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The 12 Days of Football: Four Calls Blown?

Tuesday 26th December 2017

On the fourth day of football, FIFA gave to me four calls blown/Three French clubs/Two title races/ and Antonio Conte and a back three.

Welcome to the fourth installment in It's Round and It's White’s 12 Days of Football, a series in which we look at current events and happenings in the beautiful game from the past calendar year. This time out, we indulge in a time-honoured tradition that rivals gift-giving and decorating the tree: second-guessing match officials.

Some believe we ought to enjoy the practice while we can. Video assisted review is just around the corner. One or two leagues have experimented with the process. Major League Soccer incorporated it into meaningful matches midway through its 2017 season. There was a hiccup or two early, but no major complaints.

On the other hand, there’s the NFL. Replay technology has been an integral part of the viewing experience in every American sport for several years. You would think the respective competitions would have the process down to a science. Yet, a week ago Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers looked to have scored a game-winning touchdown at the death against the New England Patriots. As they celebrated, announcers wondered why video review, which automatically looks at such plays, was taking so long for a clear catch. Then the referees overturned the call after interpreting the rules in a wholly unexpected fashion.

Subsequently, Pittsburgh could not get in the end zone. New England won. Conspiracy theorists came out of the woodwork faster than Alex Jones could say “Hillary Clinton.” If that particular call is any evidence, questioning referees and linesmen will be something our grandchildren will be deriving pleasure from long after you and I have passed.

With that happy thought in mind, here are four controversial calls that stood out in 2017.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s scorpion kick

Those among you with an excellent memory for dates will cry foul. This play occurred in 2016. In the spirit of controversial decisions, I am letting it stand, however, because this blown call took place exactly one year ago today, on Boxing Day.

The goal itself was fantastic. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s diagonal cross was behind the Armenian as he ran the channel between defenders. He had to slow up, then catch it with an overhead backheel as his momentum still carried him forward. The ball found the side-netting like a laser.

Only, Mkhitaryan was clearly offside. Both the linesman and referee missed it. To overturn such a brilliant strike, while the correct call, seems cruel. Especially considering the struggles the former Shakhtar and Dortmund man has endured since arriving at Old Trafford. The goal was perhaps his brightest moment in English football. Then, because the football gods are fickle, Olivier Giroud duplicated the effort not long after, save that the Frenchman was onside for his version.

Joseph Odartei Lamptey

We go from one end of the spectrum to the other. Mkhitaryan’s goal being allowed to stand was an unintentional error. They happen. Conversely, Ghanaian referee Joseph Odartei Lamptey was apparently cold and calculating in awarding a penalty for handball against Senegal’s Kalidou Koulibaly during a CAF World Cup qualifying match.

Video showed the ball clearly bounding off Koulibaly’s leg. South Africa dispatched the penalty to temporarily claim a 2-1 victory.

FIFA investigated, then banned Lamptey for life for “influencing a match outcome.” The referee had previously been banned six months for awarding a controversial goal in a CAF Champions League game.  

The world governing body also ordered the match replayed. The do-over, which the Lions of Teranga won 2-0, turned out to have no effect on the qualifying process. Senegal won Group D by five points over runner-up Burkina Faso. Had the original result stood, the team that stunned the world in 2002 would still be returning to the tournament.

Lamptey later apologised for the call, but insisted it was nothing more than human error. FIFA promised to release further information regarding the incident. It has yet to do so. Nor has the shamed official been criminally charged.

Greater errors have been made in matches with higher stakes. Frank Lampard’s disallowed World Cup goal v Germany is one. Everyone questioned Jorge Larrionda's competency, but there was no concern regarding his integrity. It sometimes appears there is a double standard. Referees from first world federations seem to receive greater benefit of doubt. In third world leagues, where money is scarce and the temptation far greater, FIFA's attitude comes across as far more cynical.

The game cannot be seen to tolerate match-fixing, On the other hand, treatment for the men entrusted to keep the playing field level must not itself be tilted in any direction.

Ronaldo does the double

Whether in Africa, Europe, or elsewhere, be it football or any other competition, all a referee has is his reputation. But nobody believes there is such an animal as a good referee. Unless, of course, you're a manager trying to avoid a touchline ban.

At best, a match official can only hope to be considered not quite as bad as the rest. Often, supporters and pundits will claim all they desire is an official who lets the players decide the match. Unfortunately, doing so can get you in more trouble than being whistle happy.

Hungarian referee Viktor Kassai knows this, none better. With a reputation for letting the niggly fouls go, allowing the game to flow naturally, and only booking players for dangerous fouls, Kassai took charge of the second leg of last season's Champions League quarterfinal between Bayern Munich and Real Madrid.

Madrid entered the contest with a 2-1 advantage, but Bayern forced added time. That is when everything unraveled.

Or perhaps it was shortly before that. Bayern midfielder Arturo Vidal was twice cautioned for fouls that by his rigorous standard, were soft. On this day, at least, they met Kassai's. The second came on 84 minutes. Vidal was sent off.

With extra space and Carlo Ancelotti’s tiring back line no longer protected by the mad Chilean, Madrid attacked. Cristiano Ronaldo scored twice. The match would ultimately end 6-3 to the Merengues on aggregate.

Problem was, Kassai’s linesman had failed to flag the four-time Ballon d’Or winner (as he was then) for offside. The Portuguese was clearly between the last defender and goalkeeper on both occasions. Bayern was flummoxed. Madrid would go on to successfully defend its Champions League crown.

Even though there was no video replay, and it was the linesman who had cocked up the match, Kassai took the abuse. Many partisan fans felt the entire episode was suspicious, and that UEFA may have even had a hand in ensuring Real Madrid progressed.

Such is the reputation the Spanish giants enjoy, perceived as having long since bought the footballing authorities at both the national and domestic levels.

What’s good for the Spanish goose is good for the Catalan gander

As with everything else, Real Madrid has one true rival when it comes to imagined preferential treatment. That would be Barcelona. And, as has been the case for much of the new millennium, the Blaugrana had already done Los Blancos one better in preposterous Champions League results for the year. Perhaps the most positive consequence of Barca’s 6-1 comeback against Paris Saint-Germain in the first knockout stage was that, in the next round, Viktor Kassai would at least feel happy he wasn't Denis Aytekin.

Barcelona supporters will forever welcome the German arbiter into their homes. PSG fans viewed his performance as tragic. The rest of the world saw it as high comedy.

The numbers say Aytekin called the match largely down the middle. Five cautions were distributed to each side. PSG were assessed more fouls, 25-15, although that was to be expected from a side that parked the bus to protect a 4-0 first leg advantage.

I say bus. In reality, Les Parisiennes’ defence was more like a streetcar, open on all sides for easy access.

Where Aytekin failed was in not recognising Luis Suarez’s blatant theatrics for what they were. The Uruguayan was, to paraphrase Jose Mourinho’s assessment of Manchester City players, continually knocked over by the slightest breeze.

Earlier, the Bundesliga official had let play on when Javier Mascherano clearly brought down Angel di Maria in the box, treating the blatant foul as a personal matter between countrymen. Then Suarez went down under minimal contact. Aytekin pointed to the spot. Neymar, in perhaps his final act of kindness to the Barcelona faithful, converted. It leveled a tie that never should have been so close. Sergi Roberto would then seal the deal in the 96th minute.

In the quarters, Juventus would jump out to a 3-0 lead in the first leg against Barca, repeating PSG's early dominance. The Old Lady wasn’t having any of the second leg nonsense from the previous round, however. Neither was Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers, who presided over a tidy goalless draw in the return affair.

In 2018, Real Madrid are struggling; Barcelona is rampart. The two could be on a collision course in both La Liga and the Champions League. Referees beware.

Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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