Recent ref blunders were errors, not conspiracy

Posted by Gabriele Marcotti

John Peters/Getty ImagesMark Clattenburg botched his handling of the Chelsea-United game this past Sunday, but it's hardly proof of mass conspiracy.

After a weekend of refereeing controversy in the Premier League and Serie A, talk of conspiracy is doing the rounds again, just as it often does when refereeing errors -- real or perceived -- make the news.

As I see it, only a fool can definitively rule out a conspiracy in every single case. That said, common sense must come into play.

Imagine you were a crooked referee or linesman, determined to favor one team. Whether it was because you were paid off or blackmailed or trying to curry favor, it doesn't really matter.

How would you do it? Would you disallow a perfectly good goal that was onside by a wide margin? Would you send somebody off for an innocuous foul or the slightest show of dissent? Would you award a penalty when an attacker runs into a defender in the box or deny one when a center back blatantly handles the ball?

My guess is you would not. It's common sense. Officials are continually scrutinized, not just by the media but by dedicated assessors from their domestic referees' association. And, beyond the domestic leagues, the better ones are watched by UEFA and FIFA, who call upon the more deserving to officiate Champions League and World Cup games. Those who make the most mistakes, those who fail to keep order, and those who don't apply the laws of the game (or the directives that are issued) slip down the referees' pecking order.

Which basically means that unless you really don't care about your career as a referee -- no matter how corrupt or horrible you might be -- you will likely not make a series of obvious intentional mistakes to favor one team over another.

Having spent time with a number of referees over the years, I can tell you that they are pretty competitive people. Some are professional refs and some are not, but even those who aren't have devoted a big chunk of their lives to officiating. And having reached the top tier, they want to stay there. The money is usually pretty good, they mostly enjoy refereeing, and they like to be seen as "quality" referees who get recognition from their peers, their bosses and the court of public opinion.

So, that said, how would you favor one team over another?

The answer is that you would do it in a subtle way. You would paint the corners. An early yellow card for one team's holding midfielder, perhaps. He'd then know he was one booking away from a red and would play with the old handbrake on the rest of the way. As long as you don't send him off later in the game, odds are nobody will talk about the first-half caution even though it will, potentially, have a huge effect.

Not playing advantage is another good one. Folks forget that advantage isn't a hard and fast rule. It's subject to so many conditions, grey areas and interpretations that ignoring it is an excellent way to kill a scoring opportunity before it even develops. And you can do it pretty much without scrutiny.

There are plenty of other things you can do to set the tone. For example, you can verbally caution players. Tell the striker of the team you're trying to penalize that you're watching him; you know he's diving, and if he does it again, you'll book him. That's bound to affect him, making him more cautious and maybe prone to staying on his feet even when fouled, which gives you the perfect excuse not to give the foul.

Equally, you can harangue a defender by telling him that he had better keep his hands off the guy he's marking on a set piece because if you see him do it again, it will be a stone-cold penalty. Again, that gives him something else to think about, making him more paranoid and affecting his ability to do his job. And the nice thing about both these methods is that they leave no trace whatsoever in the box score or the match report. Nobody knows it's going on, but it affects the game.

Of course, on marginal calls where it's close to 50-50, you would give the benefit of the doubt to whichever side you're looking to favor. But you'd be clever about it; you certainly wouldn't make the kind of calls that invite media scrutiny.

The problem with the above "subtle favoritism" is that while it tends to have a big impact in favoring a certain team over time, there will be games in which it won't make much of a difference. To come close to "guaranteeing" a certain outcome, you'd need the blunt instrument of repeated and egregious blown calls. But those invite scrutiny and with it, a likely slew of problems for the referee and his reputation.

That's why I'm actually pretty optimistic about match officials and the fact that the vast majority work in good faith. As such, given the blatant screw-ups this past weekend, there is no doubt in my mind that this last raft of errors were due to human malfunction and not a lack of integrity.

The bad guys may or may not be out there. But if they do exist, they operate in the shadows. They kill teams' chances gently; death by a thousand pinpricks rather than being eviscerated by a chainsaw.

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