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World Cup referees taking shots over blown calls

Controversies over the officiating are causing as much noise as the plastic horns that are blown with uninterrupted vigor by fans at all the stadiums. The U.S. team has been among the victims.

June 28, 2010|By Grahame L. Jones

Reporting from Johannesburg, South Africa — Controversies over the officiating at soccer's World Cup are causing as much noise as the plastic horns that are blown with uninterrupted vigor by fans at all the stadiums.

"I think it's been one of the worst-refereed World Cups that we've seen over the last four or five," said Marcelo Balboa, who played 127 games for the U.S., including three World Cups, and now is a commentator for Futbol de Primera, the U.S.-based Spanish-language radio network.

On Sunday, teams from England and Mexico both were victims of bad calls that influenced the outcome of the games. The U.S. also was hurt by poor officiating.

Yet the sport's rulers and rule-makers have been slow and stubborn when it comes to helping.

FIFA, the sport's international governing body, has resisted the introduction of such technological aids as goal-line cameras and instant replay, arguing that those devices would rob the sport of its human element and interrupt the game's continuity. And it won't be until the next World Cup — Brazil 2014 —when five pairs of officials' eyes will be employed instead of the current three.

It would "not make sense to stop play every two minutes to review a decision as this would go against the natural dynamism of the game," Joseph "Sepp" Blatter, FIFA's 74-year-old president, said in April, shortly after the idea of using technology was firmly voted down.

Proponents of change aren't giving up. On Monday, Guus Hiddink, who has coached two World Cup semifinalists and is one of the world's most respected soccer authorities, said that Blatter should resign immediately if he wasn't willing to implement video replay.

Hiddink's comments came one day after England's match against Germany in Bloemfontein, in which British midfielder Frank Lampard fired a shot that banged into the German crossbar and bounced down, clearly a foot or two over the line and into the goal.

A goal would have tied the score, but it was never officially counted — even though British bookmaker William Hill paid those who had bet on Lampard scoring at the World Cup — and Germany went on to win, 4-1, knocking England out of the 32-team tournament.

Blatter, watching the game at Free State Stadium, had no comment. But plenty of others acknowledged the mistake.

After watching the game on television while attending an economic summit in Toronto, Germany's leader, Angela Merkel, reportedly told David Cameron, Britain's prime minister, that the goal should have counted.

"The referee made mistakes; this is football," said England's Italian coach, Fabio Capello, who angrily questioned why FIFA was so reluctant to embrace technology as other sports such as tennis, cricket and rugby have successfully done.

Said Lampard: "I don't know whether goal-line technology will change things, but technology would have made it 2-all today and given us big belief and confidence that we could beat the Germans."

Later on Sunday, Mexico played Argentina in Johannesburg. Midway through the first half, Lionel Messi, FIFA's reigning world player of the year, clipped the ball to Argentine teammate Carlos Tevez, who headed it into the net.

The goal was allowed, even though Tevez was a yard or more offside — in other words, behind the final defender — as television replays and the huge in-stadium video screen at Soccer City Stadium again clearly showed.

"We knew we had to worry about Messi for this game, but we didn't count on also having to worry about the officials," Mexico forward Adolfo Bautista said. "We lost our concentration after that, and it hurt us."

Mexico lost, 3-1, and, like England, was eliminated from the tournament.

Referees have been instructed not to talk about specific incidents and FIFA has been silent about the controversies. The organization's lone statement during the World Cup: "FIFA will not make any comments on decisions of referees on the field of play."

However, on Monday it did acknowledge a misstep during the Argentina-Mexico game. Nothing about the officiating, though. Instead, it banned re-showing questionable plays on in-stadium big screens, saying the decision to do so was a "clear mistake" because it incited fans and ignited arguments on the field.

Balboa, the former player turned commentator, said the speed of the game has caught referees flat-footed.

"You're running on a field with 22 top athletes who can run like the wind," he said. "The game is just too fast now for one referee to see everything and call it in a split second."

In other major sports, advances in television — more cameras with additional angles and the advent of super slow-motion technology — resulted in calls for instant replay to ensure the accuracy of on-field decisions.

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