There is no official in world sport that has as much influence as the soccer referee, and there is no sport in the world more accepting of the subjectivity of the decisions of its officials than soccer.
Perhaps the Spain versus Netherlands showdown in South Africa was the prime example of how this actually works, for whilst many people were critical of referee Howard Webb’s performance on that day, virtually everybody acknowledged the mitigating factor that his decisions were influenced (and altered) by the fact that he was in charge of the World Cup Final.
Similarly anybody who has tuned into watch a major European club clash on TV will almost certainly have heard a commentator make the point that the man in the middle realizes that he is refereeing a “big game” and therefore needs to modify his decisions with regard to yellow cards and how to react to the ferocity of tackles in general.
I will leave you to decide how much this practice benefits the likes of Manchester United and Real Madrid who, by their very nature, play more high-profile games than other clubs, but it is somewhat bizarre that the culture of soccer has become so readily accepting of this kind of differentiation.
Even stranger perhaps is the fact that it is not just the type of match that is being played that seems to affect the referee’s thinking but also the when and where a particular incident happens. “That would have been a yellow card later in the game.” is an often heard phrase, as is “He would have given a foul for that if it had happened outside the penalty area.”
Try transposing that line of thinking to other sports. Would a line judge in tennis be more inclined to call a serve “in” if it was the first set rather than the fifth? Would Tiger Woods be less likely to be punished for an infringement if it happened on the tee rather than the green? Of course not.
The soccer referee is even the sole arbiter of how long a game lasts, to the extent that time added on has become a frequent cause for debate and accusation.
So is placing so much power in one man’s hands good for the game?
The main argument against this approach is that it frequently results in unfair outcomes. If an officials decision-making process is so arbitrary then there can be no consistency from game to game (or even, as we have seen, from minute to minute). This leads to frustration from both players and fans alike, and not only undermines the integrity of the particular referee but also the sport as a whole.
How often do we see a highlight package that emphasises two seemingly identical situations that result in different decisions? All of this makes soccer infuriating for newcomers to the sport, and even casual observers, who have more than likely grown accustomed to not only consistency from officials but also the use of technology to correct any errors.
The argument for allowing so much discretion is that each situation is different and that whenever in the past a governing body has become over zealous in insisting that referees act in unison the results have been a shambles, with players being dismissed and games being ruined where common sense should prevail.
The point is also often made that controversy is the life blood of the game and that refereeing decisions in soccer spark far more interest and debate than they do in other sports. Take away the human element and you take away a crucial aspect of the match day experience.
In fact soccer doesn’t just overlook bad decisions it embraces them and makes them a part of the folklore of the game, to the extent that two disallowed USA goals in South Africa 2010 have become almost as iconic in the teams history as Landon Donovan’s late strike against Algeria, and every fan of every country and every club will have similar tales of woe that they will recount with morbid delight.
I’m in the latter camp and do my best to remember that the old cliché “It all evens out over a season” isn’t far from the truth, but sometimes that can be a hard faith to follow.
Whichever side you take though, the fact that FIFA continues to drag its heels over the introduction of goal line technology (let alone video replays) makes it pretty clear that the man with the whistle is going to remain the most important, and most talked about, official in world sport for some time to come.
Russell currently writes about soccer for The Vancouver Sun.
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