Commentary

Pawson's Pause gives the game away

By Paul Gardner

I continue not to understand the negativity that pervades -- though possibly less than it used to -- referee thinking.

I’ll get back to that in a moment. First, it being the holiday season, a mention of a famous Charles Dickens character seems OK to me. Not Scrooge from “Christmas Carol,” though. I’m thinking of the eternally optimistic Mr. Micawber from “David Copperfield.” Never losing hope, even when he’s in prison for being broke, Micawber is forever confidently planning the future, “in case anything turned up.”

So much for Dickens. We now switch to Winston Churchill, who came up with this wonderful description of civil servants who annoyed him with their hostility to new ideas -- “there they sit, like inverted Micawbers, waiting for something to turn down.”

That inverted-Micawber readiness to turn things down applies far too often to referees when confronted with penalty kick appeals. Earlier this week there was a glaring example of the attitude in the Leicester-Manchester City game. At the 62nd minute mark, ManCity’s Sergio Aguero went down, in the penalty area, under a challenge from Gökhan Inler. There followed what can be described as a pregnant pause -- referee Craig Pawson took a moment or two to make up his mind, then gave Man City a corner kick ... meaning that, in his opinion, there was no foul and that Inler had won the ball and played it over the goal line.

As so often, not an easy decision. The play was over in a few seconds, and referee Pawson’s slight delay in making his decision strongly suggests he had some doubts. But he made the negative decision. No penalty.

The decision was incorrect. Inler did not get his foot on the ball -- but he clearly knocked Aguero down (no doubt about that), so Man City should have had a penalty kick.

Now, that’s what the replays made clear. I do not think that Pawson, without benefit of replay, could have seen precisely what happened in that split second. His decision may have been based on his intuition, or on guesswork. I’m not belittling either of those decision-makers -- they are closely linked, and a referee learns to be good at both.

But there is a third decider used by referees, and that is the one that I think Pawson used here. The refereeing tradition, in incidents where there is genuine doubt -- such as the one under discussion -- is to give the benefit of the doubt to the defending team. So, no foul, no penalty kick.

Tradition means “accepted practice.” But this should not be accepted. In fact, it’s totally unacceptable, an absurd tradition. No one, certainly no referee, has ever been able to tell me where it comes from. It is a negative tradition, favoring negative soccer. A game-damaging tradition.

I have never seen it officially spelled out anywhere. Maybe things would be better if it were spelled out, in the rules even -- that way it could be officially changed, the rule rewritten, everyone notified.

Traditions are not so easy to change. Tradition = accepted practice = mindset. That is something that doesn’t need to be written down, it is so firmly embedded that it becomes automatic -- i.e. unthinking -- behavior. Pawson’s pause gives the game away -- it reveals his momentary doubt, his awareness that he could make the call either way. Then tradition kicks in and the defender gets the call.

The thought process is fine, until that final decision, that moment when mindset and inverted Micawberism come together, the moment to turn something down.

Can the pro-defense mindset be reversed? It’s certainly worth a try, in fact has already been tried. When the offside rule was modified 25 years ago (declaring that a player in line with the last defender was onside, where he had previously been considered offside) it was widely held that if the assistant referee was in any doubt, he should keep his flag down. In effect, asking the official to favor the attacking team.

There are still officials who like to make millimetric offside calls (in theory, if an attacker’s knee or the tip of his nose are beyond the last defender, he is offside), but I would say that officials have responded well to the call to favor attacking teams when there is doubt.

It is a pity that the changed attitude has not spread beyond offside calls. The situation at corner kicks is evidence of that. We’ve all seen the pushing and shoving and barging and holding -- not to mention the sly jabbing and treading on feet -- that goes on. Both teams are at fault, yet if the referee does call a foul it is almost a certainty that it will be the attacking team that gets penalized. That makes no sense. Our eyes and the television replays and common sense tell us that 50% of the calls should be against the defenders ... but that would mean giving penalty kicks.

Obviously, the suspicion hovers that the referees’ affinity for making pro-defense calls, if it is a tradition, is not a particularly honorable one. It comes over more as a convenient way of dodging some awkward calls.

Logically enough, referees do not like to be seen as deciding a game. Penalty kicks are likely to be deciders -- quite possibly that would have been the case in the Leicester-Man City game.

Years ago I was informed that, although referees are perfectly aware that not making a penalty call can be as game-changing as making the call, they would always prefer not to make the call.

It was a top FIFA referee who told me that -- yet he could offer no logical reasoning to support the attitude.

Ideally, there should be no bias at all in a referee’s decisions. But sublime objectivity is probably asking too much. What can be expected, I think, is that referees drop their negative pro-defense stance, and adopt an attitude that favors the more attractive, creative aspects of the game.

16 comments about "Pawson's Pause gives the game away ".
  1. Scott Johnson, December 31, 2015 at 2:14 a.m.

    The reason is obviously simple: Call a foul against the defense in the box, and the required penalty is severe. (Call the same foul on the offense, and the punishment is severe). The only discretion the referee has on a borderline play is to swallow his whistle; he can't call a foul but, thinking it wasn't penalty-worthy, instead award a free kick outside the box. Here's an interesting thought experiment: What if all fouls in the box were all strictly called? Would we see a clean, free-flowing game as roughhouse defensive tactics vanish? Or would we see more fouling OUTSIDE the box (and more crossing as a result), as teams place a greater emphasis on keeping their defense from being put in a position where a penalty might be conceded? Might we see more roughhouse tactics (and flopping) from the offense, as they try to take full advantage of the asymmetry in the rules? Unless the Laws of the Game are changed to give referees more discretion in what punishment to award, I suspect that a reluctance to call defensive fouls in the box will remain part of the game. (Here's an interesting idea--one I'm not proposing, but merely suggesting: Fouls committed by the offense in the attacking half result in a DFK from the center spot, not a DFK from the spot of the foul. Offside and other violations that are not fouls are restarted as before).

  2. Scott Johnson replied, December 31, 2015 at 2:14 a.m.

    Should say: Call a foul against the offense, and the punishment is FAR LESS severe...

  3. Joey Tremone replied, December 31, 2015 at 11:18 a.m.

    Perhaps there's an argument to be made that the penalty is too severe, if it's intimidating referees in this way.

  4. Ed M, December 31, 2015 at 8:38 a.m.

    Mr. Gardner, I'm sure that you've been around the game long enough to truly know what's what without adding so much personal and not factual statements to your article. As one who regularly reviews and analyzes video for professional, international, college and youth matches, I can tell you that your analysis of the contact with Aguero is flawed. Contact does not necessarily equate to a foul, even within the penalty area. In this case the Referee most consider does the defender have a fair play of the ball?, does the attacker have a fair play of the ball?, where was or what was the position of the ball?, where was the contact made (what part of the body)?, who initiated the contact?, did the attacker exaggerate the contact?, what was the severity of the contact? There may be a few others but these are the important considerations each Referee must use is deciding a foul no matter where. That old tradition you mention that Referees would rather not whistle a penalty kick that decides the game is really no longer however, many UK based officials still practice that as a "gentlemanly" approach to the game and we do have some old timers unfortunately teaching or new crop of officials the same. Officials must use the considerations taught to them, none which instruct the Referee to not make a penalty kick decision if it decides the game. I believe our Referee in question was using his radio headset to ask the AR if there was anything more that could help finalize his decision, that takes an extra second or two. It wasn't pause to weigh whether or to give the benefit of doubt to the defender at all. When I reviewed the clip after I viewed this action live I see very little contact mostly from direction and momentum of both players. I see Aguero kick the ball away and continue his run moving slightly to his left and then after the slight contact change the speed of the result of the contact and exaggerate whatever was there knowing that he was inside the penalty area and that the ball was already getting away from him. I read an interview from one of the famous Brazilian strikers who was always being accused of diving. He stated that he gets paid to score goals, it doesn't matter how. This is a practiced "tradition" among strikers and other players. Diving is something that is seen as part of there job, particularly within the penalty are. Focussing on only the Referee pausing to get the call correct is not a negative it is a positive. Not focusing on what strikers do and why and how difficult they make the Referees job is negative and only serves to continue the tradition of attempt to cheat out a victory instead of one being stolen by the Referee.

  5. Woody Woodpecker, December 31, 2015 at 9:19 a.m.

    Mr. Gardiner, go take your referee grade 8 badge then go out and do a few U18 or older matches, and then come back and tell me what you think?.......we have loads of pundits in this country who have never been in the belly of the beast.

  6. Raymundo Ramirez replied, December 31, 2015 at 11:13 a.m.

    I completely agree with you Woody. It's so easy to critique a referee until you go out there and try refereeing yourself. I always thought refereeing at a high level is one toughest jobs in the world. But let's discuss this offensive advantage Mr. Gardner wants more of. The end of that non penalty call resulted in a corner kick in favor of Man City. I'm sorry, but that's considered an offensive advantage if taken seriously. Plus, always giving the advantage to the offensive side inside the penalty box by awarding a pk will kill the flow of a game and encourage more players to dive. I was watching the Real Madrid vs Real Sociedad match and saw the referee award Real Madrid two penalty kicks in the first half. One was a dive by Benzema and the other was an unfortunate handball by a Real Sociedad defender that could have been let go. The unlucky thing was that Real Sociedad was actually taking it to Real Madrid and playing well. When the PK's were called you could see the Real Sociedad players crowding the ref in complete disappointment of these split second calls that gave the ADVANTAGE to the offensive side and crushed the spirit of the defensive side for pretty much the remainder of the match. An obvious foul in the box should be called if seen clearly by the center ref or his linesmen, but always giving the advantage to the offensive side in the box on a questionable foul will negatively affect this sport.

  7. Kent James, December 31, 2015 at 10:48 a.m.

    PG, the previous commenters all make good points. I will add another; referees make mistakes, so the question is, on which side does the mistake do the least damage (as Scott points out)? Also, which is more justifiable? If I can't see a clear penalty, if I don't call it, that is one of the acceptable mistakes (the ref cannot see everything). On the other hand, if I call something I don't actually see because I "think" it happened, then there is the very real possibility that I'm making something up. And awarding a PK on something you just "think" happened is a very risky business indeed (I'd say the same for red cards). While the team not being penalized is usually the defensive team, it is not a 'pro-defense' strategy on the part of the referee. It is following the Hippocratic oath as applied to soccer; first, do no harm.

  8. Bob Ashpole, December 31, 2015 at 11:04 a.m.

    Mr. Gardiner, I usually find myself agreeing with your essays, but on this one I cannot. When I consider a referee's call or no-call, I keep in mind his position on the field and that the referee's foul recognition and knowledge of the LOTG are better than mine. Your implication that a referee should call fouls in the penalty area not actually observed in order to achieve a "common sense" even split between calls against attacking and defending players is no different than the defense-favoring no-call situations that you think exist. In fact this essay contradicts what you have written earlier on the subject of diving, with which I agreed. The referee's primary considerations are and should always be player safety and applying the LOTG rather than ignoring them to achieve some balance in the number of calls against the teams.

  9. Joey Tremone, December 31, 2015 at 11:23 a.m.

    One recommendation I could make is additional judges positioned behind the penalty area. This is partially so that the potential infraction could be seen from two angles, but it is also partially because there is a degree of safety in numbers to make the call when two of them are both 80 or 90% sure a penalty has happened.

  10. Gus Keri, December 31, 2015 at 11:48 a.m.

    Apparently, Paul wrote this article before yesterday's game where referees of Barcelona and Real Madrid games did exactly what Paul wished for.

  11. Allan Lindh, December 31, 2015 at 12:47 p.m.

    Mr Gardner, and the commentators, ignore the obvious. Video replay.

  12. Dan Phillips, December 31, 2015 at 2:06 p.m.

    Gardner is spot on. referees favor defense way too much. In fact they need to modify off sides rule again as well. Put a blue line, as in hockey, between half line and goal box. That would increase scoring and offense.

  13. John Soares, December 31, 2015 at 2:12 p.m.

    No question MR Gardner has a lot of soccer knowledge, but in this case "even he" admits to seeing the "supposed" error after replays. Referees do not have that advantage. More important, as stated earlier, not all contacts even if a player falls are fouls..... PLEASE no replays; This is soccer not football. Even there many of the decisions; A: Take too long. B: Do not satisfy both sides. Better to have one referee make a mistake. Than 3 look foolish:)

  14. Kent James replied, December 31, 2015 at 4:59 p.m.

    I do think most replays help get the call right. If you only reviewed goals (offsides if they led to a goal) and red cards there would not be that many delays, and I think it's better to get it right than wrong. That would also allow ARs to allow any thing close to being onside to go on (knowing that if it resulted in a goal, it would be reviewed). So it might actually allow more play rather than less (since there would be fewer offside calls). So while I agree we don't want to make it like American football (where more time is spent on replay than actually playing), I don't think it would be a problem (you never know until you try).

  15. Ric Fonseca, December 31, 2015 at 3:58 p.m.

    Oh boy, as one president once said "Oh boy, there you again" (apologies to Ronald Reagan.) All comments are spot on and well written, which is something I cannot force myself to put PG in the same bunch. About the ONLY way we can have Mr. PG write about officiating games is to have him as pointed out above, to put on an official's/referees uniform and do a game, however, I'd caution him to first do a high school, or even recreational game, and slowly, ever so slowly move up to older games. And y'all know what? He won't last very long! Tradition? Advantage? Please Senopr Pablo Jardinero (PG in Spanish) GIVE US A BREAK and do read and re-read nor only John Soares' comment but some of the more detailed ones above, I promise it will open your eyes some more so you can be able to see more clearly.
    Lastly, PG has the "adavantage" to see replays over and over again, and if he has TiVo, he can rewinde till his heart is content, while a game official MUST make a lightning split decision, as the LoG call for.

  16. Fajkus Rules, January 7, 2016 at 3:06 a.m.

    PG, I think the mistake, or misinterpretation you are making is that we (as referees) give the benefit of the doubt to the defense. It's a more subtle point to give the benefit of the doubt to ANY player whom we are not sure has really committed a foul, especially when their play (from our vantage point) appears to be an attempt to play the ball vs. an attempt to play the man. Foul recognition is much like virus recognition -- if the ref has seen that one before, they can usually process it correctly. But we also must dealt with partial and obscured views during the game, and in those cases we try to use our other senses, our assistants, or other circumstantial evidence to get our decisions correct. I believe the referee bias leans toward not inserting themselves into the outcome of the game with less than a 98% certainty that the call they are making is correct.

    In statistical terms, this comes down to preferring type 2 error over type 1 error. Equating referee decisions to scientific hypotheses -- in each decision we are testing the hypothesis that a foul occurred vs. the Null hypothesis that a foul did not occur. Type 1 error is the acceptance of the hypothesis (a foul occurred when in fact it really did not) -- a false positive. Type 2 is the acceptance of the null hypothesis when in fact it is false -- a false negative. For referees, it comes down to would you prefer to not call some fouls that really occur vs. calling some fouls that do NOT occur. Most refs, I believe, would prefer to eliminate Type 1 error and only allow Type 2 error -- as this avoids making the referee decisions becoming the most pivotal points of game, unless they are actually correct. Obviously, however, refs who have too much type 2 error should not be doing professional and international matches.

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