The topic of World Cup officiating came up in the comments on my recent Gamasutra column. I offered some thoughts there, but given the fact that the quarter final matches will start up today, it seemed worth rescuing those thoughts from the noise of web page comments.

Specifically, I’ve been very interested in all the accusation of bad refereeing in this tournament. There have been a number of questionable calls, including Maurice Edu’s disallowed goal against Slovenia, Frank Lampard’s non-goal against Germany, and Carlos Tevez’s wrongly allowed offsides goal against Mexico.

You can search the web for pages and pages of ire about these calls. Much of the debate surrounds the use of video replays, which proponents argue would insure that officials don’t make errors and matches end as they were played on the field rather than how they were seen by the refs. FIFA has maintained a hard line on pitch technology, rejecting video and sensor apparatuses for fear that they will “take the human element” out of the game. And they’ve been widely mocked for doing so.

But I think FIFA is right. Or at the very least, I appreciate its perspective, because it invites me to understand soccer in a way that stretches my mind.

In sports, we often exalt fairness and truth. But in football as FIFA forces it upon us, whether or not a goal was really a goal, whether or not a player was offsides or on, these distinctions don’t matter at the transcendental level. It doesn’t matter if all 80,000 spectators saw Frank Lampard’s goal cross the line, no more than it matters if all of them could have played the ball better themselves. What matters is what the ref saw, and what he saw was adulterated by his perspective.

It’s wrong to understand FIFA’s position as one of luddite head-burying. The issue is not that World Cup football suffers from blown calls. The issue is that in World Cup football blown calls do not exist as a concept in the game. Short of financial collusion or threat, the refs’ perspective on the game is a part of the game, no different than the quality of a cross or the accuracy of a shot on goal. This is quite a different attitude than other sports take regarding officiating.

The idea that a sport could so willingly and systemically embrace perspective is beautiful to me. Not only because it highlights the changing specificity of moment-to-moment configurations of player, ball, and officials, but also because it underscores the role of unfairness and randomness in human experience. Perhaps this is one reason why Americans dislike soccer so much: we are obsessed with fairness and transcendental truth, while football shows us that the universe is cruel not (just) through God’s will, but because so many factors come into play all at once that it’s impossible to account for them all. Perhaps this explanation also meshes well with football’s popularity in the developing world. In some situations, you can do everything right, and you still can get screwed.

published July 2, 2010


  1. Bill

    America needs a bum as much as it needs a savior; it craves those two poles in sports. Americans love ultimates, hard lines, are suspicious of games that work in between those lines. A footy team can dominate, control the time of possession, unleash smart attacks, yet lose because of a fluke play and an otherworldly performance by the opposing goaltender. Sure, this can happen in America’s Big 3, but football seems to accept and even enjoy this phenomenon. It’s pliable to where even the time isn’t hard-fixed. All too often its players are shameless on the pitch – maybe the most damning for American culture.

    We can tolerate the occasional heel, even secretly enjoy their foibles, the Dennis Rodmans, the Pete Roses, the Bill Romanowskis, but these are usually of the cheating, bitching, drugging or drinking variety. Flopping and “panty-waist” melodrama is generally reviled. Even the home team’s fans, who usually defend the Vlade Divacs, admit amongst their own that they despise the weakness.

    Maybe we’re ready to accept football? I read somewhere that the men in American letters have turned away from its sexist, sexy age. Maybe the American public is following its literature; no longer are we the Hemmingway, Pynchon, Roth, Henry Miller or Bukowski types. We’re Dave Eggers, George Saunders, Dave Foster Wallace, Jonathan Lethem, Jonathan Ames, Dave Sedaris, and Gary Shtyengart. Can we accept the dainty, womanly football alongside our hulking, manly football? Maybe our society’s ready to publicly accept the Oriental into our Occidental?

  2. Francisco Souki

    “In some situations, you can do everything right, and you still can get screwed.”

    Ghana players will certainly agree with that. And the worst part is that in their case the game played out exactly as the rules say they should.

  3. Ian Bogost

    Right. I wrote this before the Ghana game, but I think these sentiments describe the outcome well. In that game, it wasn’t referee decisions but simply the nature of the field rules.

  4. C. Caleb Jewett

    I feel that the MLB’s approach to Armando Galarraga’s almost-perfect game was very similar to FIFA’s methodology. I think the appearance of American exceptionalism in this circumstance is mostly colored into the scene, bleeding out from much more substantial cases. Football fans (and video game fans) from around the world are capable of disagreements and diversity about how game rules should be constructed and implemented.

  5. anonymous

    It seems that “there are no blown calls in football” is roughly equivalent to their being no crime in the former Soviet Union (apart from sedition and the like). Though I get what you’re saying. As sports watchers we know that there are blown calls, because we see them. Our networks, such as they are, for enforcing our perspective on a blown call are somewhat weaker than that of the ref and FIFA.

    The refs’ position is much like Latour’s ‘matters of fact’, while the fans and commentators are interested in the blown call as ‘matters of concern’. So far FIFA has been able to resist the pressure to treat blown calls as anything other than fact, despite evidence to the contrary. Fans and commentators simply lack the ability to translate their determinations into an actual call. FIFA treats the ref’s calls as an object or a black box whereas the fans only see a concatenation of things.

    Every blown call in any sport turns every sports fan into a sociologist. We immediately reference our knowledge of the rule, examine the ref’s application or misapplication of the rule, check with our fellow sociologists for their interpretation (peer review), and watch replays so that we can precisely determine the ‘proper’ outcome, and some publish their findings on blogs. For many of us this is part and parcel of being a sports fan and I think sports would be much more drab if there were some way to engineer human fallibility out of the game.

  6. Julian Rojas Millan

    As a football fan I can understand your point of view, actually you have described better than anyone why football is a popular game in underdeveloped countries, and I have read a lot of essays and articles about it. But that’s the pickle, I’m from Venezuela, we have a political crysis here, and sports, specially football and baseball, are our scape valve, our oxygen mask, so why ruin our only exit to reality with blown calls?. I know how life is, I live it day to day, I dont want to be screwed in a game that serves me as an exit in the same way Im screwed in the real life. I just can’t handle that. Ironicly, it’s not fair.

    You can call it a dellusion, and i can´t be disagree with you, but that’s the truth, at least from here.