Wheeler: Officials stealing the spotlight at the World Cup
6/13/2014 10:50:42 PM
World Cup South Africa 2010 was a special time. Football coming to a soccer-mad continent, but to a country where the game wasn't most popular had a peculiar charm. The cultural experience was a rich one for both locals and visitors alike. It's too bad the football didn't live up to the occasion and celebration around it.
The soccer was poor four years ago: stale, cagey and safe. Teams played not to lose and the result was often times a difficult product to watch. Fast forward to the first two days of Brazil 2014, and the games couldn't be more different. Four games in, and the tournament is four for four in appealing, captivating football. Attacking, purposeful and entertaining: the matches through two days have had it all. 15 goals so far is an impressive tally, representing a breath-taking start.
Problem is the question lingers whether our initial taste of the 2014 World Cup will be characterized by top football or the sour taste of dubious referee decisions?
To many poor officiating has overshadowed the standout play seen through two days. It's a shame on the world's biggest stage the officiating of the sport remains subpar. Significant dollars, national pride, and worldwide perspective and opinion of soccer are shaped and are on the line. Instead of conversations about Robin van Persie's scoring prowess and Neymar's mesmorizing skill, the discussion revolves around bad calls and disallowed goals.
Croatia was slighted in the opener after an incompetent referee decision awarded the hosts a penalty. The penalty given by Yuichi Nishumura should never have been. Brazilian striker Fred clearly flopped, and Nishumura hesistated before pointing to the spot and conspicuously showing Dejan Lovren a yellow. The crowd and the moment got the best of the official. Nishumura looked tentative throughout the match, ill-suited for the occasion. Neymar made it 2-1. Good night, Croatia. Harsh.
Mexico had two goals disallowed in their 1-0 win over Cameroon thanks to an over-anxious linesman. Two offside calls that never were cost Giovani Dos Santos the headlines. More importantly for Mexico, those are two valuable goals gone by the wayside in a group where goal differential may decide who advances and who goes home. Mexico was victim to a Carlos Tevez goal from an offside position in 2010. Twice unlucky, this time on Friday the 13th doesn't bode well.
The trifecta of unjust decisions was completed when Spain was given a penalty in their Group B opener against the Netherlands when Diego Costa stepped on the leg of a diving Stefan De Vrij. The penalty was given for poor defending and not a foul. The defender has to stay on his feet. But a penalty conceded was not deserved. Xabi Alonso converted to give Spain the early lead. If it were not for an incredible turn of events leading to the Dutch slaughter of Spain in Salvador, it would be another black eye on the game. Regardless the scoreline, the flawed decision has the viewing public talking.
The biggest problem the game of soccer has given itself is a lack of credibility and belief the proceedings are on the up and up. The word most commonly spewed criticism by casual onlookers after two days is "fix" because of years of negative press and exaggeration of the shadiness of the global game. Whether it's true or not, there is a level of distrust among a cynical fanbase. Not so cynical that the world stops watching, but negative enough to cry bloody murder. To the devout fan, the questionable officiating has become a frustrating distraction to the true beauty. Bad refereeing shouldn't be accepted as commonplace. But it is.
While goal-line technology has proven a worthy addition to the game, it's clear referees need more help in doing their job. Relying on the judgment of one man attempting to marshal proceedings on a massive playing field at a time when the game is faster than ever is proving to be a challenge too daunting. Giving more responsibility to the referee's assistants hasn't helped much. It has made the job of a linesman that much more difficult, having to lend a helping hand to calling fouls in their quarter of the field while holding the line, maintaining their position to call offside. They are being entrusted to do two things at once, with no room for error. What should the priority be: holding the back-line or adjudicating the play? It's tough.
FIFA remains open for more criticism, making its priority to include referees from all member confederations to the World Cup. Why aren't the best officials, no matter where they are from, sent to officiate the most important games? Officiating crews from four continents have overseen the first four games. Are they the best in the world? It's difficult to say yes.
So what more can be done to help referees? Instant replay on decisions involving goal-scoring situations is an answer. A quick review of whether a goal was scored from an offside position or not should be simple. It's reasonable to expect a clear decision, one way or another, with the use of replay to provide a conclusive answer by the end of a goal celebration. Getting the decision right should be priority. This is simplistic, and would give the fourth official a job other than babysitting the managers.
Other 'reviewable' decisions aren't quite as easy. Although the laws of the game (fouls, handballs, etc...) are crystal clear, the interpretation of the rules are not. What one official deems a foul, or hand-to-ball or ball-to-hand varies. Replay may strike up more internal debate on situations there may not be a clear answer. If more replay is brought in, there has to be a clear line how far and for what the technology is applicable. This is a must. And to tell you the truth, I don't have an answer where that line should be. FIFA embracing an idea as such is best case a long shot. There are too many reasons why not to apply than there is to use. The status quo will remain.
Instead of more technology, perhaps the best answer is to add another official to the field of play. Two on-field referees. The NHL added a referee when the game became too fast and the officials couldn't keep up. Angles and referee positioning would be markedly better, and fatigue would be less an issue. Although they may see the game different ways, four eyeballs are better than two. Perhaps another referee would have caught Costa's head butt of Martins Indi? Perhaps another official could have helped Graham Poll in the 2010 World Cup Final when the head referee said he didn't have a proper angle when Nigel de Jong's challenge went high into the chest of Alonso.
Officiating will always be imperfect, and we can accept that. What we can't accept is a reluctance to change when it hurts the integrity of the game. A second referee is the easiest answer, and could represent a step in a positive direction. Referees will always make mistakes. It's a bigger mistake to do nothing.
It's been a spectacular start to the tournament. There is no reason to believe the top play won't continue. And there is no reason to believe the negative talking points surrounding officiating won't continue too.
What will you focus on? I tend to worry it will be the latter. And you wouldn't be wrong or alone.