The first half also exposed a failing in the rules -- one that is hardly Atkinson’s fault, though he was making the decisions. Right at the end of the first half, Atkinson dished out a yellow to Neymar. For persistent fouling was Atkinson’s indication.
So be it. Neymar, for three or four fouls, none of which in itself warranted a yellow, is penalized. But Neymar was on the receiving end of at least three physical fouls in the first half. One of the fouls, by Miiko Albornoz, was bad enough to draw a yellow card. Another of the fouls was the stomp by Medel.
That is also persistent fouling. It went on throughout the game. It was mirrored by Brazil, whose defenders repeatedly fouled Alexis Sanchez. Atkinson made the calls, but the rules are not strong, or specific enough in these cases. I believe it is OK to dish out a yellow if a specific opponent has been repeatedly targeted -- even if the yellow goes to a player who is committing his first foul.
If that is so, then Atkinson would have been justified in letting both teams know that, at a certain point, he’d had enough of the fouling on Neymar and Sanchez, and that the next foul on either player, whoever committed it, would draw a yellow.
In a game which, despite the excessive fouling, produced plenty of good soccer (in the second half that is) Atkinson handled a bunch of tricky factors pretty well. He failed badly in one area, but the failure was one that most referees, certainly all English referees, would have been guilty of. That is, the general refereeing habit of granting any benefit of doubt to defenders, with the consequent reluctance to give red cards and penalty kicks.
There were four incidents in the game where Atkinson treated defenders too lightly. He should have red-carded Medel for his stomp on Neymar (excusable only if one accepts that Atkinson did not see the foul); he should have red-carded Brazil’s Miranda for pulling down Sanchez just outside the penalty area -- a pretty clear denial of an obvious goal-scoring opportunity, but Atkinson gave only a yellow; at the end of the first half, Atkinson turned down Chile’s legitimate shout for a PK as Fernandinho fouled Pablo Hernandez; and 10 minutes into the second half, Chile had an even better claim for a PK for Marcelo’s blatant foul on Mauricio Isla, which Atkinson also denied.
Expecting all four of those fouls to be punished is probably asking too much. But maybe, by the law of averages, two of the calls could have favored the attacking team? But Atkinson called all four in favor of the defense. Or, viewing things from a team pov, three decisions that favored Brazil, only one that favored Chile.
Brazil won the game 1-0, a win I do not think they earned. Yes, Chile can blame itself for its poor finishing, but I do think that the deciding factor in a close game was Atkinson’s benefit-of-doubt decisions, with their pro-Brazil bias.
So I’m saying that Atkinson falsified the result? Yes and no -- mostly no. Because there was nothing personal in Atkinson’s refereeing that made a difference, no unusual calls, no favoring of either team. What made the difference was Atkinson’s slavish adherence to the unwritten refereeing rule that demands the game-long favoring of defense over attack. An absurd mindset that simply cannot be justified either by reference to the rulebook, or to common sense.