To err is human

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 June, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 June, 2002, 12:00am

As if it could anticipate the row over the standards of referees at soccer's premier event, the official magazine of Fifa - soccer's governing body and organiser of the World Cup - last month focused on 'The Team That Cannot Win.'

That team refers, of course, to the 36 referees and 36 assistants who have the onerous task of ensuring the rules of football are adhered to on the field by players who will do everything they can, including cheating, to win and bring glory to themselves and their nations.

The anticipation was spot on. Italy and Spain have both blamed the referees for their losses to South Korea, one of the co-hosts of the tournament and the first Asian team to make it to the semi-finals in the World Cup's 72-year history.

Fifa has received so much hate mail from enraged Italian and Spanish fans that the chairman of its referees' committee has reportedly admitted that 'there have been one or two major mistakes which are cause for concern'.

But then no one should be surprised that Fifa should have expected that referees would be in the limelight. As soccer fans know only too well, there has never been a World Cup in which no games have been tainted by 'bad refereeing.'

To err is human. That applies especially to the referee and assistants who have to blow the whistles and wave their flags at the sight of what they believe to be a foul immediately. A moment too slow with their reflexes, and the game will have continued, with unpredictable consequences.

Their decisions may not always be right. They cannot be. And with the advent of technology, which allows instantaneous replays of a foul from all angles, their judgment can be ruthlessly called into question by officials sitting on the sideline and the crowds watching on television.

But allowing television replays to help referees make difficult decisions, a practice already adopted in rugby and cricket, is not the answer. What is going to happen after the referee has stopped the game and the replay shows no foul has been committed? The game will have been ruined and the disadvantaged side will certainly complain.

Football is a passionate game. It may be difficult for people to admit that controversial decisions by referees are one of the reasons why football is so captivating. But that is the truth.

Fifa should try to raise the standards of referees and help them make sound judgments on the field. But it would be unrealistic to expect them to commit no errors of judgment.