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Man in the middle

June 24, 2010
McIntyre By Doug McIntyre
ESPN The Magazine
(Archive)

Benny Feilhaber, Koman Coulibaly, Michael BradleyEzra Shaw/Getty ImagesThe U.S. has been all too familiar with controversial calls at this year's World Cup.

The following article appears in ESPN's 2010 World Cup Guide, the digital version of which is free for all ESPN Insiders.

The graphic in the top left corner of the projection screen sets the scene. It's 23 minutes into a scoreless game between Mexico and Colombia. The Colombians are lining up for a corner kick. Off the whistle, the ball is booted into the Mexican penalty area and a Colombian player leaps to head the ball on goal. The delivery is high, and the ball skips off the attacker's skull, then ricochets off the outstretched arm of Mexican defender Edgar Pacheco.

Brian Hall immediately clicks off the video. "How many of you have a penalty kick?" the former FIFA World Cup referee asks the group of 73 top refs and assistants from the U.S. and Canada. Their combined résumé includes World Cup games, CONCACAF qualifiers, international friendlies and MLS matches, and they have assembled in Orlando for a weekend of tests and training co-directed by Hall, who develops and assesses officials for U.S. Soccer. They've made countless calls like this one and have studied the rule book like monks. This should be easy.

Yet when it's time to respond, half the officials raise their hands. The rest don't budge.

Consensus? Please. This is soccer.

Officiating a soccer game -- and more specifically a World Cup match -- is probably the toughest job in sports. Inside a pulsating stadium (with billions more fans watching on TV), refs must make multiple split-second decisions that can profoundly influence the outcome. Red card or yellow? Penalty kick or play on? Offside or breakaway goal?

The man in the middle must watch 22 players simultaneously. He must keep pace with world-class athletes who could be half his age and a ball that moves even more quickly than they do. That, of course, is impossible, so game-altering choices sometimes come from as far as 50 yards away or from an obstructed viewpoint, by a guy who runs 12 miles per match and usually has a day job. And he calls the game through a lens that is deliberately, often maddeningly, foggy.

As the refs in Orlando illustrate so perfectly, the most complicated aspect of officiating is the subjectivity of calls. FIFA's own bible, "The Laws of the Game," exacerbates that issue. "FIFA makes the rules vague so the referee has options," says Paul Tamberino, director of ref development for U.S. Soccer.

Take the handball call, which, according to the Laws, should be whistled down only when a field player "handles the ball deliberately." What constitutes "deliberate," though, is open to a wide degree of interpretation. Or how about tackling? The Laws state that any push or hold involving "careless, reckless or excessive force" should result in a foul, but no official calls a game that tightly. Severe tackles can lead to yellow or red cards. But the distinctions among the three levels of infraction are not spelled out with concrete examples. Instead, refs often are forced to interpret a player's intent. "Unsporting behavior" elevates a run-of-the-mill foul to a yellow card; "serious foul play" draws red. Good luck divining what that means for a player whose timing is slightly off on an honest tackle. The result is a system much like a car accident: Ask 10 witnesses what happened and you'll get 10 different stories.

Of course, any set of guidelines is based on the assumption that the referee will see the play. But when Swedish ref Martin Hansson missed Thierry Henry's now-infamous handball -- the one that helped France qualify for the World Cup at Ireland's expense -- we were reminded how often refs appear to be blind. Since then, pressure has mounted on FIFA to use video replay or goal-line judges.

The reasoning is understandable. An average soccer field is about 78,000 square feet. In tennis, 10 judges oversee a maximum of four players in an area 37 times smaller -- with no contact. Yet major tennis tournaments have long utilized technology to help ensure correct calls. Soccer refs don't even get aid keeping the official time; they must account for stoppages with a wristwatch.

The scrutiny has only intensified in South Africa. Each first-round game has featured 26 TV cameras; 14 more will be added for the Final. That's 40 angles of vision for fans in the pubs versus one vantage point for the ref who must make an instantaneous call. "You can find a camera angle that supports or disputes every single decision," Tamberino says.

But while the Europa League is experimenting with extra officials behind the net and FIFA has tried using two refs in several leagues (including MLS), the soccer establishment is resistant to tinkering with a game that's been called pretty much the same way since the 19th century. It's no surprise, then, that FIFA didn't wait long to announce that no changes would be made for this summer's tourney after the Henry debacle. After all, World Cup history is littered with botched calls. In 1966, England won its lone title on a goal that Germans still contend never crossed the line (an Oxford study using video metrology confirmed their viewpoint). Twenty years later, English hopes were dashed in the quarterfinals by Diego Maradona and the Hand of God. "That drama is what separates our game from others," says U.S. defender Jimmy Conrad, a 2006 World Cup vet. "I actually like that those controversial moments create talking points."

Simply put, there is less emphasis on "getting it right" in soccer, because there is almost a notion that there is no such thing as "right" and "wrong." FIFA has been committed to the status quo because it's not yet convinced that replay, additional refs and/or goal-line technology would improve its product. The two-ref experiment was a failure because each tended to defer to the other. Disputes over whether a ball entered the goal are rare, and even proponents of instant replay agree that the cost of reviewing infractions like Henry's would outweigh the benefit. "Soccer is free-flowing," says U.S. midfielder Landon Donovan. "To stop it four times a half to figure out every little thing on replay would kill the game."

So the burden falls squarely on the ref. In Orlando, Tamberino spends much of his time talking about abstract concepts like "reading between the lines" and "using your feel for the game." He tells the group that only 10% of all potential calls are clear-cut fouls. Another 10% are "trifling," such as relatively harmless pushing and shoving.

The remaining 80% of the calls are a matter of interpretation, and decisions are influenced by all sorts of factors, from the score to the clock to the stakes. If the ref is unsure about a call or didn't see an infraction, he can consult one of two assistants patrolling the sidelines (whose biggest responsibility is monitoring offside calls) or the fourth official, who stands between the benches and whose duties include keeping the opposing managers in line and handling substitutions. A ref uses subtle eye contact or a transmitter to ask for help from his assistant, who has time only for a head nod in response. Is it any wonder that players and fans are often left asking, "WTF?" (Where's the foul?)

Bob Thomas/Getty ImagesMaradona's notorious goal helped hand Argentina a victory over England in the 1986 World Cup.

Eight years after it happened, former U.S. defender Gregg Berhalter remains convinced that Germany's Torsten Frings deliberately used his arm to keep his shot out of the net in the 2002 quarterfinals. The U.S. was outplaying the three-time champs but trailed 1-0. Had ref Hugh Dallas made the call, the Yanks would have earned a penalty kick, a man advantage and all the momentum for the final 41 minutes. Instead, there was no whistle, and the U.S. lost. Yet Berhalter, a 15-year veteran of European leagues, is more philosophical than bitter about the noncall: "You learn to accept the referee's decision. You get some calls and not others."

It doesn't help that those calls vary based on your position on the globe. In England, refs allow more contact -- you can often kick a guy without drawing a foul. In Mexico's slower, more technical league, the same action will get you an early shower. World Cup games are called tighter than any other games, and players tend to be more cautious as a result. That's wise -- in addition to the higher stakes, the penalties are greater too. Getting two yellow cards in three games leads to a one-game suspension; in many leagues, it takes as many as five cards to be sidelined for a match.

To get officials on the same page for the World Cup, FIFA brings them together several times in the run-up to the event in an effort to establish uniform calls. The criteria for a handball includes, "Did the player make himself bigger? Did he have time to react?" But on the field, old habits die hard. "It's difficult for refs to adjust when they're used to doing something one way," admits Hall. But telling refs exactly how to call games creates other issues. Before France '98, soccer's governing body took a no-tolerance stance on tackles from behind, leading to a rash of red cards in the first round. Four years later the foul du jour was "simulation" -- diving or embellishing contact to get a call.

It's also tough for refs to adjust to the opener. While it was an honor to be picked for the Mexico-South Africa tilt, most refs dread that duty. They'd rather see a few games and get feedback from FIFA than jump right into the pool with the hosts and their rabid fans.

To a man, referees insist that hostile crowds never sway their judgment. They'll tell you they are too focused to notice the fans once the action begins. But there's evidence to the contrary. In 2006, a study published by England's University of Bath concluded that Premier League referees issued significantly fewer yellow and red cards to players on the home team. Even in MLS, where only a few venues boast atmospheres bordering on intimidating, home squads were awarded 215 penalty kicks compared to 105 for their guests between 2004 and '09.

If you hang around soccer referees long enough, their similarities to cops become unmistakable. Refs perform a difficult, thankless job, and even if they do it honestly, they are often vilified, even hated. So they tend to stick together, displaying good-natured teasing and camaraderie. They even throw around paramilitaristic terms like "command presence" and "using the smallest weapon first." (On a soccer field, that's a verbal warning.) They are taught to use their personalities to get players and coaches to trust and work with them, even if they make a bad call.

And a bad call is just what Tamberino takes on his BlackBerry as the group breaks for lunch in Orlando. FIFA has just released its 30-man World Cup roster and his blood is boiling. For the first time since 1978, no American is on the list. Hansson, the ref who missed Henry's handball, made the cut.

Pretty vague, isn't it?

Doug McIntyre a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine.