Soccer needs to change its refereeing. We need to get things better, and last night’s USA-Germany game has a great example. The referee called a foul against Germany and then awarded a Penalty Kick. Penalty Kicks are game critical decisions that we, as referees, have to get right. The referee got it wrong. She got the foul but missed the location as the foul actually happened out of the box but the US player landed in the box post-foul.
So what happened?
Let’s look at a couple of different things.
First the attack is coming down the offensive left hand side and the attacker is angling into the middle of the field. The referee has decent proximity to play, but she is running within the center arc lane. This is sub-optimal positioning as the attack is funneling to the middle of the field, the supporting attackers are jamming the middle of the field, the defenders are converging on the attack. The middle is more congested than Manhatten rush hour traffic. Better positioning would have been to get wider and be on the outside shoulder of the attacker instead of the inside shoulder.
Her assistant referee’s job is to give the center good information on game critical decisions. Usually that just means judging offside. In every pre-game I’ve ever had with referees who some day dream of working international tournaments, I’ve been told that if there is a foul on the edge of the box, give the center referee any relevant 100% sure information. Usually this means did I think the foul started in or out of the box?
I don’t think the assistant referee (who would be running on the bottom of the screen sideline) had the position to give good information.
You can see the German center back is dropping hard. She is the second to last defender and thus is the offside line. She is four, maybe five yards deeper than the spot of the foul. The assistant referee’s focus on a strong attack at the edge of the box is offside. There is one American player (slightly more central) who is behind the main German line but ahead of the German center back, she is a potential offside problem in 2 touches. The AR is tracking the German offside line with all of her focus. She can’t help without abandoning her primary responsibilities.
The center referee has two other sources of help. The other assistant referee is off screen and 30 to 40 yards behind play and sixty yards off the foul. Her responsibility during an aggressive attack is to watch behind the referee’s back for stupid retaliation and to scan the field as she knows the center referee and the lead AR are narrowing their focus on the run of play. The last source of potential help is the 4th official. She is the back-up center official and the administrative coordinator. Her position is on the AR-1/Bench side at roughly midfield, so she is seventy yards off the foul. She might have been scanning the field or watching the play, but more likely she is trying to keep an eye on the benches. The odds of her being able to give good help is low.
So the referee saw the foul, did not pay attention to the fact that the German defender who fouled the attacker had both feet clearly outside of the box at the moment of contact and followed the flight of the body into the box instead of seeing where the foul did occurred. I understand that, I’ve fucked up penalty kicks doing exactly that before. And my assessor and crew got on my case afterwards.
How do we fix it? Better positioning for the center referee would help, but I don’t think it solves the problem as I’ve had the pleasure of running lines for American female FIFA referees, and the slowest one is a gazelle, so this was a position of choice not a position due to conditioning. I think the referee was anticipating the run of the attack and was slightly surprised by the foul and assumed it had to be in the box, not just outside of the box. The rest of her crew had responsibilities and vantage points that made rapid assistance unlikely, and she made a bad decision and stuck with it.
Systemically at the highest levels of the game, some type of replay challenge system could be useful on truly game critical decisions. Goals, penalty kicks, orange card situations where yellow or red card decisions are both justifiable could be reviewable if there is a natural stoppage in play. In this scenario, play had clearly stopped so gathering new information including information from the booth on location of the foul could have occurred if that was allowed. I will never work games that will have replay, I’m a small fish, but for professional and international matches, dead ball replay challenges could be a possibility especially if the coach who initiates the challenge is cautioned for a failed challenged, that would impose a reasonable price on a challenge. We, as referees need to get game critical calls right at all levels of play, especially at levels of play that are on international television networks.