Monday, June 18, 2012


On reading my piece on missed penalties, my friend Professor Mrityunjoy Chakravaorti suggested that I write a similar piece on wrongly awarded penalties that significantly changed the course of the matches concerned. I lack the resources to do some meaningful research on the subject and have not been able to access the wealth of material on the subject that surely exists. So I thought of writing a general note on various football wrongs of significance alleged to have been committed by referees.

The problem is that one can never be sure whether a referee’s wrong decision was a genuine error or was deliberate, because to arrive at a conclusion, one has to figure out the intention of the referee; the stated intention (by the referee himself) or the attributed (by everyone else) intention will simply not do.  But it is well-known that one can at best have a hypothesis about another’s intention, and this is one major source of conspiracy theories. This conspiracy approach to things is important because, whether it leads to the truth or not, it certainly leads to interesting stories. Consider Bjorn Kuiper’s awarding a penalty (the second penalty) to Barcelona when they were playing their Champions League second leg group match against AC Milan last year at Camp Nou stadium for Nesta’s shirt-pulling of Barca’s Sergio in the penalty area – just “shirt-pulling” only on hind sight, and probably after watching those couple of seconds’ replay – at least for most spectators. But let us grant that it was just shirt-pulling. Now pulling the opponent’s shirt is not a legitimate act in a football match. And if the referee saw it as part of an act of stopping the player from a position of advantage in which Sergio was placed and pointed to the spot, was it because he felt pressured to do so? Now if one says no (he could say the referee absolutely right, a bit too harsh perhaps) there is no place for stories. But if one says, he was indeed acting under someone’s instruction, then one opens up the possibilities for stories and more stories: who was that someone, what were his intentions, how exactly the deal was settled, and it goes on. The story would grow as one would start from where the other had left. When Guardiola said two clear penalties were not awarded in their favour in the first leg of the match at San Siro, but he would not make an issue of such things, he was closing the possibilities for stories. On the other hand, there is Mourinho, the quintessential conspiracy theorist of contemporary football, who creates such fertile conditions for story making. From this point of view, Guardiola’s approach is not interesting, Mourinho’s is. “Truth”, if it can really be known, closes the possibilities for stories; conspiracy approach opens up the possibilities. Stories are fascinating to listen to, and since intentions can never be known and are always attributed, we can say that we live by stories and beliefs rather than the truth.

Thus, of the numerous bad decisions, many have no doubt that Maradona’s hand goal against England in World Cup 1984, Henry’s hand goal against Algeria in the qualifiers on World Cup 2006, and Lampard’s disallowed goal in England’s match against Germany in 2010 World Cup, for instance, were all due to referee’s errors and not manipulations. It is difficult to find an example of a wrong decision by a referee which is unquestionably mischievous and partisan at the highest level of football. And for most of the rest, one could keep arguing: Chelsea’s goals against Wigan in the 2011-12 Premier League, both scored from offside positions, Manchester United’s penalty against QPR in the same tournament when Young, already in an offside position was brought down, the sending off of van Persie in the 2010 semi-final match of Arsenal against Barcelona, Ronaldinho’s dismissal in Brazil’s match against England in the 2002 World Cup, among others; a list, which in fact is long. Many great teams have benefited from bad decisions by referees, but this is not the subject of much talk. Quite naturally, one would like to keep quiet about the undue benefits one has received, and scream about one’s victimhood.

As the beneficiary of wrong referee decisions, Mourinho has singled out Barcelona. We do not have comparative data, but for the sake of argument, we accept his assertion. We also do not have the resources to study whether the kinds of conspiracies that the detractors hint at have substance (which teams Platini wanted to play in a Champions League final, which he did not make public, which referee met which manager during the half-time break, and what transpired between them, etc.). So we choose to explore a different approach to answer this question.

The late Brazilian legend, Socrates, is said to have told some reporters after one of Brazil’s matches in the group stage during the 1986 World Cup that referee decisions would always favour Brazil because World Cup is about money and (power) and Brazil brings people to the stands. He earned FIFA’s displeasure, and was asked not to speak to the press during the Finals again. But he had spoken enough. More recently, when asked why Guardiola did not rest Messi, he said something similar: people pay money to see him play and he too was always enthusiastic to step on the field. One can be sure the same could be said about other great players as well. Football is no more a recreation, and has become the spectator event par excellence, and a huge commercial enterprise, as Eduardo Galeano has observed, so the interest of stands (and now the television viewers) can simply not be ignored.

People enjoy watching the beautiful game played the beautiful way: open, attacking, attractive play, dazzling dribbling, and successful and creative passes, swift change of positions of players in aesthetic moves, imaginative control of the midfield, variation in attacks, beautiful field goals scored from difficult positions, among others. Quite a few teams traditionally play the game beautifully: at the international level, Brazil, Portugal, Holland, Spain and even Argentina, and at the club level, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United and Arsenal, to name a few. Winning is important, very important, but winning in style is far more so. Coming after twenty four years of their third, Brazil’s fourth World Cup, which they won on penalties, is not memorable; their fifth is, because it was won with style and authority. May be in some football cultures winning at the cost of grace and elegance is acceptable, but fortunately in many it still is not. All said, beauty triumphs in the end: after that match was over, the talk was about Maradona’s mesmerizing second goal against England, not the disgraceful first one - the one with which he, for all practical purposes, had already won the match!      

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