Are too many high profile games being ruined by referees?

Premier League referee Howard WebbWe can all agree that the job of refereeing a football match is a difficult one; a task that will only get trickier the higher up the football ladder you climb, while coping with all of the external pressures must take a very thick skin. It is not an enviable task in the slightest, yet there have been several big Premier League games this season which have been ruined by poor officiating, with many match officials choosing to rule by the letter of the law rather than taking into account the mitigating factors which had led to the incident.

Having sympathy for the nearly impossible job that referees up and down the country have each and every weekend and slamming them for the poor decisions they make would seem to be a contradictory stance to take, but it’s one that the vast majority of us fall into. Obviously, you get plenty of former players in the studio on TV with an even looser grasp of the laws than most fans, with Jamie Redknapp in particular only believing it counts as a deliberate handball if you happen to be looking at the ball at the exact time of the infringement, which is baffling to say the least.

The benefit of hindsight is often being used as a stick to beat officials with, as if after Graeme Souness has seen a touch and go decision from eight different angles can confidently claim that the referee has ‘had a shocker there’. This retrospective school of thinking has quickly altered and distorted the way we view incidents, but the men in black out on the pitch get just one chance to view an issue and split-seconds to make a judgement call. By its very nature, simply due to the pace of the game, mistakes will be made, and often. Calls of bias or ‘unfair treatment’ are commonplace among the managing fraternity as a tool to distract attention elsewhere rather than focus on their own deficiencies.

Nevertheless, aside from the sort of close calls which it often takes several angles and umpteenth viewings to come to any sort of definitive decision, there are those which are so obvious that even in real time, from a stand a considerable distance away from the pitch, look simple to adjudge, but are given a baffling decision.

For example, Gareth Bale has already been booked three times this season for diving. Of the three incidents, two of them were perhaps fouls on the Tottenham winger, with one just a flat-out poor decision which saw the call go against him simply down to his theatrics. He has a reputation as a diver now, and rightly so after his swan lake impression for a penalty against Arsenal last season, but some officials appear to be letting that influence their judgements.

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There are several grey areas with this, because ‘simulation’ does not just take into account diving. For example, during the dull 0-0 draw at Stamford Bridge between Chelsea and Manchester City last month, Mario Balotelli was cautioned for diving by Chris Foy after he grabbed the ball 30 yards from goal and charged towards the edge of the box, before seemingly flinging himself into David Luiz’s elbow to try and earn a free kick in a dangerous position.

What exactly was Luiz supposed to do differently in that situation? Balotelli had already made his mind up to make a deliberate attempt to ‘earn’ the free kick. Nevertheless, the outcry that the Italian was then booked was hysterical to say the last. According to the Laws of the Game: “A player must be cautioned for unsporting behaviour if (he) attempts to deceive the referee by feigning injury or pretending to be fouled.” While a booking may have been harsh, the decision was correct. The context was that the situation was pre-judged, therefore can be considered cheating as such and under the bracket of simulation.

However, turn your attentions back to a different encounter at Stamford Bridge just a few weeks previously, the 3-2 game between the hosts and Manchester United, and Mark Clattenburg came to a very different conclusion. There was contact on Torres, and while the Spaniard went down easily under Jonny Evans’ challenge, the decision to similarly award him a second yellow card for simulation, completely ignoring the pace and tempo at which the match was being played, let alone the context of the scoreline, magnitude of the teams involved and what impact it would have on a huge game and he was clearly wrong. Surely it would have been better to award the free kick but not the yellow for the sake of the rest of the match as a spectacle?

Two broadly similar incidents of a player anticipating contact and using it to their advantage, both players were handed a yellow card, yet for some reason it just feels wrong. It’s contradictory to complain about the inconsistency in refereeing when tribalism and partisanship is at the very heart of the game, leading observers such as myself to complain about the very consistency we so crave.

It’s idealistic to think that games of importance will not be marred by poor decision-making in the future, with Liverpool on the receiving end of some truly terrible calls with concerns to penalties awarded for and against them this season. These things do not balance themselves out over the course of a season, that is little more than a well-worn and quite frankly tired cliche.

The argument often put forward is that ex-professionals need to get more involved with refereeing the game, but for anyone that’s watched Soccer Saturday or Match of the Day will tell you, they rarely ever know the rules themselves (I’m looking at you here, Paul Merson). They confuse experience with knowledge. Plenty of them aren’t fit to be pundits, let alone match officials. The current system has its flaws, and idealists will always crave consistency or cry wolf when it doesn’t benefit them.

Decisions will always go against your side and sometimes the problem is the rule itself rather than the official in question (red card for every last-man offence, yellow card for removing your shirt during a goal celebration, the lack of definition over two-footed challenges). With that in mind, while following the Laws of the Game to the letter is important for the vast majority of incidents, like the two mentioned above, sometimes coming to the same conclusion is not necessarily the right result. It’s a tricky job pleasing us all, eh?