Regularly, at least once per season, I announce, with indignant protestations of disgust, that I have just witnessed the worst-ever diving call.
I mean, how could any referee come up with something more utterly ridiculous than Allen Chapman’s call against the Revs’ Charlie Davies in the game against the Red Bulls last August? Yet, a mere four months later, I had to rethink -- thanks to a decision by English Premier League referee Mike Jones. He booked Man City’s Sergio Aguero for a dive, after a glaringly obvious foul on him -- inside the penalty area -- by Southampton defender Jose Fonte.
What made this particular call so abysmal was that Fonte obviously knew he had fouled, and was immediately pointing to the ground outside the area, trying, at least, to convince the referee not to give a penalty kick. He needn’t have worried -- there was Jones brandishing a yellow at Aguero in what former English referee Graham Poll, now a newspaper pundit, called “one of the worst decisions of the season.”
So that moved Mike Jones ahead of Chapman in my pathetic refereeing championship. Now I have to report a new leader -- Spain’s Melero Lopez. The game was Rayo Vallecano-Real Madrid, played last Wednesday. In the 50th minute Real’s Cristiano Ronaldo latched on to a simply magnificent pass from James and raced into the Rayo penalty area. Defender Antonio Amaya hurtled across to challenge Ronaldo, performed a desperation sliding tackle, got nowhere near the ball, and comprehensively demolished Ronaldo.
The penalty was a foregone conclusion, or should have been. But here comes a grim-faced Melero Lopez to give Ronaldo a yellow for diving. A frankly incredible decision. No replays were necessary on this one. The contact was indisputable, as was the fact that Amaya’s tackle never got within a yard of the ball.
Ronaldo was left kneeling on the ground, almost in supplication, with bewilderment suffusing his face. How on earth could a referee get a call so badly wrong? I think we know, by now, how that can happen. Because the referees involved have been seduced by the anti-diving witch-hunt mob. They see diving everywhere. (An illusion that has infected journalism too. The Reuters report on the Ronaldo case was oddly reluctant to allow that Ronaldo was innocent of diving; it stated that “television replays suggested the Portugal forward had been felled by a Rayo defender.” Suggested?)
Until the sanctimonious witch-hunt zealots are reigned in, we are going to get more of these asinine calls -- calls that punish the victim, and make the referee look very bad. In each of the three grotesquely incompetent calls I have cited, it was clear from the referee’s body language that he was arrogantly certain he was doing the right thing. These are not calls where the referee would ever be likely to admit he made a mistake. I have read plenty of post-game apologies from referees for calls that they admit they got wrong. But I have never encountered one involving a diving call. Righteous witch-hunters were never known for apologizing to the witches they burned.
But righteous witch-hunters can be relied upon for one thing: they will go too far. We are reaching that stage with the anti-diving mob. The Ronaldo case raises hope that common sense can prevail. In Spain, I was surprised to discover, a club can appeal against what it believes to be a wrongly awarded yellow card. So Real Madrid went to La Liga’s Competition Committee asking to have the card rescinded. Within two days the Committee did the right thing and canceled the yellow card. Even though my feeling about that appeal was that the Committee, looking at the replays, could not possibly reach any conclusion other than to over-rule the referee, I was surprised to hear their verdict. Surprised because the anti-diving mob have been having things their own way for quite a while now. This was a clear rebuff.
The next step toward restoring sanity on the diving front would be, should be, to visit some punishment on the referees who make these fatuous calls. Of my three targeted referees: Chapman’s folly went apparently unnoticed by his bosses at PRO, and he is now one of the top referees in MLS; in Spain, Lopez has had his call publicly nixed, which I suppose is a rebuke, but he has not been directly punished. The only one of the trio who did receive an immediate reprimand was Mike Jones in England. At least, that’s the way it looked, because a week after wrongly yellow-carding Aguero, Jones failed to get an assignment to referee an EPL game.
Allowing clubs to appeal against yellow-card decisions is uncommon in soccer. The feeling is that it would open the floodgates to a tidal wave of complaints that would be difficult to handle. That dread possibility could be considerably diminished by permitting each club a fixed number of yellow-card appeals per season, two, or three, maybe.
But that arrangement raises an unwelcome prospect. If the number of appeals is limited, then the ones that do come up will be those in which the match officials are most likely to have been at fault. Leading to a catalog of cases in which the hearing committee verdicts go against the referees. Not good publicity for the referees. Or the alternative that the Committee gets a reputation for simply rubber-stamping the referees’ decisions.
On the whole, I’d say the least objectionable system is the current one -- not permitting yellow-card appeals. At least, I would comfortably back that line, were it not for the ongoing anti-diving witch-hunt under which referees are being encouraged to make contentious calls based on inadequate, or even directly contradictory, evidence. As long as the current atmosphere is allowed, or encouraged, to continue, simple justice demands that the deliberately faulty calls -- by which I mean those made to comply with the biased demands of the witch hunt -- be reviewed and the referees involved taken to task.