A few weeks ago, Major League Baseball had a perfect game erased from the record books when umpire Jim Joyce missed a crucial call at first base.
During the recent NBA Finals, the referees were under assault from players and coaches alike, criticized for a host of perceived failings.
And many will remember NFL referee Ed Hochuli’s blown call in Denver that helped decide that game’s outcome.
Any game is susceptible to human error, even from those enforcing the rules. But soccer, more than any other sport, is particularly vulnerable to poor officiating.
Because there is so little scoring, any scrap of advantage can mean the difference between victory and defeat. Detractors of the game criticize players for their various flops and dives and while there’s no question that they take away from the sport in a significant way, such antics are really just aimed at producing an edge for one team or the other. Such an edge can make all the difference.
One moment of inattention, one free kick, one corner, one card has the potential to make or break a match. And so the way each game is officiated is of critical importance.
For the most part, the 2010 World Cup’s referees have been exemplary. When they do their job well, they are barely noticed; no one talks about the referee who performed well and let the teams decide the match. It is typically only when he has an off day that the man with the whistle draws headlines.
When Germany faced Serbia in the second interval of group play, Spanish referee Alberto Undiano Mallenco was as much a story as the two teams. For all the wrong reasons.
The first half saw a flurry of yellow cards for both sides. Though they were given in response to unquestionable fouls, most were issued on plays that should have merely resulted in free kicks. By delivering the bookings, Mallenco did the game great disservice in several ways.
First, he made it clear that any hard challenge was likely to be a card. Soccer is a game of contact, particularly around the ball. When a referee takes away the players’ ability to be aggressive, he essentially pulls the game’s teeth. Second, he left himself no room to respond to escalation. A yellow card serves as a final, severe warning prior to ejection, and is normally issued after some kind of verbal admonition. By booking players right from the start, Mallenco left himself nowhere else to go. He had to continue issuing yellows, and should things get worse, red cards would have to follow.
In fact, one did when German striker Miroslav Klose received his second yellow card and was sent off, reducing the German side to 10 men.
Mallenco compounded his folly through tremendous inconsistency. In the second half, challenges similar to those that drew first half yellow cards resulted in only free kicks. It was as if the Spaniard recognized the poor position in which he had put himself and the teams. But making the proper calls after halftime only highlighted his overly strict first half approach, and could certainly not undo the damage caused by Klose’s ejection.
It’s not wholly fair to say that Mallenco decided the game. Germany had plenty of chances to tie, including a penalty kick that was saved by Serbian goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic. The Germans simply couldn’t take advantage of their opportunities. Still, Mallenco’s style did play a significant role in altering the flow of play and, at the end of the day, helped Serbia to 3 points.
It took a man advantage, a miraculous PK save, and a couple of lucky bounces off of the crossbar for Serbia to pull off a 1-0 victory. Had Mallenco kept his hands out of things and allowed the players to determine the game, it’s hard to imagine anything but a win for Germany. Instead, the group is turned on its head.
Worse, Mallenco is not alone.
When the USA took on Slovenia, referee Koman Coulibaly issued a yellow card to Robbie Findley in the Slovenian box. Though he claimed a Findley handball, the ball quite clearly struck Findley’s face and grazed his shoulder; ESPN announcer Ian Darke characterized the call as one of worst decisions by a referee in recent memory. The booking was Findley’s second card of the tournament, knocking him out for the pivotal game against Algeria.
Coulibaly has no excuse for the blunder. He was close enough to the play to make the proper call, and if he was screened in any way, he should not have erred on the side of booking a player. It was an act that profoundly effected the tournament.
Admittedly, refereeing has a subjective component. I officiated soccer for years– at a far, far lesser level than the World Cup but still under FIFA rules– and I know firsthand the challenges involved. But I also know that the referee’s first duty is to call the game, not be the game.
Errors are to be expected to some degree. After all, referees are people, not infallible computers. But on a stage as large and visible as the World Cup, such mistakes are inexcusable, and the damage they cause has substantial and far-reaching implications. With so much on the line and games decided by such fleeting moments, the sport can simply not tolerate poor officiating.
***UPDATE: Following this post, the second half of the USA-Slovenia match played out.
Coulibaly was roundly criticized for a horrific game that included a disallowed goal by the United States that has yet to be explained. Analysts seem to universally agree that Coulibaly’s performance was simply unacceptable.***