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How to save soccer? Get rid of the ref!


The European club soccer season finished today when Barcelona beat Arsenal 2 – 1 in the Champions League final. The best team in Europe this year and some might say last too, won so justice was done. And now we’re looking forward to the World Cup this summer, which will be a major cause of lost productivity all over the world. But although things are much better than the dark days of the 1980s something is a little sick in the state of football.

It’s not the game itself—the skill of the players on display in the major European leagues and the excitement of the games far out-classes my days of standing on the terraces at Stamford Bridge freezing my arse off in the mid-1980s.

The big problem is with the refereeing. For today’s final the neutrals among us were vexed by an appalling referring performance—the Norwegian ref sent off the Arsenal goal keeper for tripping Samuel Eto, the Barca forward, when he was through on goal. The ball ended up in the net, but the ref didn’t play the advantage rule that soccer stole from American football (the equivalent of throwing a flag, while letting play continue). The ref also managed to bizarrely book Arsenal’s star player Thierry Henry for a perfectly fair challenge while ignoring the Barca defenders kicking lumps out of him, Lundberg, Hleb and the rest of his team. Eventually, after Henry missed two chances he normally buries, Barca’s pressure on the ten men told, and they scored twice with veteran Swedish striker Henrik Henrik Larson coming on and out-shining the bigger names (Eto’o, Ronaldhino and Henry) by making two goals. Arsenal said the first was off-side. So this is like having at least one and maybe three or four officiating errors wreck the Superbowl.

I think technology will eventually help solve the refereeing problem. Sensors on the ball and the clothing will determine positioning for off-side decisions, and video review will be introduced for red and yellow cards. That will take refereeing to a more technologically-based and collaborative process. And the flow wont be stopped more than when the game is already delayed for injuries. American Football and Cricket have already adopted these types of review for crucial decisions—the players play on and play hard, knowing that the right decision will be made for the close calls. But games that swing on refereeing decisions, such as Barca’s last two victories over Chelsea (in this year and last year’s Euro Champions league) both due to ridiculous sendings-off of Chelsea players, will eventually become a thing of the past. (For the record Chelsea turned it around and won the first year, but deservedly got knocked out by Barca this year)

But there may be a bigger problem with refereeing to solve. As I write the entire Italian league, one of Europe’s “big three” (England and Spain are the other two) is going into meltdown. Even the LA Times has noticed in a piece it rightly calls Italy’s Obsession Is Dealt a Swift Kick .

The case started with allegations that Juventus, the Yankees of Italian Soccer, the most successful team which is owned by the Agnelli family of Fiat fame, was doping its players with steroids in the mid-1990s. The International authorities upped testing, and the fuss died down—mostly because being more physically powerful in soccer isn’t too much of an advantage (unlike say in baseball!). But as a consequence of looking into that, the authorities in Italy, who love wiretaps and have no 4th amendment, found out some much more juicy stuff. The General Manager of Juventus was trying to pick referees.

In one conversation, …. Moggi asks a top soccer federation official to assign sympathetic referees to Juventus matches. In another intercept, Moggi brags about trapping a referee and two linesmen in a locker room after Juventus lost to Reggina in a 2004 match. The referee had awarded a penalty against Juventus. On Monday, police spent six hours interrogating Moggi, who was forced to resign the day before. The possible charges against him and Juventus former managing director Antonio Giraudo include attempting to fix games, kidnapping, embezzlement and false accounting, authorities say. Moggi has also been accused of pressuring the national coach, Marcello Lippi, to use players represented by Moggi’s son Alessandro, whose agency handles most of Italy’s Serie A players, the Italian press has reported.

And it’s not just Juventus. Apparently at least four other clubs were at it too. And when Juve won the league the last two years, the team that came second was AC Milan. Milan is owned by Silvinio Berlusconi, who in his less important role is the owner of the biggest media conglomerate in the country, and just got booted out from being Prime Minister. Berlusconi wants the last two years’ results overturned, even though Milan is one of the four, and of course it has huge influence in Italian soccer too.

Meanwhile, this is not the first time Juve’s been involved. Back in 1973 it’s well known that they bribed the referee in their European Cup semi-final against Derby (known as the Lobo-Solti affair), and allegations of match-fixing, mostly involving referees, are common in many countries, especially Italy. The Brits of course don’t stand for any of that, though there was an odd incident when two goal keepers (Bruce Grobelaar was the famous one) were put on trial in the 1990s for throwing games at the behest of a Malaysian gambling syndicate. And bizarrely the world’s best goalie, GianLugi Buffon of Juventus has been found in the same wiretaps to be gambling huge sums on the game—like Pete Rose he claims it’s not games he was in. And he’s by no means the only famous player with a gambling problem.

Gambling of course is the other risk to the game. Another Malaysian syndicate got caught causing floodlight failure at another couple of English games (essentially stopping a game that was going on long enough to allow bets to be paid out when the result was advantageous and their team was playing badly). Germany just got through a major scandal when a referee was accused of fixing lots of games, and he just received a two year sentence. He was being paid off by bettors who backed the weaker team, which in one game won after he disallowed the stronger team’s goals and sent off one of their players.

Soccer is one of the few sports where one man has so much influence. The vast majority of referees are really good, but their job is impossible—off-sides are crucial and rely on being able to look at two separate incidents simultaneously. Meanwhile the money at stake from both gambling and clubs qualifying for European play and avoiding relegation (not to mention the political pressure in Italian football) is so great that it’s a surprise that more referees haven’t been corrupted.

The answer is a refereeing crew backed by technology. American Football, Baseball and Aussie Rules seem to have huge crowds of officials, and they seem to get the decisions right. And if they get them wrong, well it’s far less likely that a whole crew can fix a game without at least one having a guilty conscience, so at least it’s good old incompetence.

Once we sort that out and England win the World Cup, then we can get back to the real underlying problems of the game—which are of course mostly billionaire Russians using their money to buy all the best players and guarantee their clubs Premier League Championships! Of course, some of us Chelsea fans aren’t so sure that’s really a problem.

Share  Posted by Matt Holt at 6:17 PM | Permalink

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