While the media (including even perhaps this website) will certainly offer its breakdowns and suggestions of what went wrong with the USMNT’s World Cup qualifying cycle, and how to fix U.S. Soccer, folks know that when I write for this site, it’s on referee issues. And on Tuesday night one of the most egregious refereeing decisions you could ever witness helped eliminate the U.S. from 2018 World Cup contention:
Now, this is not some sort of apology or opt-out for the failures of U.S. Soccer, its administrators, the team’s coaches, or the players. I’ll leave the bickering over how “if you can’t get a damn draw against freaking Trinidad and Tobago, then you don’t deserve to go to the World Cup” for others, and I’m certainly not going to argue with that stance.
However, consider what that video shows. If Panama isn’t awarded that goal, it finishes 1-1 with Costa Rica. Panama finishes the Hex with 11 points, one less than the U.S., and the U.S. is in a playoff with Australia for one of the last two spots in the World Cup.
I’m not sure Mexico was throwing a major conniption fit about expectations when Graham Zusi bailed them out four years ago. Relieved to make the playoff thanks to Zusi’s late goal in Panama, they routed New Zealand and went to Brazil. It didn’t seem like they were so upset about their team’s frailties to lie down and concede a spot in the World Cup.
But seriously, let’s forget about the futures and dreams of the nations involved in these results. Let’s just look at that call.
That ball never crossed the goal line. Never really came close. The announcers were laughing at the decision by the referee crew. That decision turned the fates of no less than four soccer federations: Panama, Honduras, the United States, and Australia. That decision sent shock waves through the soccer world. And the worst part about it is that it wasn’t a judgment call. They either saw the ball in the goal or they didn’t, that’s a black-and-white decision. The ball was never in the goal, so it was impossible for any of them to say that they saw the ball in the goal.
Soccer’s history is dotted with dodgy referee decisions. Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal against England at the Azteca in 1986 was a clear case of a missed call. Geoff Hurst’s bar-down match winner in the 1966 World Cup Final remains a point of contention to this day. Frank Lampard had a goal for England overturned against Germany in 2010 that would have tied the match at 2-2. Germany went on to win 4-1.
I use these three examples deliberately, because in evaluating the decision-making process of the referee crews in these incidents, we can clarify the scientific aspects of officiating and begin to understand what might be right and what is clearly wrong.
Take Maradona’s goal in 1986:
Every replay pretty clearly shows Maradona punching the ball past English goalkeeper Peter Shilton. The referee and his assistants simply missed it. They didn’t see it. At live speed (and on scratchy standard definition 1986-era TV footage), it looks fishy, but as a referee, you can’t call something you don’t definitively see. Referee Ali bin Nasser did not see it. He allowed the goal.
Now consider Hurst’s goal from the 1966 World Cup:
The Azerbaijani assistant, Tofiq Bahramov, gave this goal, but you can see his head at the bottom of the screen and he clearly is not on the goal line. The laws of optics clearly show that you cannot judge a ball to be completely over a line unless you are looking directly down the line. Therefore, Bahramov guessed. He can say he was as certain as he wanted to be, but he guessed. And to this day, while scientific studies of the video footage have suggested the ball did not cross the line, there is no camera angle that utilizes true optics to definitively say one way or another.
In comparison, you have Lampard’s 2010 goal in the Round of 16, the goal that birthed goal-line technology:
On this goal we have a clear angle showing the ball did in fact cross the goal line. But the assistant, Mauricio Espinosa, was at a full sprint from the 18 when the shot was hit and had no chance to get to the goal line to make an accurate decision. He kept his flag down because he couldn’t say with certainty that the ball crossed the line.
These three examples actually consider what I would call “honorable” officiating. Referees can only call what they see. If they don’t see something, they shouldn’t call it. That doesn’t mean what they didn’t see didn’t happen. Maradona played the ball with his hand. Lampard’s shot crossed the line. Bin Nasser gave Maradona’s goal because he didn’t see the infraction. Espinosa refused to award a goal that he could not be sure crossed the line. You can perhaps argue about the officials’ technique or positioning, but ultimately decisions should be made on what was observed. Otherwise, you’re just making things up. Doing so destroys an official’s integrity and credibility.
Two of these officials made an honorable decision that upheld the integrity of the profession. One, well, didn’t. Even if Hurst’s shot did cross the line, Bahramov couldn’t be sure the ball was in. To this day, there’s nothing conclusive to say Bahramov was right or wrong.
Which brings us full circle to Panama. The crew in that game was Guatemalan: referee Walter López, and the assistant on that side was Gerson López. They gave a goal on a play that changed the tide of qualification for no fewer than four nations. And that ball never entered the goal. It’s not debatable; the ball never crossed the line. They guessed.
That is dishonorable officiating. You cannot make a match-critical, a competition-critical decision based on a hunch or guess. You can fault yourself for not getting close enough to the play, or being in the right position, or point out that the mass of bodies would shield the assistant from seeing the play cleanly, or that CONCACAF is too bloody cheap to insist on goal line technology for its qualifiers. All of those might be valid arguments here. But if the ball doesn’t cross the line and the referee says it did, that is an insult to the honor and honesty of the profession.
This is the worst type of mistake a referee can make on the field. Not calling something you didn’t see is an error, but it’s an honest one. Calling something you didn’t see is manufacturing results.
This isn’t just a failure of the professionalism of the crew. It’s a failure of their training. For that, you have to go all the way up to the CONCACAF director of officiating: Brian Hall, a retired American referee who worked the 2002 World Cup. He trained these officials, he selected them. He failed, because this decision was incorrigibly, earth-shatteringly wrong.
For all of the dominoes that fell on Tuesday night, this is the one I truly cannot understand. It doesn’t take fitness, tactical team selection, surviving a bumpy pitch, grit, or desire to make a decision based on information presented to you. You are given a picture. A professional referee should make a decision based on the information provided in that picture. If the ball didn’t go over the line, there is no possible piece of information in this picture that should have led Lopez’s crew to decide a goal had been scored. And yet, inexplicably, that’s what they decided. It defies logic. It is a complete and utter failure of both the crew, those who trained them, and those who assigned them. Everyone is accountable.
A lot of people in U.S. Soccer will lose their jobs over the team’s failure to qualify for Russia. A few people with CONCACAF should lose their jobs over how this critical moment was so irresponsibly blown. The future of the sport in four different countries turned on the systemic failure of this decision. That is going to get overlooked in mess of disastrous decisions and effort that led to the USMNT loss on Tuesday. It shouldn’t, because this one is so easily prevented.
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