Serendipity

Saturday, July 12, 2014

World Cup Referees (and An Odd Statistical Anomaly)



As I write this the 2014 World Cup Final between Argentina and Germany is a little more than 24 hours away. It promises to be an intriguing game between the best team (Germany) and, arguably (I’m sure fans of Colombia’s James Rodrigues would most definitely argue), the team with the best individual player (Lionel Messi).

Intriguingly this is the third time the two nations, if you’ll allow me to equate Germany with the old West Germany, have met in a WCF with Mexico ‘86 seeing Argentina eventually triumph 3-2 in a match I regard as being the very best WCF that I have ever seen and Germany’s dodgy penalty eventually winning a horribly petulant affair that saw two Argentinians red carded to conclude Italia ’90.

It is the frequency of these two teams meeting which although not, seemingly to me, exactly anomalous itself given that in any World Cup you can reasonably assume that Brazil, Germany, Argentina, Italy and Holland will enjoy annoyingly regular success but that in the semi-final of this tournament Brazil and Germany met in serious competition for only the second time. How is it possible for these two giants of world football to have clashed so infrequently over so many World Cups? I suppose tournament seeding would keep them apart in the early group stages but surely their paths should have crossed more often than this?

But that was just an observation that has arisen since starting this piece; my real purpose is to consider the role, impact and philosophy of Big Match referees: what on Earth is going through their minds?

In the 2010 WCF Spain were, basically, physically assaulted from the off by Holland with Nigel De Jong’s horrendous kung fu-styleed chest-high studs-up lunge setting the tone for much of what followed. It was the most blatant red card offence since Schumacher half-killed Battiston in Espana ‘82’s epic semi-final (this match was the most exciting game I have ever seen). In due course the Spanish, no strangers to the game’s blacker arts themselves, responded in kind and the game degenerated into an X-rated spectacle with, perhaps, a morbid fascination all of its own but preciously low in terms of skill and excitement. That game’s English referee Howard Webb was, and has been since, routinely defended by the pundits who have infiltrated our TV and radio commentaries as “not wanting to flash the cards too early” or “wanting to keep 22 men on the pitch” or “doesn’t want to spoil the game” or “nobody wants to see a game decided by a refereeing decision”. Well we all saw where that leads and the 2010 WCF, between two teams stacked with talented players was an absolute stinker devoid of entertainment as a result. It could be said that it was the worst WCF since 1990 when Argentina similarly clogged what was then West Germany - if USA ‘94’s bore draw, settled on penalties, between Italy and Brazil escapes one’s mind thoroughly as it deserves to.

So was Webb incompetent? No. He saw all of the “tackles” and judged them mostly to be fouls and gave the free kicks. Actually he gave dozens of free kicks. Eventually he started showing the yellow card. Eventually he sent somebody off but it was all too little too late; the shape of the game had been set early on by De Jong and nothing was going to be able to change it later.

What Webb was guilty of was following the mores of the old pros as he tried, without success, to “let the game flow”. He was guilty of allowing subjectivity to over-ride objectivity. He was guilty of not actually enforcing the rules of the game and adequately sanctioning severe foul play or tackles likely to endanger an opponent – and much more besides. Luckily nobody was seriously hurt and the Right Team won in the end but it was no thanks to Webb that it did.

But that was just a one-off, wasn’t it? Well… No. We saw the same thing again in the recent Brazil v Colombia game except this time the spectacle was not spoiled even if the result probably was. Just as in 2010 it was heart-breaking to see Holland’s lauded stylists with their rich history of Total Football personified by that old Dutch master, surely one of the finest talents ever to grace the game, Johan Cruyff so it was again to see Brazil launch assault after assault (I wonder what Pele, Zico, Socrates or Garrincha made of it?) on Colombia’s talented young team – with the added irony that it was Target #1 James Rodrigues who was booked, for an innocuous challenge, first. There was little that Colombia could do in the face of such an approach going unchallenged and as they fell behind by two goals they seemed to have little hope. The fact that they pulled themselves back into such a game does them huge credit but, just as the Spanish did in 2010, they had to fight fire with fire and commit to a similarly brutal approach. It made for compelling viewing but the best team lost the match.

This time, however, a player – the brilliant, mercurial Neymar (Brazil’s best and maybe the current games very best of all) – was hurt. And he suffered not just a minor injury but a cracked vertebrae. When he was fouled he lost the feeling in his legs; it’s no exaggeration to say that he may have been permanently paralysed.

This is where decisions made by referees can lead to and in the Brazil/Colombia match we so very nearly saw a truly magnificent talent permanently paralysed – and let’s not forget that, his fantastic talent aside, he’s a young man with a lifetime ahead of him just as so many more who play the game at a less exalted level. What goes at the highest level also goes in our national and local games. It might have been Naymar but it could have been just about anybody.

We all know and accept and rejoice in football’s physicality: it is the game where you have to be able to compete before you can expect to thrive but it isn’t known as The Beautiful Game for no reason. For the best players to thrive, for the best teams to win all the referees have to do is apply the laws of the game as they are written and not as a few grizzled ex-pros spouting forth cliché after cliché in the guise of punditry would like them to be.

I can’t see the 2014 WCF degenerating in such a way. For one thing there is no chance that Germany, who are as physically strong an XI as any in the world game, will be intimidated by Argentina. Argentina will know this and so they will not even try. On the other hand Germany could be the aggressors but I feel that their innate self-belief and confidence means they won’t even consider it; they believe that they are going to win and don’t need to. So will Germany’s strength as a genuine, seemingly complete team be enough to triumph over a moderate support cast committed to stoking Messi’s individual brilliance? I suspect it will but it wasn’t enough for West Germany in 1986 and it may not be enough this time. I just hope the referee doesn’t spoil the match, gives the talented players a chance to play and gives the cloggers short shrift should they try it on. May the best team win a final between two teams that no English football fan wanted to see there!

All of that and not a single mention of…

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