Friday, November 20, 2009

Time for video replay after refereeing blunder costs British Isles team for the second straight tournament

I know it’s sacrilege to associate the Irish with the British, but today, the Republic of Ireland’s location on the British Isles makes it a brethren to another resident of those same Isles- Scotland- after their national soccer team was robbed of a chance to play in a major soccer tournament by a refereeing mistake. Like the blunder that cost the Scots, the beneficiary were the French, only this time the tournament was the World Cup and the French were actually playing the Irish when the dubious call occurred, unlike the Scots who were playing the Italians for a chance to play at Euro 2008 and where a Scottish loss qualified the French.

For those of you who did not see the play, here’s what happened. Ireland entered the game in Paris down 1-0 in the two-game, total goals playoff. In the 31st minute, Robbie Keane netted the game’s first goal, lifting Ireland level in the playoff. Because there were no other goals over the next 59 minutes (quelle surprise), the playoff was tied on aggregate meaning game went into extra time. Extra time in soccer is not “sudden death” as it is in hockey, but any goals scored in this period would have meant there would be no penalty shootout since the scores would be added to the aggregate score. If France scored more goals than the Irish in the period, they would advance to the World Cup, but if the Irish scored at least the same amount of goals as the French in the period, they would advance to the Cup on the “away goals” rule. France thus had more pressure, since if they conceded a goal they needed to score twice, making the defending job easier for the Irish.

It was here in this extra period where the Irish were robbed. In the 13th minute of extra time- the 103rd in the game- a ball was lifted over several Irish defenders into the penalty box towards French striker Thierry Henry. The ball was hit too hard for Henry’s outstretched feet to meet the ball, so Henry stuck his arm out and met the ball with his hand- twice. The ball landed to his feet where he lobbed a perfect pass to William Gallas’ head, allowing the Arsenal defender to nod the ball past helpless Irish goalkeeper Shay Given. Given and the Irish protested to referee Martin Hansson, who upheld the goal. Ireland did still have 17 minutes to secure an equalizer, but ultimately Hansson’s howler sealed their fate.

After the game, the Irish were- to a man- rightfully claiming they were jobbed, and Henry himself admitted he handled the ball, but passed the buck, stating “I am not the referee.” Hansson said he did not see the offence, and, given the fact that Hansson was standing around 30 yards away from the incident and Henry was behind several defenders, Hansson is believable, though this doesn’t make the bungling excusable. This was not the first time Ireland felt jobbed by FIFA officials- when FIFA announced they would be “seeding” teams for the European qualification playoffs, the Irish players were at the forefront of the protestations, fairly stating that the move sought to hurt “small” soccer nations like Slovenia and Ireland at the expense of the “big” nations like France and Portugal. Accusations were levelled at the time at FIFA for acquiescing to commercial interests in ensuring the “big” nations progressed to the Cup tournament in South Africa. Perhaps FIFA president Sepp Blatter is laughing at the “poetic justice” he wrought on the Irish, but the truth is that his shenanigans are sullying the prestige and even the legitimacy of his sport.

To be fair, Hansson’s mistake is different than the one Manuel Mejuto Gonzalez made against the Scots, as that was a foul Gonzalez saw but erred on the call, but it was still a refereeing error all the same. In that incident, Scotland and Italy were tied at one in a game that essentially decided which nation would qualify for Euro 2008. In the 91st minute, Italian winger Giorgio Chellini and Scottish left back Alan Hutton raced for a loose ball near Scotland’s left corner flag. Hutton got to the ball first, but Chellini literally bodychecked him then, as if on cue, Chellini himself fell to the ground. A whistle came for the foul, so Hutton- thinking the foul was on Chellini, as it should have been- got up, brushed aside Chellini and was about to boom the ball upfield before being told the foul was actually on him. The surprised Scots protested unsuccessfully and took up defensive positions, but it was to no avail- Italy’s Andrea Pirlo curled a perfect ball into the box for Christian Panucci to nod home for a 2-1 Italian lead that was sure to stand up with just seconds to go in the game (though Scotland did manage one half chance before time expired). The loss officially eliminated a plucky Scot team similar in character to the 2009 Irish team from contention for Euro 2008 and, just like Hansson’s decision, put an undeserving French team into the prestigious tournament.

That play and this latest play bring about short-term and long-term solutions. The short-term solution and the only real answer to the problem is for soccer to adopt some kind of video replay. It’s absolutely ludicrous that the most televised sport in the world refuses to use this valuable footage to get the calls on the field right and, as we’ve seen, blown calls are costly. You’d think after embarrassments such as Henry’s hand or Rivaldo’s dive that FIFA would be more receptive to the idea of video review, but the “purists” of the game- the same lot who think that just criticizing defensive-minded managers will get them to change their ways (name me a coach who’d rather be entertaining than a winner and I might consider joining the purists) instead of considering *some* rule changes- always protest, accusing it of being an “Americanization” and that it would “slow down the game”. The “Americanization” part I won’t deal with because it’s an emotional argument with no rationale, but as to the game being “slowed down”, it is a legitimate complaint but one that ultimately holds no water. It would be an extra delay, but it wouldn’t be a costly one- video reviews can take just a minute or two, and soccer games are already held up by things like players feigning injuries and a team trying to organize its set piece “just right” (not to mention protestations to the ref...).

Implementation would be the only concern, though. Soccer’s clock is continuous and technically has no “timeouts”, so finding the right moment to stop play is a challenge. It’s possible just to limit video review to disputed goals (and, perhaps, by extension penalties) which have “natural” breaks, but there so many other points of dispute (like, perhaps, a missed penalty or an offside call) that could decide a match and thus would benefit from a review, so it would be pertinent to figure out how to work that kind of a review into the game. Managers should also be given the opportunity to “stop” the game to challenge a call because if we just leave that discretion to the referees, no doubt they are going to miss a contentious event (would Hansson have thought to seek out review, for instance, considering he was too far away from the play to see it clearly?). Obviously, managers would have to be restricted in this regard- I say just once per game, successful or not- because we don’t want managers to obsessively nitpick every call, but it’s clear they need to have some power in disputing a potentially game-changing call.

As for Ireland’s replay request- granting it seems fair, but I’m hesitant about it, because we don’t want to have every contentious game being replayed as that would mean hundreds of games would be redone every year. Replays should only be ordered in extreme situations, and I’m just not sure if Hansson’s error is that extreme. Sure, it cost Ireland a spot in the World Cup, but they are not the only one nor will they be the only one to have a refereeing error cost them a spot in the tournament. There is precedent for a replay- Uzbekistan and Bahrain were told to replay the first leg of their 2006 Cup qualification playoff after referee Toshimitsu Yoshida made a mistake in applying the rules dealing with penalties- but I’m not sure how the Irish game measures up in comparison. As “Pardon The Interruption” host Tony Reali pointed out (without naming names), Hansson missed a call, Yoshida erred in applying it; and even then, it’s debatable that incident was extreme enough to warrant a replay anyway. Besides, the Irish shouldn’t think a replay would send them to the World Cup- Uzbekistan requested that replay in 2005, and they lost to Bahrain in their playoff. So be careful of what you wish for.

Long-term, this may just be the straw that breaks the back of Blatter’s presidential career. In his eleven years of being FIFA president, I have a hard time coming up with positive changes he’s enacted in the game. His record is tarnished by multiple embarrassments, such as Rivaldo’s dive, inane remarks (such as calling Manchester United’s 2008 refusal to sell Cristiano Ronaldo “slavery”), botched games like the Ireland game and multiple accusations of corruption. He, like his counterpart at the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) in Michel Platini, has been the poster-boy for soccer “purism”, refusing to buck from his narrow-minded nostalgic viewpoint of the game, like when he dreamed up the “6+5” rule (where club teams would be required to start six players considered “nationals” of the country they are based in) thinking this would end the disparity of “big clubs” against “little clubs”, instead of coming up with a better distribution system for soccer’s wealth to end the big clubs’ current monopoly on it. As Blatter and his 1978 way of thinking is the roadblock to soccer’s entry into the 21st century, it’s pertinent we get rid of the roadblock- and find someone who will take the crucial next step. We can’t have any more disputed games accruing corruption allegations and crippling the sport’s legitimacy, not if soccer wants to continue as the world’s top sport. Shay Given, the Irish and the sport’s billions of fans deserve no less.



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