Soccer referees meting out sorrow and pity

By By Natalie Dicou

By Natalie Dicou

On the soccer field, the referee is a dictator in knee socks. In his regular life, he’s just an average guy who is issued speeding tickets and occasionally ordered by his wife to sleep on the couch. But when he’s officiating, he wields the type of power found only in the highest echelon of a totalitarian regime. He holds the hearts of nations in his hands. And his rulings are final. No checks and balances. No one to answer to. It’s just him, his two linesmen and 22 players out there. Clenched between his teeth is the most powerful tool on earth.

You’ve heard that the pen is mightier than the sword. Well, the whistle is mightier than both put together-at least during the World Cup. Broken hearts, shattered dreams and unimaginable anguish-all of these are a mere whistle’s blow away, an abrupt exhalation that can mean the difference between glory and sorrow.

How do they sleep at night?

The 2006 World Cup has been three years in the making. In 2003, 198 countries began their pursuit of soccer’s biggest prize. By 2006, the number of nations still contending was 32. The teams that make it through the years of qualifying matches are then faced with heart-stopping single-elimination bouts. One tiny mistake in one tragic moment and the years of effort have been in vain. See ya in four years.

It’s heart-wrenching enough for the diehard fans when a player makes a costly mistake. Maybe he leaves his man open at an inopportune time or fails to convert an easy header into the net. These blunders haunt players and fans for years. But when the ref makes an erroneous call that cripples a country’s chances, it’s almost unbearable, because you’re left with the aching question, “What might have been?” And that kind of thing seems to be happening a lot in the 2006 World Cup.

Referees in nearly every sport make bad calls. It’s just that in soccer, their impact is more profound because soccer is a game of climactic moments. A single score can win the game, and, therefore, each call holds more weight than in, say, basketball, where a bad call is usually forgotten after a few possession changes.

In the 2-1 loss to Ghana that sent the United States home, a dubious call at the end of the first half gave Ghana a penalty kick and the go-ahead goal. Soccer analysts the world over have come to a consensus: It was a terrible call.

In the USA/Italy game, referee Jorge Larrionda of Uruguay handed out a record-tying three red cards in a match that ended in a 1-1 draw. Two USA players and one Italian were sent off the field. After the game, criticism of Larrionda flooded in, not just from American fans who thought they had been heinously screwed, but by BBC commentators as well. Briton Chris Waddle described the officiating as “rubbish” (don’t the Brits talk cute?).

Larrionda, it turns out, had been suspended for six months in 2002 by the Uruguayan Football Association for “irregularities” in his calls. You’d think that after this, the guy would be demoted to a rec league. Instead, four years later, he’s officiating at the World Cup.

Perhaps the worst officiating up to this point (it could get worse) came in the Holland/Portugal match in which the referee broke the record for the most red cards given out during a match: an unprecedented four. In addition, he tied the record for overall cards in a World Cup match, giving out a total of 16! By the end of the game, both teams were playing with nine men. Holland lost 1-0 and Portugal advanced. The Dutch are still in mourning.

A good ref is one you don’t notice. He’s content to give the spotlight to the players. His presence is felt just enough so that he keeps control of the game, but he doesn’t stand out. That card-happy ref was the main event. The game was a sideshow.

So how can soccer avoid falling victim to bad officiating? Unfortunately, there’s no easy fix like in American football, where the NFL and many college conferences now have replay. It’s amazing that so many people dragged their feet on that issue, since it has become so popular and clearly diminishes the element of human error.

But, clearly, there’s no time for that in soccer. Maybe the game is just inherently vulnerable to bad calls. Maybe not. Here’s an idea: On questionable calls, refs could confer with their linesmen. A simple, “What did you see?” could save a lot of people a lot of grief. When a country spends three years trying to get to that one crucial game, why not take another few seconds to ensure you get the call right? How ’bout it, Larrionda?