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.