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28 Jun 2010

Now that it’s over for us – You may have wondered where I went after the first group matches in the World Cup. Believe me, I was tempted to write something after the disappointing second matches, but I decided to remain quiet. Now that the World Cup is over for both of my teams, though, I suppose I should wrap things up before moving on.

“Is the authority of the referee more important than the integrity of the game?”

All in all, I’m happy with the way both of my teams played. There were certainly disappointments, but I think they did well. In the end, they failed to capitalize on chances while their opponents succeeded. It was the first round of 16 finish for Korea outside of Korea, though, so that’s an important milestone. As for the US, well, I was hoping they would go further, but it was not to be. Funnily enough, I found myself in the position of rooting for both of my teams in the round of 16 matches but knowing that if they both won they would face each other in the quarterfinals.

Sometimes people ask me who I root for when the US and Korea face each other. I don’t know if they’re serious—I suspect that they’re just trying to be funny by putting me in what they think is a difficult position. It doesn’t bother me, of course, but it does confuse me a bit. Why would I not support the US? Granted, if I’m watching the match with my wife, I don’t cheer too loudly, and neither does she, but I think it’s fairly clear where our loyalties lie. Unless it’s a critical match, I’m usually happy to see a draw, but if the two teams were ever to meet in the knockout stage, that wouldn’t be an option. I wasn’t really expecting both teams to go through to the quarterfinals this time around, but I have to admit I was a little disappointed that neither of my teams went through.

I know the World Cup isn’t over yet, but the chances of me watching any more matches live is pretty low; the early matches begin at 11:00 at night here, while the late matches begin at 3:30 in the morning. So while I am disappointed that both of my teams are out of the competition, I am grateful that I won’t have to wake up at 3:30 in the morning any more. Boy was that rough, and it pretty much wrecked the next day.

This past Sunday was one such day, especially since the US-Ghana match went into overtime and didn’t end until 6:00 in the morning. I debated simply staying up, but I was already feeling wiped out, and I knew I would be useless for the whole day, if I even managed to last the whole day without falling asleep. I had something important to do (the deadline for that was today—I’ve finished and submitted my work, which is why I am able to write this now), so I decided that it would be better to get some sleep, even if it meant waking up later. As a result, when eleven o’clock came around last night I was not tired, so I stayed up to watch the England-Germany match.

I was pulling for England—after their disappointing group play performance, I really wanted to see them shine—but it did not appear that things would be going their way. Germany took a 2-0 lead, and I considered going to bed after the first half. But after the second goal England went on the offensive, and with less than ten minutes to go in the half they scored. Only a minute later, Lampard lobbed a good shot toward goal that bounced off the crossbar and went in before bouncing back out again. Everyone was cheering, the announcers were shouting “Goal!” ...but then nothing happened. Having seen the US get robbed of two goals in two separate games, I tried to think of what could have possibly gone wrong. It couldn’t have been offside, and there was no penalty. It turned out that the assistant referee simply did not see the ball go in—despite the fact that everyone else saw it go well over the line with plenty of daylight in between.

And that was pretty much it. Frustrated, England came out strong in the second half, pressing hard to score the equalizer, but they squandered chances and were caught off guard twice when Germany went on the counteroffensive. The final score was 4-1, and England joined my two teams in getting their tickets home. Would England have won if that equalizer had been rightfully counted? It’s hard to say. Germany did play a solid game and might have scored again even if England hadn’t been desperate on offense. But who knows what might have happened had England equalized. They might have found the spark they needed to overcome a talented side. That’s not really the point, though. The point is that the referees should not have such tyrannical control over the outcome of the game when they can’t even do their jobs properly.

I have long thought that football should introduce instant replay, but have not voiced that opinion too often for fear of being chastised by “true” football fans. This is just ridiculous, though. Referees are always going to make mistakes, but I don’t know if I have ever seen a World Cup with so many blatant refereeing mistakes that had such an influence on the outcomes of matches. So I’m just going to come out and say what I’ve been thinking all along.

After a series of bad calls, the first thing to come to many people’s minds is the idea that the referees have been paid to rule against a team, but I would guess that this is extremely rare. A pet phrase of mine (I don’t know who said it first, and I’m sure I’m paraphrasing here) is “Never attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence.” While it is certainly true that people often act with ill intentions, the truth of the matter is that people are far more likely to be stupid than they are to be evil. I doubt that any of the blown calls made during this World Cup so far were made with ill intention. In every single case, the referee simply did not see the play correctly. It’s as simple as that, and as frustrating as that. We would rather think that someone was being evil on purpose than think that someone was being stupid by accident. If you fall prey to an evil plot, at least you can take comfort in being a victim and direct your rage at your aggressor. But it becomes a lot harder to accept the situation if we are victimized by someone’s stupidity—our “aggressor” is not evil, they are just human, and could be someone like us. In fact, they often are us, because we are just as likely to harm someone else without own stupidity.

My intention here is not to examine the psychology at work. All I’m trying to say is that I don’t think the referees are acting with ill intent. But the fact remains that the system is not working as it is. We have the technology to set things right—television broadcasts show replays moments after a play is finished, and they even color in parts of the field to make offside calls clearer—so why not use that technology to rectify the problem?

There are a couple of arguments that could be made against instant replays. The first is that they would disrupt the flow of play. My response to that is that the flow of play is already disrupted quite a bit anyway. The fact that the clock continues to run may give the illusion that halves are continuous sequences of events with no disruptions, but that really is nothing more than an illusion. Play stops whenever the ball goes out of bounds, when there is a foul, or when a player is injured. That the clock continues to run does not change this.

(In fact, I have also long thought that football should introduce clock stoppages and accurate accounting of time. It is absurd that lying down on the field and rolling around with a grimace on one’s face should be a viable end-game strategy, but it is. That is, of course, only the most obvious way that players waste time in a game, and referees will usually account for this in “added time,” but it’s still a problem in general. However, there are a lot of factors to consider in this regard, and it doesn’t really have anything to do with the idea of instant replays, so I won’t go into it here.)

Considering this, I don’t think introducing instant replays would have much of an effect on the current flow of play. It would be fairly simple to work it into added time—just keep track of how much time is spent on instant replays and add that to the extra time. A limit could also be placed on how much time the referee can spend viewing the instant replays. In truth, most of the blown calls so far in this World Cup have been painfully obvious to people watching at home (in fact, to everyone except the referees, apparently), and it probably wouldn’t take even thirty seconds to rectify the problem. Considering how much time is wasted on other things during a match, the impact would be minimal—most of the time it would probably be on par with a player substitution.

The other argument that could be made is that instant replays would undermine the referee’s authority, and I suspect that this is the real reason why we won’t be seeing this innovation any time soon. Referees rule over the sport of football with an iron fist. They may have to account for their actions after a match, and disciplinary action is usually taken in severe cases, but what good does that do the players who were treated unjustly during the match? What comfort is it to a US that should have secured a win over Slovenia rather than settling for a draw? What comfort is it to an England that should have equalized against Germany and possibly turned the match around?

It is painfully obvious that there is sometimes just too much going on for the referees to keep track of everything. They are human, and thus they sometimes make mistakes, but why should we have to accept those mistakes as part of the game? The only reason I can see is that the referees are unwilling to relinquish the grip they have on the sport, unwilling to see their authority challenged and possibly lessened. On some level I can understand this. If a referee does not have sufficient authority, he cannot do his job properly on the pitch. I don’t think that players should argue with the referee, and I think players who are booked for arguing too forcefully and too long deserve to be booked.

But is the authority of the referee more important than the integrity of the game? This is not an all-or-nothing issue—we can maintain the authority of the referee but still allow them opportunities to rectify mistakes while it still matters. My proposal for the introduction of instant replays would be this: each team will have one challenge per game, and that challenge can only be made by a member of the coaching staff. If a challenge is successful (that is, if the referee overturns the original call or non-call), the team retains their challenge, but once they make an unsuccessful challenge they can make no more. This may seem a little strict, but the truth is that most blown calls are obvious in instant replays, and coaches and their staff would be unlikely to challenge something unless it was really obvious. Having this “one strike and you’re out” (if I may be permitted to mix my sports metaphors) restriction would prevent abuse of the challenge system or attempts to undermine the referees.

Once the challenge is made, the head referee would go to the instant replay machine on the sidelines and review the relevant footage. Sixty seconds should be more than enough time to make a decision in most cases, so if sixty seconds passes and no decision can be reached, the call stands. There should be irrefutable evidence that the original call was wrong—if there is any ambiguity, the call stands. Obviously I’m drawing a lot of this from American football, and there are certainly some differences that would have to be accounted for. For one, football does not generally consist of discrete plays, so that discrepancy would have to be worked out. How long would the coaching staff have to make the challenge? A simple time limit could be imposed—say, replays would only be available for thirty seconds prior to the challenge. There is also the difference in the ways in which play is stopped. In American football, a play can be whistled dead on an incomplete pass or for a penalty, which would prevent anything that happened after the whistle from being reviewed. A similar system could be implemented in football (that is, soccer—this is getting confusing). I have to admit that I’m a little torn on this at the moment, mainly because the US goal against Slovenia was disallowed because the referee had already blown the whistle for a foul, so that play would not have been reviewable under such a system. There’s also the fact that a lot of bad calls are offside rulings. So implementing instant replay would require a rethinking of the way offside rulings are handled (e.g., no whistle and ruling until the current attack reaches its conclusion).

So I’m not saying that it would be a simple implementation, or that there wouldn’t be issues that required careful thought and planning, but if it improves the game, isn’t it worth a shot? And it’s not as if the rules of football never change. Until relatively recently, if any attacking player was offside, the play would be whistled dead even if the offside player never touched the ball or took part in the play at all. Now, though, plays are only whistled offside if the offside players are involved in the play. Granted, introducing instant replay would be a much greater change, but it is not outside the realm of possibility.

And that’s all I have to say on football and the World Cup. I will be keeping track of what happens, but like I said above, I probably won’t be watching too many of the remaining matches live. My last three postings here (including this one) have been about the World Cup, so I think it’s about time to be moving on. In that spirit, I’d like to change the subject very briefly and end on a very different note. This past Friday was the sixtieth anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War, and the magazine Koreana ran a series of special features on various aspects of the war—I know this because I had to translate all of them. If you’re interested in reading them, you can check them out on the Koreana website (click on the orange “See full text” button near the top to see a plain list of all the articles). I also wrote this issue’s “Living” column, which is about the Seoul city wall. That should keep you busy until my next entry, which I promise will not be about football.

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