Referees' pro-defense bias: an unfounded, damaging tradition that must be abandoned

Decidedly interesting comments from former England striker Michael Owen. He came clean on a dive that he took in England’s game against Argentina during the 2002 World Cup. David Beckham scored from the penalty, the only goal of the game. England won and Argentina was out of the World Cup.

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?

5 comments about "Referees' pro-defense bias: an unfounded, damaging tradition that must be abandoned".
  1. Kent James, March 9, 2018 at 3:48 p.m.

    The point about referees not calling pks unless the player goes down is a valid one; referees should be pretty darn sure before they call a penalty, and referees always want to avoid the case of pulling a goal back in order to give the player a penalty kick instead (because the ref called the foul before the player went down), but referees should call fouls even if the player plays through it (if there is no advantage and the foul was not trifling).  PG is right that this attitude by refs encourages players to go down in the box.  While referees should slightly prefer to not call a foul rather than calling a foul that was not there, it should be something like 60:40, not 100:0.  On the other hand, the blowback of players diving (or going down too easily) to get calls is that referees are hesitant to make calls for fear of falling for a dive.  So PG let's have a compromise, referees will call more fouls even when the players don't go down, and you'll stop defending players who dive so referees can have an easier time of calling real fouls. 

  2. beautiful game replied, March 9, 2018 at 10:16 p.m.

    Paul is absolutely correct. It's the culture of FIFA and its referees that is a cancer in the game. Take a look at Messi v CR7 for example. Messi gets less PKs because he seldom goes down, where as, CR7 can't wait to flail at anything close to contact. Reviews of player simulation should be conducted after the contest and severe punishment adjudicated in the form of one game ban and loss of one weeks wages. Bet the diving theatrics come to a hault.

  3. Kent James replied, March 10, 2018 at 9:51 a.m.

    One of the many things I admire about Messi is that he stays on his feet and keeps playing, in spite of the challenges he gets.  I attribute that to his intense focus (he's going to get where he's going, and nothing, not even fouls, is going to stop him). But players like him (okay, there's no one like him, but players who also fight to stay up) should not be punished for doing so. On the other hand, I do understand referees hesitancy to call fouls absent a player going down; sometimes the players for whom you're calling the foul complain ("come on ref, I was on my way!").  It's one of the things that makes refereeing challenging... Messi will sometimes stop playing (even when he doesn't go down) because he's tired of being fouled, and while it's not pretty, that is a way to let the ref know that yes, please call the fouls...

  4. frank schoon, March 10, 2018 at 11:53 a.m.

    Look, the game is not perfect and it will never be perfect even with the aide of VAR, which is also has it problems. To me everything "cosmically" balances out in the end, metaphysically speaking, LOL. Argentina got away with the "hand of God' and England got their uppance with Michael Owen sneaky trick. Some people get away with cheating, it is a fact of life. We institute a new offsides rule like PG stated  and all of sudden it creates new problems appear on the horizon. All I got to say is leave it alone, except the inequities for this soccer has done well over a hundred years. As a matter of the inequities has kept the game exciting, in itself....remember the 1966WC with the goal scored by England against Germany.
    If you want to call penalties, it is very easy but very few referees ,if any, have the "hutzpah" to call penalties during a corner kick. There is so much 'dirty' stuff going on, pulling jerseys, tripping, spitting, standing on the opponents feet, etc. You can just about call a penalty every time during a corner kick but referees refuse to do it. Their are virtually more possibilities during corners to call penalties than at any other time during a game. So if you want to clean up the game, begin where the cesspool of fouls are, in the penalty box during corners. And for the rest of the stuff quit crying or whining and the play the game.

  5. Michael Saunders, March 13, 2018 at 12:53 a.m.

    I am there with Paul and others regarding "going down" to ensure that the call is given.  As a  retired National Referee, I plead "no contest" cause frankly unless a player demonstarbly appeared to be fouled, even when you saw it, why call it as it will only result in controversy.   

    The problem is simply being addressed in the wrong way.   Why?   Simple!  The punishment is a penalty shot, which we know statistically favores the shooter.    So why as a striker will I not seek the statistical advantage of gaining a penalty????   My point is why not introduce a penalty shot process similar to that employed in ice hockey?   Sure, the advantage now shifts to the keeper; yet what it does it takes the pressure of the referee in calling a penalty shot. It also allows the player to "play on" in the game situation,  to which if advantage is not realized, the refereee is not worried about calling for the penalty shot (a la the hockey methodology).   Guarantee more penalty shots would be called; but, avoids the diving that frankly everyone is tired of seeing, let alone dealing with as a judgement call, if one is a referee.

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