Blame Henry for handball and being dishonest? Blame the unsighted referee?

Rumour has it that when Maradonna was recently asked by the English press, as coach of Argentina for the 2010 World Cup, whether he has any regret about his “hand of God” incident during the 1986 World Cup in Mexico? His reply:

“No, not at all. Given the chance, I would have used my other hand, just to prove God is ambidextrous” — ( see also Gary Linekar interviewing Maradona on his “God’s hand”)

Four years later, at the 1990 World Cup in Italy versus Russia, Maradonna was again the centre of a handball controversy. The referee, a mere 5 metres away and with a seemingly unobstructed view, failed to award Russia a penalty kick after a clear and deliberate handball (arm moving towards the ball).

World Cup 1990 vs Russia: Maradonna showing that he can use his right arm. The referee, in perfect position, did not award a penalty.

Moments after the 1986 “Hand of God” incident, Maradona scored a goal that is regarded as one of the greatest in a World Cup Final, to be added to my personal favourites: Roberto Baggio and Saeed Owairan’s goals from this list. Not on the aforementioned list is this one vs Belgium, Mexico 1986.

Ireland’s World Cup play-off with France and its chances to reach South Africa 2010 is no more, courtesy of a handball (twice) before the ball entered the luckless Irish goals. See picture below. (Reuters)

Blame neither the French player Henry nor the Swedish referee, Martin Hansson. If blame is to be apportioned, direct it to the technological disadvantaged football referee system.

FIFA has already indicated that the possibility of an Irish/French replay is moot and that the case for a sanctioned replay is dissimilar to the World Cup play-off between Bahrain and Uzbekistan due to a mistake in law made by the match referee: A teammate of the penalty taker encroached into the 18-yard penalty area before the ball was kicked into the goal nets. The referee ordered an indirect free kick to the defending side. The correct call should have been a retake of the penalty. This, according to FIFA, was an instance of incorrect application of the Laws, to be distinguished from an unsighted infringement.

Henry “caressing” the ball with his hand (twice) can be compared to Maradona’s 1986 World Cup “hand of God” incident. The infringement, not sighted by the officials, but clearly seen by most people in the stadium, was not called and the goal stood. Unfair? Indeed. Tough luck? For the losing team, you bet.

A referee can only call an infringement that he sees. That much is crystal clear and cardinal in the world of refereeing. An old FIFA saying, gleaned from the various national referee workshops I have attended states: The correct decision can only be made from the correct position. Hence the additional criteria of fitness for referees over and above theoretical and practical knowledge of the Laws of the Game. But in no way, given the performance of the Swedish referee on the night, can I state that he was unfit. Nor was he incompetent.

The problem, from a referee’s viewpoint, is two-fold and needs some drastic intervention from the higher echelons of football:-

(1) How to eradicate/diminish player dishonesty during matches;

(2) How to assist officials missing infringements at the same time?

In 20+ years since the “hand of God incident” and legio other incidents, FIFA, as custodian of word-wide football, has as of yet failed to create and implement a creditable system that can help assist match officials to officiate the game in a more accurate way and to expose cheating players at the same time. Most players will not readily admit when they have infringed the Laws. That much seems clear. What to do? Bring in detection systems – extra Mark I eyeballs or electronic – to help the referee? Create a system that can facilitate both #1 and #2 above and yet keep the “human error” element – whatever way you want to define human error – without taking away the referee’s authority and control and/or making the game a stop-start affair?

Why not have limited video replay referrals as well as additional assistant referees (AAR’s)? For the current AAR experiment see here.

A few years ago the Danish National League (2003-2004 season) experimented with a slightly different version of match video replays: Each team/management had only 2 appeals/referrals to a video replay. Further criteria were defined when and how the 2 referrals should be invoked.

Obviously this is a compromise to FIFA’s current stance of no video replays at all. What happened to the Danish League experiment and the conclusions reached afterwards, I don’t know. It seems this idea will cover both points #1 and #2 above without completely taking control away from the match referee or making the game a complete farce i.e. stopping play to refer to video evidence for each and every infringement call, thus second-guessing and usurping the referee’s Law 5 powers completely.

Looking at the World Cup play-off match feed Ireland vs. France, I can see why the Swedish referee missed the handball infringement: He was positioned diagonally behind Henry, with another 2-3 players (on the edge of the 6-yard goal area) also between him and Henry. This can – and do – easily happen, judging by various matches I officiated the last 22 years. Being fit can only help you so much to get into the correct position. But infringements will be missed, it’s just a matter of time. I venture to say that even if the Swedish referee attempted to run wider during play to try and have a better view of the Henry handball infringement, he probably still would have had not enough time to get into a better position, given the speed of play.

I also assume that the leading assistant referee, seemingly having a better unobstructed view, can easily miss the infringement given the speed of play, the sheer distance to the infringement (35m -40m) and/or just not looking directly at the infringement.

Let’s hope FIFA’s AAR experiment at a minimum – as it’s more cost effective then video replays given the world-wide appeal of football from grass-roots level and up – gets implemented sooner rather then later. Will this be sufficient? Time will tell if the AAR experiment by itself will have the desired effect of minimizing unseen infringements and identifying dishonest players – the odds certainly look better then the status quo.

But for now, luck  – and time  – seems to have deserted the Irish football team.

I’m off to officiate this coming Wednesday (25 Nov at 19h30) Mamelodi Sundowns vs. Orlando Pirates. A possible humdinger.