Thierry Henry cheated Wednesday night, and as a result France defeated Ireland to secure a berth in the 2010 World Cup. The Irish are out and the French are in the world’s biggest sporting event, all because of a blatant, obvious handball that led to France’s lone goal in their qualifying game. No one really disputes the call: Henry admits he used his hand intentionally, virtually everyone in the stadium saw the handball live, and the TV replay clearly confirmed it. There’s only one little problem: the referee of the match (Martin Hansson of Sweden) didn’t see it. In fact, he still refuses to admit his mistake, insisting that it was “100%” not a handball, despite undeniable evidence to the contrary. In typical ostrich fashion, FIFA (soccer’s governing body) doesn’t even publicly acknowledge the error, citing its policy not to second guess the referee’s decision on the field. So the cheaters win…again.
I love soccer (aka, international football). I’ve played the game from the time I was 5 years old through college, and coached youth teams for several years in college and throughout my time in medical school. Watching soccer games on television and in person are still among my favorite pastimes. Yet despite my love for the game, it is obvious soccer has severe flaws that will slowly erode the integrity of the game until the play on the field is nothing more than a hollow facade for a meaningless sport. Soccer has lost much of its luster in my eyes, not because of the game itself, but because the obvious problems are either ignored or swept under the rug by the powers that be at FIFA.
As Henry’s cheating (a clear pattern in the Frenchman’s play – Spain and Italy know all too well from the 2006 World Cup) demonstrates, the most obvious and most pressing problem with soccer is the officiating on the field. The officiating is so inconsistent and so subjective, it is almost as if the sport changes from game to game. If inconsistency wasn’t enough, the sheer incompetence is staggering: it’s hard to believe the center referee and both line judges missed Henry’s handball when tens of thousands in the stadium and millions on television saw it. Not only that call, but numerous obvious calls are missed or called incorrectly in nearly every game. The 2006 World Cup is considered the worst officiated in the history of the game; it is also the World Cup with most Yellow and Red cards ever – two facts that are difficult to reconcile.
But even worse than inconsistency and incompetence is the lack of accountability. FIFA refuses to acknowledge referee errors and only grades them on a loose, subjective basis. They never admit the officials make individual mistakes, much less the systematic errors that plague the sport. Innovations to improve officiating are barely, if ever, entertained. If admitting the problem is the first step toward fixing, don’t expect soccer’s officiating to be repaired anytime soon.
That Thierry Henry’s handball was missed by the referee is explained by one of three possibilities: 1) the referee is corrupt and intentionally ignored the handball, 2) the referee is incompetent and simply blew an obvious call, or 3) there was too much happening in too many places at the same time for him to accurately see and make the call. In this case it isn’t clear which applies, but all three have been true of missed calls in past soccer games. Assuming the first option isn’t true in this case and that most soccer referees are fair and honest men, we are left with incompetence of the referees and systemic errors to blame for the horrid officiating that plagues the world’s most popular sport. To improve the sport, changes must be made to ensure the quality of refereeing is elevated – these changes must take place in the way the game is called on the field and the entire way FIFA regulates its referees.
I suggest two major changes to the way the game is officiated on the field: adding two additional field refs, and instituting instant replay. The soccer field is too big, there are too many players, and the action is too fast to be fairly officiated by one field judge. I propose keeping the linesmen and the center referee, but add an additional ref to each half of the field, for a total of 3 field referees and 2 linesmen. More eyes on the field and more perspectives would pick up more infractions like Henry’s handball, and controversial or close calls can be discussed by the officiating crew to determine the best call. Soccer has the same number of referees as basketball, a sport that is played on a much smaller surface with half the number of players – it is irrational to believe the current number of soccer game officials is sufficient.
Instituting instant replay would also improve the quality of officiating. I don’t think every single called should be reviewed, but every call leading to a penalty kick should be reviewed by a replay official, and the events leading to every goal should also be reviewed as well. If France’s goal was reviewed by a replay crew, the handball would have been caught and France would not have won the game – at least not the way they did. This would not necessarily slow down the game: if the play is clearly clean, then the game proceeds uninterrupted. But if there is a questionable call or foul, pausing the game for a few minutes for closer review is appropriate. It would be better to delay the game a few minutes rather than eliminate Ireland from the World Cup based on an illegal play.
In addition to on-field changes, FIFA needs to radically change the way it regulates referees. They need to have a department that reviews and grades the officiating of every single international game, and the results should be made public. The best referees should be rewarded with the big games, and the worst should be subjected to being banned from officiating international games. Furthermore, FIFA should admit referee mistakes. If a ref blows a call the way Hansson blew Henry’s handball, they should admit it and apologize. Game officials in every sport make mistakes, but FIFA and the refs should be willing to admit those mistakes and address ways to fix them, rather than steadfastly support the in-game decisions. In short, accountability and transparency need to improve dramatically.
But don’t expect these changes – or anything close to them – anytime soon. FIFA is so entrenched in its old-school traditionalism they are incredibly reluctant to introduce change. In fact, the only changes they are willing to make are enacted to preserve the traditional powers of the sport, evidenced by the seeding system in the European qualifying and the 2010 World Cup that will effectively shelter the top teams from big games early in the tournament. Purists fret that instant replay would slow down the game, even if egregious calls like Henry’s handball are missed. They believe adding more referees will clutter the field, and prefer the unchecked authority of the lone center judge, a single man who will inevitably miss calls, regardless of his training or experience.
Without major changes in officiating, soccer will continue to rot from within. Without integrity of officiating and with no guarantee of fairness, it’s hard to take soccer seriously. A school isn’t considered a strong academic institution if students can easily cheat on tests and if the administration won’t admit when students engage in plagiarism. How can we enjoy soccer as a sport when the playing field isn’t level? How can we award a champion when we aren’t sure whether they won on skill or by cheating and missed calls? Are we sure France deserves to go the World Cup and Ireland doesn’t? Is France the better team or are they simply better at cheating? Unfortunately, we’ll never know…