Saturday 31 January 2015

Rational ref: diving an art or cheating

Rational ref: diving an art or cheating

While some players consider falling over to be cheating, others consider it a skill of the game

To dive or not to dive, that is the question professional players have to ponder, particularly when prowling the penalty area. Diving, which match officials call simulation, is pretending to be fouled in an attempt to deceive the referee to gain a favourable decision. Some consider this to be cheating, while others believe it to be a useful skill.

Players with a reputation for going to ground easily include Liverpool's Uruguayan Luis Suarez, Manchester City's Argentinean Sergio Aguero and Manchester United's Ecuadorian Antonio Valencia. These high-profile foreign players contribute to the stereotype of "that type of player" who cheats.

Simulation came to be due to two broad schools of soccer culture. The first recognises committed, hard-grafting physical players and the other appreciates elegant, more-accomplished skilful players. The latter, being technically gifted and sometimes breathtaking to watch, are usually prone to being taken down a peg or two by the former.

Nobody likes to be publicly embarrassed by a piece of skill so those who are victims overcompensate for their insecurities by "mowing down" whoever they consider to be "show ponies". The flip side of this is that skilful players resent being kicked and physically intimidated and, as a matter of survival, learn the benefits of falling easily. It's an ongoing battle between players of differing skill levels, and keeps officials on their toes.

In last week's Merseyside derby (28 October 2012), the pre-match hype was focused on Suarez's habit of diving but ironically it was Englishman and Everton captain Phil Neville who was booked - correctly - for simulation, with Suarez's overall performance earning him man of the match.

Even so, some players believe it is their right to cheat. Aguero, without a hint of conscience, shifted the responsibility from players to match officials by saying: "We just play our game, and it's the referee's job to know who is tricking him and who is not." So, faced with players who cheat, the blame unfairly lies with referees for failing to detect divers. This is like saying shoplifting is acceptable providing one can get away with it.

If a player dives and succeeds, the most he can "steal" is a penalty plus a straight red card for his opponent. If a player dives and is caught, the most he loses is a yellow card. However, if he is already on a caution the risk is greater. This happened to Chelsea's £50 million (HK$623 million) striker Fernando Torres last weekend. He was sent off for receiving a second caution after referee Mark Clattenburg determined he dived against Manchester United.

Truth be told, Torres went down easily. Even though he had "nutmegged" his opponent, Jonathan Evans, the ball was already running away from him and covering defender Rio Ferdinand would have cleared the danger. Therefore, it was easier for Torres to "trawl" for a foul and go down.

"I'd say 75 per cent of people could stay on their feet, and if they get touched and go down it is almost, 'Hey, I got touched so it's OK to go down'," says ex-England striker Michael Owen.

Owen was honest enough to admit, in front of ex-referee Pierluigi Collina, that he could have stayed on his feet when he won crucial penalties against Argentina in the 1998 and 2002 World Cups.
Coaches are just as culpable as players who dive. It is accepted knowledge that former England manager Glenn Hoddle advised a young Owen to fall more often. "Sometimes Michael is too honest", said Hoddle in 1998 when he gave Owen his England debut at the age of 18.

In fact, young players naturally stay on their feet even though they are hacked, knocked and kicked about. The spirit and innocence of youth mean they just want to get on with playing without the theatre. With experience, cynicism and increasingly injury-prone bodies, the opportunity for ageing players to go down becomes ever tempting. Cue Neville.

It is this endearing youthful feature that suggests Lionel Messi is perhaps a better player than Cristiano Ronaldo. For the past year, both have been in imperious form, which has led many observers to claim it to be impossible to separate the two for the 2012 Fifa Ballon d'Or.

However, there is one noteworthy distinction. When tackled, Ronaldo tends to go down easily, while Messi chooses to ride the challenge and continue playing. By not complaining or cheating, Messi can claim the moral high ground because he is among the 25 per cent of players who stay on their feet.
Shakespeare would be proud: "The spurns that patient merit of th'unworthy takes."

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 November, 2012

Tuesday 20 January 2015

Rational Ref: Getting handball calls right is no easy matter

Getting handball calls right is no easy matter

The official with the whistle does not have the benefit of instant replays

When is handball not handball? When the referee says so.

On New Year's Day, there were enough handball incidents in the English Premier League to help everyone understand the definition. If only players, coaches, fans and commentators would pay attention.

For a start, it does not just involve the hand but the whole arm. The arm - the area uncovered as if players were wearing sleeveless shirts - is the only part of the body that can be penalised for contacting the ball.

The referee must first decide whether the handball is deliberate. He must consider whether the movement is hand-to-ball and not ball-to-hand; whether the distance between the opponent and the ball leads to an "unexpected ball"; and whether the position of the arm is "natural".

In Chelsea's 5-3 loss to Tottenham Hotspur, Blues boss Jose Mourinho bemoaned the fact referee Phil Dowd refused to award a penalty when they were leading 1-0. Although the ball hit the arm of Spurs' Jan Vertonghen, who had fallen in his penalty area, it was not deliberate. Dowd was correct.

Contrast this with Stoke's goalless draw with Manchester United. At a Stoke corner, Peter Crouch headed the ball which hit the flailing arm of United's Chris Smalling. Smalling had made his body area bigger by spreading out his arms - deliberate handball because the position of the arm was not natural. But referee Michael Oliver did not award the penalty despite being in a great position.

Another referee, Mike Jones, apparently saw something that did not happen. In the 2-2 draw between Leicester and Liverpool, Jones whistled Liverpool's first penalty for a handball that never was. Video replays showed the ball hit Leicester's Wes Morgan in the face. Former Leicester striker Gary Lineker called it the "worst penalty decision ever".

Goalkeepers outside their area have the same restrictions on handling. So when QPR keeper Rob Green handled outside his area, referee Anthony Taylor should have given a direct free kick to Swansea. The incident denied an obvious goal-scoring opportunity to Wayne Routledge, so Green should have seen red.

Of the four handball-or-no-handball decisions, only one was correct. This demonstrates how difficult it is for referees to make real-time decisions based on one look, while pundits and critics have the luxury of video replays.

Moaning managers don't have a leg to stand on either because when the boot is on the other foot, they remain tight-lipped, imply they did not see the incident, and gleefully accept incorrect decisions.
Brendan Rogers, Louis van Gaal and Harry Redknapp would have won plaudits for honesty and integrity had they criticised the poor refereeing decisions they benefited from.

Furthermore, it doesn't help that players and coaches scream blue murder whenever the ball makes contact with an opponent's upper body.

From a referee's perspective, there is absolutely no difference between players who dive and those who shout "handball" and "my ball" when it clearly isn't. Like diving, these dishonest claims are defined as "attempting to deceive the referee" and therefore cheating players should all be cautioned.

Agree or disagree? Contact Rational Ref at

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 January, 2015

Wednesday 7 January 2015

Rational Ref: Horrid acts are no laughing matter

Rational Ref: Horrid acts are no laughing matter

Match officials should not be so reviled by fans, especially when they are injured during the course of their duty on the pitch

When something unpleasant happens to match officials fans go wild with delight and reporters have a field day writing about the misfortune inflicted on the man in the middle.

This happened last weekend when EPL referee Chris Foy was knocked out for a few seconds by a ball hitting him flush in the face in the first minute of the Newcastle and Swansea match. After the Newcastle medic checked him, he continued for 30 minutes, but something was not right, so stand-in referee Anthony Taylor replaced the dazed and confused Foy.

The feelings of schadenfreude espoused by everyone watching revealed just how hated match officials are. Does this antipathy tell us anything about soccer lovers and the society we live in?

In other sports, officials are not as intensely loathed. Those in tennis, snooker and golf are not regularly mocked, jeered and abused by players and spectators when they make decisions.

Seriously, contrast the crowd's pleasure at seeing referee Foy being hit in the head and concussed to the reaction of shock over the death of a keeper in Gabon after an opponent stepped on his head. Did anyone laugh? Keeper Sylvain Azougoui suffered serious head injuries that ultimately proved fatal.
Recall last season, when Swansea City's Ashley Williams deliberately kicked the ball with full force from close range at the head of Manchester United's Robin van Persie. Then United manager Alex Ferguson said Van Persie "could have been killed". "[It] was the most dangerous thing I've seen on a football field for many years. It was absolutely deliberate. The whistle has gone, the game has stopped and he has done that right in front of the referee… It was a disgraceful act," said Ferguson.

The FA did not take action against Williams, using the feeble excuse that referee Michael Oliver had cautioned both players, which meant the FA was "powerless" to take retrospective action on grounds of "re-refereeing" an incident.

Had Van Persie suffered a broken neck or even worse, it is certain action would have been taken against Williams, regardless of whether the referee had already "dealt with the incident".

A recent study showed that heading the ball is associated with clear risks of brain injuries, mainly because it increases the odds of head collisions with other players. Referees are trained to treat any impact to the head as a serious injury.

Players who deliberately kick, or attempt to kick at, opponents' heads must also be severely punished retrospectively by competition organisers.

Two years ago Mario Balotelli, then of Manchester City, was retrospectively sanctioned for his intentional stamp that narrowly missed the head of Scott Parker, who was playing for Tottenham Hotspur.

At the time, Balotelli, still immature at 21, denied he did anything malicious and referee Howard Webb had missed the incident. The FA suspended Balotelli for four matches and Manchester City did not bother to appeal against the charge of violent conduct, which spoke volumes.

Although it is impossible to know the intent of players, referees use a clever test. They ask themselves would the offender have acted in the same uncontrolled manner towards his teammate or even a family member. Although by no means foolproof, this is how experienced officials try to make sense of seemingly "innocent" incidents.

But they also need support in terms of retrospective action since referees cannot always see everything that happens on the pitch.

A blow to the head should be treated seriously. It is no laughing matter.

  • A final note: Fifa once again showed its technophobic paranoia when it pulled the plug on Australia's experiment in miking up A-League referees for its current end-of-season finals, which would have been a world first. The idea was that at key moments, the audio from the referee and linesmen would have been aired by broadcaster Fox Sports. This would have brought soccer in line with other codes such as rugby league, union and Aussie Rules.

Agree or disagree? Contact Rational Ref at

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 April, 2014