Category Archives: Referees

Decisions, decisions: referees and the suspicion of match fixing

As ever, the refereeing at this World Cup has sparked the ire of fans and teams alike –– countries such as Croatia, Mexico, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Nigeria, Brazil, Colombia and Uruguay have all in their turn cried foul at refereeing errors. Though the one accusation of match-fixing in the tournament –– centred around Croatia’s 4-0 win over Cameroon –– did not involve the referee, there have been plenty of fans who remain convinced that the officiating was biased against them for whatever reason.

Many of the errors have been forgivable –– such as the two goals Giovani dos Santos had wrongly ruled out for offside in Mexico’s game against Cameroon –– or have been due to referees being overawed by the occasion. Yuichi Nishimura was mistakenly taken in by Fred’s dive in the opening game, but Brazil have themselves missed out on penalties, both rightly (when Marcelo dived against Mexico) and wrongly (the foul on Hulk that Howard Webb missed in the Chile game). Bosnian fans tried to petition FIFA when they saw a picture of New Zealand referee Peter O’Leary laughing with Nigeria’s Vincent Enyeama at the final whistle of their win over the Balkan team, a game in which O’Leary had wrongly disallowed an Edin Džeko goal. I’m not sure what conspiracy would be afoot to ensure African sides benefit but it certainly was not working in Nigeria’s favour in their last-16 game versus France, when American referee Mark Geiger’s overly lenient officiating allowed the French to get away with fouling on a regular basis, culminating in a terrible challenge by Blaise Matuidi on Ogenyi Onazi that saw Onazi’s World Cup ended and which Geiger failed to award a red card for. In the absence of Nigeria’s playmaker the momentum switched in favour of the French and they ended up running out 2-0 winners. There seems to be a FIFA directive in place for referees to stave off on the cards (most cards in the tournament have been awarded in the second half of games) and the most notorious result of that was the Brazil-Colombia game last Friday where Brazil’s ugly cynicism effectively snuffed out James Rodríguez and contributed to an abrasive game where Camilo Zuñiga fouled Neymar and put him out of the tournament.

There have been plenty of cases of bent referees over the decades, though few seem to have been found out in World Cups. Byron Moreno, the Ecuadorean who refereed Italy’s defeat to hosts South Korea in 2002 certainly was later proven to be bent but there is little evidence to say he unduly influenced the result of a game that Italy had ample opportunity to win on their own steam. By and large though, football fans, however much they might whine, put a lot of faith in the man in the middle. The New York Times, upon discovering the concept of stoppage time following the United States’ late concession to Portugal, speculated that the referee’s having the sole responsibility for time-keeping left worrying scope for corruption, but people that know the game see nothing wrong with this.

The faith in referees is evident in Romanian director Corneliu Poromboiu’s film The Second Game, where he talks to his father Adrián, a former FIFA referee, about a Bucharest derby, between Dinamo and Steaua, that the latter refereed in December 1988. The match took place in a blizzard that continued all through the match. The snowbound pitch is a fortuitous metaphor for sport as played in the late Ceausescu era. There is a surreal quality to the match, played at an unusually high speed in difficult conditions, the yellow Azteca ball flying back and forth on a screen that looks like a Brueghel tableau. ‘The Eternal Derby’ as Romanians call it pits what was the secret police team (Dinamo) against the army team (Steaua), with the added twist that Steaua was also the favourite of the Ceausescu family. Adrián Poromboiu evoked the pressure that might be put on referees by either side but he said that he never capitulated (the films opens with his son’s voiceover recalling answering the phone as an eight-year-old and an unnamed voice telling him to tell his father he should never referee again or else he’ll end up in a coffin).

In this game, Poromboiu’s refereeing is irreproachable –– there are several times when he intelligently plays advantage, without, he notes, having the authority to retrospectively award a free kick, as a rule change a decade or so later would allow. The game ends 0-0, with Dinamo the better side but Steaua going closest to scoring, rattling the crossbar in the second half. Poromboiu Senior’s commentary points out the power dynamics of the time: Dinamo change from white to blue in the second half because they don’t have a second white kit – against the rules but Poromboiu suggests he wasn’t in a position to be too strict about it. He also says that the official match broadcast would cut to wide shots of the crowd whenever any bad behaviour broke out on the pitch –– if there was anything that totalitarian regimes hate, it is outbreaks of anger and uncivil actions. But you wonder if Poromboiu is as innocent and incorruptible as he says. There is an echo of his son’s first film 12:08 East of Bucharest, in which a local TV station in a small Romanian town holds a debate on the 16th anniversary of the 1989 revolution to ascertain whether the ‘rebellion’ in the town took place before or after Ceausescu’s abdication. Not surprisingly, there is much ex post facto pleading and claims of heroism in that film. Was Adrián Poromboiu a little man doing his job or the beneficiary (or lackey) of power?

Though the film downplays the significance of the match (Poromboiu Senior says it a long forgotten game and his son wryly compares it to his own films –– ‘a bit boring and nothing really happens’), it is fascinating as a historical document, not least because of the period from which it dates but also because it offers a glimpse of a footballing world that people my age (and Corentin Poromboiu’s) remember but which looks impossibly alien and ‘prehistoric’ (Adrián’s words) now. It is also a glimpse at the Golden Generation of Romanian football. Lining out are thirteen members of the Romanian side that would play eighteen months later at Italia 90 and blossom fully at USA 94. All the big names are there: Gheorghe Hagi, Marius Lacatus, Silviu Lung, Bogdan Stelea, Rodion Camataru, Miodrag Belodedici and a young Dan Petrescu. Steaua were at the height of their powers –– in the middle of a 104-game unbeaten run that stretched from just after their historic European Cup win in 1986 to a 3-0 home defeat to Dinamo in September 1989. They would also, later this same season, reach their second European Cup final, only to be destroyed 4-0 by Arrigo Sacchi’s rampant Milan. The spectre of history loomed though –– the following year Belodedici, an ethnic Serb, fled the Ceausescu regime and absconded across the Danube to Yugoslavia and he would later play with Red Star/Crvena Zvezda and become the first player to win the European Cup with two different clubs. Luck was on his side and he eventually played for Romania again, after Ceausescu was toppled almost exactly a year after this match.

After being a fixture at tournaments throughout the 90s, Romania more or less disappeared from the top level of international football once the talent dried up (with the exception of one cameo at Euro 2008). There are now few of their players at top European clubs (‘we don’t produce those sort of players anymore’ says Adrián at one point in his commentary). One of the sole survivors from the match is Dinamo coach Mircea Lucescu, who has had a successful career abroad, managing Inter, Galatasaray, Besiktas and, since 2004, Shakhtar Donetsk, winning them their first ever European trophy in 2009. It is said that Lucescu honed his brand of devil-may-care attacking football in Romania in the 1980s because he assumed matches were fixed anyway so there was nothing to lose in throwing caution to the wind. When his Dinamo side met Steaua in December 1988, Dinamo’s cross-town rivals were nearing the end of a string of five titles in a row. There’s no suggestion of a fix in The Second Game but the poor visibility during the game is a reminder of how murky the Romanian game was in those days.

Posted by Oliver Farry

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Technology and the Third Age of Fandom

Hidden amidst the twirling trapezes and tiresome tropes of last Thursday’s opening ceremony could be found a bona fide miracle, Juliano Pinto – a 29 year old Brazilian paralysed from the waist – taking the opening penalty clad in what is variously described as a mind-controlled exoskeleton or, more prosaically, ‘An Iron Man Suit’. The heavy-handed religiosity of the symbolism notwithstanding, this was a truly spectacular moment – hinting at either the redemptive powers of technology or first steps in humanity’s inevitable enslavement by rabidly sentient automatons, depending on your preference. It also suggested a wider point, that technology is an inescapable force within the narrative of Brazil 2014.

Less affirming, though no less discussed, has been the great technological innovation of this World Cup; goal-line technology. (For what it’s worth, I’m opposed – largely because shots that hit the underside of the crossbar and bounce down should automatically stand on aesthetic grounds). Early coverage has been dominated by a rush of pundits and commentators desperate to give extensive vent to their predetermined stances on the matter. Jonathan Pearce’s very public meltdown during the France v Honduras game, when he became so overcome by his spluttering controversy-by-numbers métier that he failed to comprehend the most basic of scenarios, might be the most high profile example – but from the director’s first supercilious use of the GLT graphic in the opening game, it has held the limelight.

Of course, there has long been a historical suspicion of technological advancement – a deeply ingrained neo-luddism that gives rise to everything from The Terminator to Millennium Bug hysteria; the St Vitus’ Dance of the digital age. Indeed, I barely made it to the end of the first paragraph without a semi-serious reference to the rise of murderous robots – the omnipresent paranoia of a generation raised on a diet of post-Ballardian anxiety rather than Space Race-optimism. Football, as both prism for and mirror to wider socio-anthropological trends, is not exempt from this suspicion. Nor should it be. Whilst son-of-Hawkeye dominates headlines, the insidious way in which technology has fundamentally altered the way in which football is watched or, dare I say it, ‘consumed’, continues its unrelenting creep, shifting the sport from the communality that has been at its heart for a century and a half towards a bleak individualism in the process.

It could be said that this is the third age of fandom. My generation – those experiencing the first ungainly flushes of adolescence around the inauguration of the Premier League – were the first for whom regular match-goers found themselves outnumbered by the big screen hordes. Football in the pub became the new norm, whim to a thousand guileless bantverts for Carling and Strongbow. For all its manifold faults, football (or, more accurately, FOOTY) in the pub at least served a social function. A poor facsimile of the match, certainly, but a facsimile nonetheless. The psychological distance from events compensated by a reflective communality.

No more. The new technological paradigm is that of the laptop fan – a further atomisation of consumption that pushes the game ever further towards individualism. This is the first time-shift World Cup – the point where technological ubiquity and inconvenient scheduling bisect. Games can be routinely watched at a time to suit and on a myriad of handheld devices, 11pm kick offs eschewed in favour of timeslots less problematic for early commutes and screaming toddlers. The fun has even gone out of trying to avoid the score. No need to ape Bolam & Bewes when you can watch a re-run of Cote D’Ivoire v Japan on the toilet and fast-forward to the best bits. And that’s before we start on the unending ocean of tactical savants and their joyless blogs, twitter goal updates and multiple streams that combine to leave the ‘modern’ football fan resembling a disgruntled nightwatchman surveying a bank of blinking CCTV monitors. A delusion of omnipotence undermined by the atrophying effect of such saturation.

Football, as so often, is here at the frontline of a wider socio-political shift. After all, this is Cameron’s Britain, complete with its illusory and conceited “Big Society” – altruism reimagined as dinner party credits, whilst simultaneously the very nation of ‘union’ is bandied around Westminster as a pantomime barb by a party relentlessly devoted to an agenda of social stratification. Everywhere you look, corporate behemoths egregiously congratulate themselves on the level of ‘connection’ they’ve obtained – essentially a goading of punters into flashing their figurative knickers in return for retweets. We may eat alone, but as long as a Gaussian photo of our pulled pork and slaw is on Instagram before the remnants have been wiped from our ironic moustaches we retain the delusion of collective empowerment within an ersatz community.

Alarmingly, the prevailing traits behind this shift have seeped into the ‘regular’, resolutely analogue, matchday. Even on the Kop, still a searing mass of raw humanity at its best, the trend towards technology-inspired individualism is growing. It’s far from uncommon to be surrounded by those filming the match on phones or, worse still, iPads. The dissociative quality of the viewfinder here facilitates a retreat to a kind of televisual familiarity, even when physically in attendance – a perverse absurdity, like spending £400 on a pair of pre-ripped jeans. Several times this season I’ve sat next to people glued to their mobiles throughout – doubtless bantering merrily with other likeminded souls. Instructively, last summer the club installed Wi-Fi at Anfield – not in an effort to further wring cash from punters (the loathsome ‘brand monetisation’ we’re forever hearing about), but in direct response to complaints about the difficulty of obtaining a 3G signal within the hulking stands. It’s hard to conceive – fans sitting in the Kop, watching a team intent on reducing elite-level football to the chaos of a next-goal-wins kickabout, with their most pressing concern being an inability to see what meme the depressing cavalcade of #footybanter accounts have churned out about the referee’s performance.

The illusion of connection has, likewise, been central to the coverage of the World Cup so far. “Speak Your Brains” voxpops ensure the most hysterical opinions circulate like a virtual bush fire. Meanwhile, broadcasters implore us to show them our, ahem, #goalface or #worldcupseat, creating an unending and dissonant feedback loop in the process. For all their apparent triviality, what such conceits achieve is to reinforce the idea of football as a multi-platform experience best enjoyed alone. “Sorry, lads. Don’t fancy the pub tonight. Got to stay at home and send my #goalface to Robbie Savage”. Matters reached a new nadir during Brazil’s underwhelming draw with Mexico when Pearce – Crown Prince of football’s hyperbolised periphery – started reading out viewers’ texts on Dani Alves’ hairdo. The laughable sloganeering of Cameron’s early days in office, “we’re all in this together”, is here reimagined with equal superficiality, a de facto extension of the BBC’s Reithian remit to include “engage”. Pundits have been repositioned as the viewer’s co-banterers, lounging around the Copacabana in shades and occasionally breaking off from their everyman patter to announce yet another viewer poll (“Should Rooney play as number 10, or be melted down for hotdog meat? Only YOU can decide!”)

As disingenuous as it is depressingly inescapable, this artifice shows no sign of relenting. A dystopian future in which a holographic Chiles is beamed into living rooms nationwide to exchange bespoke witless banter with armchair viewers is surely not far away. Picture that, and judder.

Posted by Ron Hamilton

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The Man in Black


There’s a man going around taking names
And he decides who to free and who to blame
Everybody won’t be treated all the same
There will be a golden ladder reaching down
When the man comes around”

Johnny Cash – The Man Comes Around

A toast to Tofik Bahramov, Clive Thomas, Charles Corver, Ali Bin Nasser, Karl-Josef Assenmacher, Byron Moreno, Jorge Larrionda. And now to Yuichi Nishamura. Or to collectively name them, Ref. Or the more colloquially known ‘Fucking Hell Ref’. They’re homers, dodgy, on the take, visually impaired, a product of an unmarried union and occasionally more anatomical than that.

Most referees at international level have remained anonymous. They are merely ‘Ref’, representative of the laws of the game on the field of play. Unbiased, rigorous and committed, they are a dispenser of cards (and latterly, vanishing sprays), taker of names and blower of whistles. The highest praise they can receive is that they ‘let the game flow’, as if they are responsible for the tactical discipline and incision of the opposing sides. Or that they’ve not impressed themselves on the game, as though their mere presence has ensured a quality display from both teams.

Usually, if you know a referee’s name, it’s because they’re biased, obviously, against your side. Or they’ve dropped a clanger of such weight that it would shatter an ITV pundit box window. With the obvious exception.


Don’t mess with Pierluigi

But even the mighty Collina is an indication of the shifting role of the man in black, who is also now the man in red, green, blue, fluorescent yellow and most likely, trouble. Celebrity referees are the staple of Sports Entertainments like Wrestling, a product or commodity for furthering the ongoing narrative. I mean, it’s not like football has become just as packaged and plasticised as WWE, is it? An event designed for television, rather than the live event. A show, with advert breaks when financially agreeable.

The ‘speed of the game’ is the reason we’re given for goal line technology, for extra official on the lines – but only up at the very highest, the televised, levels. In the midst of all of this marches the referee, completely helpless to slow motion replays, reverse angles and the toolbox of the tiresome Tyldesleys and creaking ex-pros of the world. And while vanishing spray is seen as a welcome addition, it speaks of a decline in the respect for the official, the pacing of the 10 and the players willingness to do absolutely anything, anything at all, to gain an advantage. It also looks good on telly.

Football is the last great holdout against video replays, but the clamour grows ever louder with every pained post-match interview. The oft held example, in the UK at least, is rugby. Referees are miked up and the television viewer can hear the entire conversation, as can supporters through on-sale earpieces. But the replay option, once vaunted as a solution to messy line decisions, has come to bring groans from supporters as the game is stopped and restarted again and again and again. But while it’s almost infallible, it again relies on the referee requesting the service (except in the case of this year’s Rugby Premiership final, where the TMO intervened unbidden, an interesting and disturbing shift of power). And yet decisions are still missed, infringements unpunished, howls of dismay from both sets of supporters, bullet headed managers ‘refusing to criticise the officials’.

Mistakes are not a new thing, as the litany of referees made human by error at the beginning of this piece indicates. Referees, technology or otherwise, will always get some decisions wrong to the neutral, they will certainly get things wrong regardless according to opposing supporters. Tackles that were definitely a foul, an offside flag raised when he’s clearly five yards onside (says the man in the stand 100 yards away) and how was that not a yellow? Fucking hell ref.

But that’s the beauty of it, that hidden element of chaos inside every match official. That within the human incarnation of the cold, impassive rules there lies a spark of unpredictability as game changing as any Neymar. That there’s the fallibility of humanity at the heart of the game. It’s a mirror to their charges, the players. Ah players, unpredictable, inspirational, yet forced into rigid tactics (yes, even the Brazilians, playing with a smile) in order to win the game using the skills they have earned or have been gifted. All under the intense pressure of expectation from their supporters. Spare a thought though, for four officials under pressure from both sets of supporters, both teams, both dugouts, FIFA and a worldwide television audience.

Let them be wrong. Let them wear black again and be intimidating, respected presences on the pitch. And instead of trying to support them by slicing away their authority with cameras, sprays, replays, microphones, goal line technology, just make it simple. When they get it wrong, give them the authoritative power of a simple statement, “I’m the ref, you’re not. Now fuck off”.

Posted by Dutton Peabody

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