Wednesday, April 8, 2015

MLS Referees: Blown-Calls and Big Boards

Uh...penalty? Offside? No, corner kick!
I'll admit it. I kinda like it when referees fuck up. Broad exceptions apply, of course – e.g. failure to dish cards to keep games from degenerating into brawls, and related lapses – but, an unjust red card, a penalty that even the "fouled" player hesitates to claim, a phantom offside call that denies your side a game-winner: all of those help jack up the drama. And, sometimes, bring the comedy.

And. like most normal people, I don't like referees; as with most authority figures, they're only likeable as the butt of the joke.

Per that preamble, let us pause to both celebrate, and meditate upon, the virtuoso slapstick sequence of blown calls made by MLS Pro referee Fotis Bazakos, in the course of "managing" New England Revolution v. Colorado Rapids last Saturday.

The highlight in question turns on a penalty denied to the Rapids (start watching about 2:40). Before reviewing the tape, keep in mind that Bazakos had awarded a penalty to the Revolution's Charlie Davies for a little bump in the box only minutes before (it's in the highlights, too). Now, tune in and count the errors: 1) missing a clear hand-ball with no meaningful hand-to-ball/ball-to-hand distinction, which should have stopped the play; 2) awarding the penalty kick for what looks like a pretty clear foul on Gabriel Torres, which should have stopped the play, besides giving the Rapids a much-needed bump on breaking their 2015 duck; and 3) finally stopping play upon noticing the linesman's offside flag and proceeding to call the play offside even though the offside infraction occurred after the penalty kick.

The aftermath didn't make the tape, but the whole thing started with Bazakos glowering dismissively at all the players pointing frantically at The Dicks' Big Board and pleading for reason and ended with the booking of Marcelo Sarvas, for his wholly reasonable dissent, and ejecting Rapids coach Pablo Mastroeni from the game for his less-well-reasoned escape from his technical area. That, my friends, is fucking up as art. It also provides a striking image of the referee mind and mentality.

One of the most maddening traits in a referee is also one of the most necessary: a cold certainty that he/she made the correct call in the moment.  Whether a result of training or a cultural quirk inherent to the profession, referees rarely reverse a decision; when they do, it's on reliance of the word the side-line snitches (aka, the linesman). Sure, pliability in a ref would promote still more whining from the players...jesus, that's a horrible thought; the entire sport would devolve into a 90-minute argument. And yet refs get things wrong often enough and everyone knows it – and that absolutely has to extend to the referees, courtesy of post-match performance reviews. I bet Bazakos squirmed mightily through this week’s session...

The question becomes what, if anything, to do about it. As it happens, ExtraTime Radio's (ETR) Tuesday podcast covered a separate refereeing incident – one from Argentina (start listening around 52:00) – that certainly comes into the New England/Colorado conversation. Apparently, an Argentine ref – a top one, reportedly – reversed a call in a game based on what he saw on the video monitor. As it turns out, use of any video evidence is against FIFA's rules - or at least that's what the podcast told me.

With that, the conversation arrives at a familiar crossroads – one with a multi-car pile-up smack in the center. Technological fixes have been floated in the hopes of sharpening up refereeing decisions, all the way up to and including in-game video review of major calls. I've never been a fan, personally, not least because players eat up enough game-time with all that incessant kvetching at the ref. So, no, I wouldn't go to full, formal video review.

And yet, I really like what that Argentine ref did. According to ETR's summary, he didn't just call back a penalty kick; this ref stopped the game long enough to retrieve an ejected defender from his early shower. Justice was served in that situation, even if in-game momentum quietly died; at the same time, think of the drama...must have been something to savor. That also strikes me as an extreme example, several steps beyond what's needed.

While I don't want formal video replay, at all, I frankly don't see the harm of a referee taking a quick glance at the scoreboard to confirm he didn't cock up a call. Before protesting, think about this. First, in the modern game, what's the object to which players virtually always attempt to direct the ref's attention after a major call? Yup, the Jumbo-tron. FIFA's rules be damned (and, srsly, it's not like FIFA gives a shit about rules), players instinctively appeal to The Big Boards because of what they are – e.g. fucking ginormous bodies of evidence, slowed down with an eye to providing the clearest possible review of events. It's not like the refs don't have time to take a quick look and give a ponder; play hasn't only stopped already, he's got a mass of players coming at him from every angle mulling and griping for at least a minute after every major call.

As noted up top, I'm fine with the status quo. Bazakos' mistake was genuinely funny, and I would have delighted in losing my mind at the injustice of it all had this happened to my Portland Timbers. But I also wouldn't mind allowing referees to reference a replay, especially if it can be done quickly. I don't see it disrupting the game anymore than it already is, for starters. There's an extra bonus in here as well: under this sort of rule, a referee booking a player for dissent, or even sending one off, could be that little bit more certain about sticking to his/her guns. If there's anything more grating than being booked for pleading a just cause, I can't think of what it is...

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