Owen’s move was always highly suspect -- but for the umpteenth time, the TV replays were inconclusive, allowing both sides of the argument -- was he fouled or not? -- to claim they were right.
Owen has now admitted that he dived ... but only, he says, because of something the referee -- the almost legendary Italian, Pierluigi Collina -- had told him when, earlier in the game, Owen was sure he had been fouled, but Collina made no call. So Owen protested “It’s a penalty, referee,” to which Collina replied “Michael, you know you have to go down to win the penalty.”
Right, thought Owen, “the next time I get touched I'll go down and I did, and he gave me a penalty.” That was in the 44th minute. The Argentine defender who committed the “foul” is now familiar to all English fans -- not for that reason, but because he is now the coach of Tottenham Hotspurs: Mauricio Pochettino. At the time of the 2002 World Cup he was a relatively unknown 30-year-old defender playing in France for Paris Saint Germain.
Owen’s revelation, of course, will shock diehard England fans who still maintain that it is only foreigners (i.e. non-English players) who dive. But the most interesting, most significant part of Owen’s story is what he alleges Collina said: “You know you have to go down to win the penalty”.
Just eleven words -- but coming from the man considered at the time to be the world’s No. 1 referee (he went on to referee the Brazil-Germany final of the 2002 tournament), they carry enormous weight.
He starts with “you know” - meaning that it is common knowledge among players (including Owen) and referees (including Collina) that a penalty will not be called if a player stays on his feet.
As a contribution to the diving debate, that is sheer dynamite. Collina is admitting that a player who stays on his feet, even if he is badly fouled, will not get the call. He is addressing specifically the matter of penalty kicks.
But if players are aware of that bias among referees on penalty kick calls, it is surely likely that they would suspect the same bias on all foul calls. So why would they stay on their feet? That looks like a mug’s game. The clever thing to do -- the only thing to do that at least holds out a chance of justice -- is to go down.
The step from there to going down when a foul doesn’t exist or where there is only very slight contact, is not a large one. The picture I’m painting -- with a massive assist from Collina -- is of seriously biased refereeing leading to serious distortion of the game itself.
I am in fact, almost making out a case for diving as a logical response to refereeing’s pro-defense bias. Not something I wish to be doing, and not something I would even come close to ... if the referees would only fess up and correct their bias.
That bias -- you can tell from Collina’s remark in 2002 -- was already well-established 16 years ago. I suspect it’s been a refereeing mindset for considerably longer than that. And it is still alive and well. Though alive and sick would better describe matters.
Some five and a half years ago, when Peter Walton arrived from England to teach Americans how to referee, his very first comments on an MLS live-game incident were utterly embarrassing. Defending a referee’s decision not to red-card a Houston defender for denying an obvious goalscoring opportunity, he insisted there was another defender near enough to be part of the action (totally untrue), then admitted he hadn’t seen the replay, and trumped everything by simply stating that “the benefit of the doubt would go to the defending team in a situation of a denial of a goal scoring opportunity.” And that was that, as far as Walton was concerned.
I later asked Walton where that “benefit of doubt” viewpoint came from and what authority it carried. He had no answer, other than that was the accepted practice.
Indeed it is. But it should not be. There can be little doubt that this negative refereeing -- at core, an anti-goalscoring attitude -- is an enormous problem. It is an obvious obstacle to allowing soccer to flourish as a skillful and entertaining game. Worst of all, but not so measurable, what effect is it having on the development of skillful players? Why bother to develop, or practice, intricate and difficult skills when referees allow defenders to foul with impunity? As for the defenders, why bother to learn refined tackling techniques when crude wipe-out tackles will do the trick and are likely to go unpunished?
Can this negative mindset be altered? I wonder. Back in 1979 I was calling for a change in the offside rule -- insisting that an attacker in line with the last defender should be judged to be onside (at that time, he was called offside). That change was eventually made in 1990, and was accompanied by a good deal of talk about what “in line” meant.
How much of the attacker’s body had to be in line? All of it? Or just a part of it? Maybe the advanced tip of a nose was enough to make a player offside? Tricky for the referee, but the feeling generally stated was hugely encouraging. For the first time, the talk was of giving any benefit of doubt to the attacker. So we have a precedent. Has it worked?
Frankly, I’m not sure. The ARs these days are pretty sharp with their offside calls, and they are usually backed up by TV replays. There are nose-length calls, and they tend to get them right. If there is a negative problem here, it is not with the referees, but with the rule itself, which makes it far too easy for a nose to stray offside. Offside by a nose or a knee? Even at the time, that seemed rather ridiculous, and there was talk of a player not being offside until there was daylight between him and the defender.
Definitely a pro-attacker move that. For which reason, no doubt, it never got anywhere. But that was over 20 years ago. We’ve moved on, haven’t we? But have we moved far enough to demand that referees make the daring move, and completely abandon their mysterious, unwarranted, and game-distorting habit of favoring defenders whenever doubt surrounds a call?