The first law of refereeing: In every game, big or small, a ref missed a call or is about to.

By Jim Litke, AP
Monday, June 28, 2010

Refs will get technology, but game will get worse

Blown calls have spread like a rash at the World Cup, highlighted by a pair of howlers Sunday that should have erased any lingering doubts. The refs need help.

The days when FIFA, soccer’s governing body, could ignore technology as a way to improve officiating are already numbered. The change won’t happen at this tournament, but not too long after, FIFA boss Sepp Blatter and his henchmen will yield to pressure and reverse the organization’s decades-long stance.

They’ll likely start by allowing reviews in goal-scoring situations only, employing either instant replay, a device like the “Hawkeye” used for line calls in tennis, or embedding a chip in the ball that signals when it’s crossed the line. Then, like all the major sports, the technology will take over more and more decisions.

And like all the other big-time sports, soccer will be slower, more disjointed, just as contentious and ultimately worse off because of it.

So long as humans make the first call or the last, no matter how many reviews are packed in between, mistakes are inevitable. Remember that when the month began, most of the same outrage was raining down on baseball — another game that’s resisted technology — because one of the best umpires in the game, standing in the best spot to see it, missed the final out of a perfect game.

But lousy calls still plague the NBA and NHL, too, which have been steadily widening their use of video review, and even the NFL, which has a surveillance operation the people at Homeland Security would kill for. Even so, there isn’t always a definitive camera angle available and even then, someone still has to navigate an increasingly complicated rulebook to get it right.

The officiating at the World Cup isn’t any worse than it’s been. Nor, apparently, is it much better. That was confirmed when what we thought were simply coincidences as the day’s second-round matches kicked off turned out to be prologues instead.

England faced Germany in the first game — the same opponents who played a 1966 World Cup final that swung England’s way in overtime after what has come to be called the “Wembley goal,” and all these years later, remains the sport’s most controversial tally. Working with the same tools their predecessors had at their disposal 44 years earlier, referee Jorge Larrionda and linesman Mauricio Espinosa were presented with an eerily similar decision late in the first half.

This time, a shot by England’s Frank Lampard hit the crossbar, rebounded to the ground and then spun back in the direction of the field, where German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer gratefully collected it. Unlike the 1966 game, there was no consultation between ref and linesman and what was clearly a goal — replays showed the ball was well over the line — was simply waved off.

In the later match, Mexico faced an Argentina squad coached by former great Diego Maradona, whose “Hand of God” goal might have been even more controversial than the England’s 1966 tally, except that it took place in a quarterfinal.

Mexico controlled most of the early play Sunday, hitting the crossbar and post with shots, but coming away empty-handed both times. Then, in the 26th minute, Argentina’s Carlos Tevez headed in a pass from Lionel Messi for a 1-0 lead, even though Tevez had been lounging in an offside position for a couple of seconds. In this case, referee Roberto Rosetti of Italy correctly consulted the linesman — yet still got it wrong and let the score stand.

That hardly qualifies as news to FIFA, nor to anyone who’s ever officiated a game in any sport at any level from Pop Warner to the pros. The first law of refereeing is that somewhere on the planet, at every moment, in games big and small, a ref missed a call or is about to.

In the past, the people who run soccer didn’t treat those gaffes simply as occupational hazards, they reveled in the enduring controversies that were generated. They became an important part in the lore of a sport that more than any other took pride in replicating the tough, sometimes-arbitrary circumstances that govern the world beyond the touchlines.

Sadly, inside the lines, that isn’t good enough anymore.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)

June 28, 2010: 7:00 am

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