The laws of the game that the referee has to apply are clear. In applying them to specific situations, however, he can use his discretion. But many a time this kicks off a controversy.
AN essentially robust and fun-filled game which we know as soccer got transformed in the second half of the last century into a Shakespearean stage with players enacting the script written by their coaches. The World Cup 2002 spectacle epitomised this fact dramatically when Rivaldo of Brazil admitted without remorse that he shammed an injury to get a penalty kick, which resulted in a goal for his side.
The run of play, the ground situation, the respective strengths of the teams and the players skills alone no longer decide the tactics adopted on the field. Factors such as the strengths of the coaches, the disposition of FIFA, the media and the organisers of the tournament, the profiles and the countries of the officiating referees decide the tactics to be employed long before the first kick-off of the tournament. Has the paying spectator gained, is the moot question.
FIFA has not lacked in efforts in terms of updating the laws to make the game fair and free of fouls, pleasurable to play and fun to watch. It is obvious, however, that FIFA is fighting a losing battle. To see why one only has to trace the progressive changes in the players' skills, the coaches and their strategies, the laws and their enforcement, and the referees and their decisions.
This World Cup has no doubt shown us the tremendous skills that the top players possess and exhibit. There have been instances to prove that every part of the foot - the instep, the toe, the sole, the upper part, the heel, the side - can be used to nudge, caress, kick, push and talk the ball into doing precisely what is needed. The swerve and the swing that is imparted take the ball in impossibly beguiling trajectories. Ronaldinho's mesmerising run up, hoodwinking some five English defenders, was sheer magic. The free-kick that followed defied everything we had seen and known earlier.
Ironically, the great mastery shown by many players has also brought to the fore the ugly part of the game. The urge to stop someone with incredible skills any which way gets the better of you. And this is where the great coaches have contributed. They have revelled in teaching their proteges smart ways to outsmart the laws. The famous sports writer Brian Glanville has named the high-profile coach of a very successful team as a master of gamesmanship, who encourages his men to commit fouls provided they were outside the penalty box. The same team has earned the sobriquet of a 'cheating team' among the public in Japan.
A lot of research has gone into finding ways to circumvent the law or commit infringements that can go unnoticed or attract as little punishment as possible. FIFA has not been able to enact laws that the coaches cannot outsmart. For example, 'tackling from behind' has been viewed seriously in the last few years and referees have been asked to deal strictly with this infringement. This World Cup has, however, seen a surfeit of new tactics. In the guise of tackling from the front, players were seen to slide their legs across the front of the opponent to kick his thighs and knees.
Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Beckham, Hasan Sas, Michael Owens and many others all have been victims of such tackles. New tactics predominantly seen in this World Cup, which were hardly penalised were: charging from behind using one's back or buttocks instead of the foot, swaying one's hands across the opponent's face, stepping on the opponent's toes, pressing down on the shoulders of the opponent and pulling shirts to stop the opponent. All the above infringements have been covered under Law 12, but coaches are aware of the briefing that the referees have received from FIFA and know which infringements are more likely to be detected easily and viewed seriously.
FIFA has long realised that it cannot afford to lose spectator interest and has been striving hard to ensure as much 'play' as possible in the 90 minutes. Records of the last three World Cup tournaments show that on an average only for 65 to 70 minutes the ball was actually in play. Much of the remaining time was wasted by the ball going out of play, genuine and feigned injuries, players' substitution, goalkeepers hanging on to the ball for longer than necessary and delay in taking free-kicks.
In order to reduce wastage of time, more balls have been made available for immediate replacement when the ball goes out of play and injured players are removed from the field for treatment. The earlier law stipulated that a goalkeeper can run at most four paces with the ball in his hand before kicking it away. This was circumvented by bouncing the ball once or twice after four steps and again running with the ball in hand. The law has now been amended so that the goalkeeper cannot be in physical possession of the ball for more than six seconds, but this rule is hardly adhered to. Similarly, an inordinate amount of time is wasted in getting the defenders to form their wall 10 yards (around 10 metres) away for the free-kick. Invariably, they inch closer to the ball. In order to curb this indiscipline and time-wasting tactic, the referee is empowered to use the yellow card against anyone not cooperating while taking the free-kick. However, this power has not been used in this World Cup.
How does FIFA or the referee prevent instances of the farce that was enacted in the last five minutes of the Mexico vs Italy league game in group G. They had scored a goal each when it became known that the other match in the same group, Croatia vs Ecuador, had ended 1:0 in favour of Ecuador. By virtue of that result, Mexico and Italy had both qualified for the second round. Hence the ball was passed around by the Mexican players near the half line for five minutes without any attempt by any Italian player to gain possession. The wait for the final whistle was excruciating.
Referees and their decisions are much talked about topics in any spectator sport. More so in football, where a decision could change the course of the game in a split-second. First of all, it is a tough grind and a great achievement for a referee or assistant referee to make it to the panel of the World Cup. To get through the tough selection process requires skills, training, knowledge, physical fitness and grit. Even after selection, there is a tough regimen of training. The referees are the 'Masters of Ceremony' involving 22 highly-strung, temperamental and celebrity players in front of huge and passionate crowds. How an evenly-matched game will be played depends largely on the referees. Whether the game would be great, full of moves that are a pleasure to watch, whether it would be played in the true spirit of the game, whether it would be rough and scratchy with many interruptions and injuries - all these depend on how the referees control play.
The referee is empowered to punish players who infringe the laws and take undue advantage of them. He has to use this power to maintain order and ensure fair play. No decision of a referee taken on the field of play can be reversed. Nor does he have any legal liability for any repercussions of his decisions on the field of play. The laws of the game that he has to apply are clear. In applying them to situations, however, the referee can use his discretion. The use of this discretion is what leads to controversies in most situations.
A simple infringement may attract a bigger punishment than expected if, in the referee's opinion, he needs to nip in the bud a growing trend of rough play in the match. If the infringement was malicious and came dangerously close to maiming or injuring a player seriously, the referee may take drastic measures. The controversial decision of showing the red card to Ronaldinho in the Brazil-England quarter-final match has been criticised. The infringement, compared with many others, looked minor. However, there was no doubt that a wrong tackle was made. If in the referee's opinion the tackle was intentional and could have resulted in serious injury, and if not checked at that point could have led to retaliation and counter retaliation, the drastic measure of a red card would be justified. The referee is the best judge of the situation.
Similarly, in the quarter-final match between the United States and Germany, the German defender Frings is alleged to have handled the ball and prevented a goal. The TV replay showed that the referee was justified in concluding that the defender had no intention of preventing the goal with his hand and that the ball had struck his hand. The law provides for this and the referee's opinion has to be respected.
There have been many controversies regarding the offside rule. The person who is in the best position to judge offside is the assistant referee. Even a TV camera cannot provide a better view in many cases as one has to be absolutely in line with the second last defender at the time a kick is taken by an attacker to see whether anyone from the attacking side is offside. Thus, except for the very obvious offside situations, it is difficult for anyone who is not well-positioned to reach conclusions about offside infringements.
The spirit of the offside rule is to deny any attacking side the advantage of simply positioning a player near the opponent's goal. This would make the game very drab. In most of the controversies where offside was wrongly given or a goal was scored because the 'offside' was not given, the defenders and attackers were ranged like race horses in a photo-finish. It is pertinent to ask whether either way any side gains an unfair advantage in such situations.
According to Kamaleeswaran Shankar, the first Indian to officiate in the World Cup, the reputation and profile of the referee to a great extent determine the ease with which he can handle the game. The players in general are wary of trying any smart stuff if the referee has a high profile. The players also respect referees who are consistent in interpreting the laws and applying their discretion. Sir Stanley Rous, a former World Cup referee and president of the Football Association, England, is credited with having said, "All that is required is that the players respect the laws and the referees apply them strictly." The latest World Cup tournament has seen neither of the two happen. When the laws are not applied strictly, there will be more occasions when they have to be applied.
The yellow and red cards were introduced by FIFA as a means to admonish in public offending players. However, the desired result of putting pressure on players to play a fair game has not been achieved. It has only been interpreted as additional licence to foul, until one gets a yellow card.
In spite of all this, there is no doubt that it is not for money alone but some glory and honour that players play and delight spectators. Can everybody involved - the administrators, the coaches, the referees and the players - collectively take football to the great heights deserving of the game?
L. R. Natarajan, a former FIFA referee, is now chairman of the referees board of the Tamil Nadu Football Association and a member of the disciplinary committee of the AIFF.