Commentary

Pro-defense bias continues to mar English refereeing

Watching a couple of English Premier League games on Sunday provided a telling insight into what, for me, is the major weakness of English refereeing -- a serious weakness that is routinely disguised as a strength.

To wit: the tendency to overlook serious fouling. This is manifested in two ways: when confronted with a close call the referee will invariably give the benefit of the doubt to the defending player -- so, no foul; and a sorry tendency to avoid giving penalty kicks.

When those two tendencies are combined with this absurd witch hunt against the dreaded divers that the English referees are currently conducting, the results inevitably show refereeing and the referees in a poor light.

We are asked to believe that the English attitude is the correct one, that forwards are constantly falling down in attempts to draw penalty kicks, and that the victimized defenders need to be protected from this trickery. An argument that has very little merit.

I’m talking of “tendencies” but a stronger word is needed. These are really mindsets. How else to explain the inexplicable? Let’s look at the examples from Sunday.

• Bournemouth-Southampton, 30th minute. Adam Smith of Bournemouth dribbles the ball into the Southampton penalty area. A challenge comes in from Southampton’s Sofiane Boufal who slides in from the side, stretching his leg forward, across Smith’s legs. The challenge is late, the ball has already been played forward by Smith. So Boufal does not make any contact with the ball, only with Smith, who falls forward over Boufal’s leg.

What I’ve just described is what I saw on TV, without yet seeing a replay. A clear penalty. But not for referee Jonathan Moss. He has the yellow card out, giving it to Smith for diving. The call is surely ridiculous. The replays showed that this was one of those incidents where the first impressions were the correct ones. The replays were really superfluous. The call was ridiculous.

Meanwhile, we have the usual tangled drivel from the TV commentators, telling us “That is such a difficult one, it really is” (it wasn’t -- not for a referee willing to call what was there to be seen), then slowly convincing themselves that Smith had not really been tripped (this while the replays were showing a clear trip), and then adding that maybe the yellow card was a little unfair.

Their final agonized verdict was that referee Moss had got it right. A verdict every bit as nonsensical as the original decision. Bournemouth coach Eddie Howe, naturally, thought differently: “To me it’s a penalty ... I’m amazed it wasn’t given.” Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?

However, on this occasion we got, right after the game, an authoritative opinion. Adam Smith, interviewed live, said he had spoken with referee Moss right after the game, that Moss had apologized and said it should have been a penalty.

• Arsenal-Manchester United, 88th minute. Arsenal’s Danny Welbeck is brought down by United’s Matteo Darmian. As in the Bournemouth game, this is a clear foul, an obvious penalty. But referee Andre Marriner says no. The Guardian’s game report has “That was a clear foul and should have been a penalty.” Again, the replays merely confirm what was obvious from the start.

But not obvious to Marriner, not obvious to Moss in Bournemouth. What is it that causes, or allows, experienced referees to make such rotten calls? Those faulty mindsets, that’s what. Referees looking to avoid penalty kicks can justify not making the call by applying the “benefit to the defender” line, referees looking for diving will, of course, find it.

Both these calls, or non-calls, could be defined as game-changers. The penalty kicks would have been given, and one then makes the assumption -- not always correctly -- that they would be converted into goals. So maybe Bournemouth’s 1-1 tie would have been a 2-1 victory. For Arsenal, a penalty kick goal would have shaved Man U’s lead to 3-2, and then who knows what might have happened in those hectic final five minutes -- this had been a hell of a game, with Arsenal showing tremendous attacking verve and on more than one occasion it was only David de Gea’s brilliance in goal that saved Man U.

One wonders -- would VAR have got it right? There must be some doubt about that. After all, if the system were in use in England, its judgments would still be made by referees with the same English mindsets.

Mindsets that insist that defenders are usually blame free, while attackers usually guilty ... especially of diving. Adam Smith of Bournemouth got a yellow card for taking a dive. He got an apology from the referee, but the yellow card cannot be rescinded. It bewilders me that referees continue to lend themselves to a biased system that is always likely to produce such travesties of justice.

6 comments about "Pro-defense bias continues to mar English refereeing".
  1. R2 Dad, December 4, 2017 at 5:59 p.m.

    All good points--seems like it's only a matter of time before VAR will be instituted. I think part of the problem with the older TV pundits is they're having a hard time updating their internal interpretations of the LOTG. Stewart Robson, who I think is typically correct in his assesments, insisted the Pogba's stomp on Bellerin was not a red, and maybe not even a card. Perhaps because back in the day this was a normal occurance and the LOTG pre-2000 allowed "intent" to be a large determining factor. Today intent has (in almost all cases) been written out of the book. And rightly so--Bellerin's knee doesn't care how sorry Pogba is or if PP meant to go studs-up--his career could have ended depending on where those spikes landed.

  2. Wooden Ships, December 4, 2017 at 8:37 p.m.

    I prefer watching other leagues as the English game has always been part soccer part-hard men of the game. Rugby envy perhaps. 

  3. Gonzalo Munevar, December 4, 2017 at 11:35 p.m.

    The rules should be applied so as to keep the game exciting and the players safe.  The referees mindset shoiuld then favor the attacking player.  Occasionally a forward may injure a defernder, but normally it is the other way around.

  4. frank schoon, December 5, 2017 at 10:23 a.m.

    Mistakes will be made with the Refs for they are human and we'll never have perfection. Just leave it alone. The English refs are in known in Holland to allow a little more rougher play but I think that has more to do with the English culture, 'stiff upper lip" stuff.  I know dutch players in the 80's and 90's playing in England were so surprised how far behind they were in England when it comes to rehab, injuries, and diet....there was none,LOL. The English usesd the old cold water hose routine on the injury. Remember they were the last country to finally allow the use of substitutes. If you had a broken leg...too bad..play...The English have a hard nose mentality. Try watching Danny Dyer on Netfix who interviews some of the tough guys and the way of life of the undergirth of society in England...very interesting and informative about British culture...
    I'm not a fan of English soccer, although I enjoyed watching English soccer back in the 70's when all the teams had great wingers, Andy Gray, Rodney Marsh, Stan Bowles, Jimmy Johnstone, Steve Heighway, John Robertson, etc....
    So lets not start nitpicking here and there what otherwise is a pretty good quality English reffing which has a good reputation world wide.

  5. Kent James, December 6, 2017 at 1:12 a.m.

    This is PG's favorite theme, and in many ways, he's not wrong.  Referees should recognize that a legitimate penalty kick not awarded is just as impactful as a bad one awarded, though (critics like PG surely know and should recognize), they are less noticed.  So ideally the errors would be 50/50 (earned PKs not given/unearned PKs given).  But as surely PG knows by now, we don't live in an ideal world, and it probably is slightly better to err on the side of not giving enough PKs rather than giving too many undeserved ones. So while I agree that referees should be stricter, it could be worse.  One area where PG is wrong (and as smart as he is about the game, he needs to not let his passion for creative play overwhelm his judgment), is that diving does not exist (or if it does, it doesn't hurt anything). When people get away with diving, they make the game more violent in 2 ways. First, players who were blamed for the "foul" that created the divemay say ("well, if you're going to fake it and I'm going to pay for it anyway, at least I'll get a real foul in".  But more importantly, divers force referees to hesitate before calling a foul, or looking like a fool by calling a foul that was never there.  When referees hesitate to call fouls, the game gets more violent.  But I do agree that a ref had better be fully sure before calling someone for diving.  I'd be okay if refs never had to call diving during a game, but players who dove were punished after the games was over (getting suspended, e.g.). Diving makes the refs job that much harder, and it's hard enough already.

  6. Wooden Ships replied, December 6, 2017 at 11:26 a.m.

    Agreed.

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