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The whistle blowers

It’s open season on Egyptian football referees. Hardly a game goes by without hyper-tense players surrounding a referee to argue whether the ball went in, a penalty should be awarded or if a player deserves to be red carded. Coaches, supporters and the press are becoming as aggressive as the players as they bash the …


It’s open season on Egyptian football referees. Hardly a game goes by without hyper-tense players surrounding a referee to argue whether the ball went in, a penalty should be awarded or if a player deserves to be red carded. Coaches, supporters and the press are becoming as aggressive as the players as they bash the officiating as incompetent, incapable and inept.

Egyptian referees do make mistakes, and plenty of them. It is nigh on impossible for referees, Egyptian or otherwise, to make correct decisions all the time. Players make mistakes, coaches make mistakes and, yes, referees make mistakes.

Egyptian referees who do wrong have company. There have been historical boo-boos that have cost teams not just games but entire, major championships. In the 1966 World Cup final, in the 11th minute of extra time and the game tied 2-2, Geoffrey Hurst scored the most controversial goal in history; one that many argue gave England its one and only World Cup.

Hurst’s sharply rising shot hit the underside of the crossbar: but did the ball cross the line? Despite endless analysis of film footage, the question has never really been resolved. What mattered was that Swiss referee Gottfried Dienst awarded the goal after consulting his Russian assistant Tofik Bakhramov. England went on to win 4-2. To this day, 40 years later, the Germans insist Dienst needed glasses.

Tunisian referee Ali Bennaceur was involved in the world-famous Hand of God goal scored by Argentina s Diego Maradona in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal against England in Mexico City. Maradona turned the match early in the second half with two goals, one blatantly illegal, the other pure class. Our focus is on the former. England could not believe it when Maradona nipped in front of Peter Shilton and swept the ball into the net with his hand. Only on television replays did it become clear that Maradona had cheated, using his fist to punch the ball in. Bennaceur or his linesman should have spotted it but the offence went unpunished.

Another Tunisian referee, Murad Daami, was involved in another famous cock-up. In the 2000 African Nations Cup final in Lagos, after the game had ended 2-2 and had gone to penalties, Nigerian Victor Ikeba hit the underside of the crossbar. The ball crossed the line before bouncing out. Unbelievably, Daami called it out and Cameroon went on to win 4-3. (Daami, by the way, also refereed the final of February’s African Cup in Egypt during which he made two controversial calls, one for the home side and one against).

The 2002 World Cup was notorious for its poor officiating. There were 36 referees in that tournament but most were amateurs. Only two listed their profession as having anything to do with football.

Are refs getting worse? Probably not; it is unfair to overlook the fact that a referee sees an incident in an instant and has to take a split-second decision while fans see it replayed several times from several angles on television. So as television coverage gets better and better, refereeing mistakes are just more clearly visible.

So why not use TV replays? Despite the howls of protest, FIFA is not considering following rugby and cricket which allow a fourth official off the field to use TV replays to help referees make rulings on difficult decisions. FIFA wants to keep the human element in the game. The FIFA argument seems to be that we do not live in a perfect world so football should reflect that.

And anyway, video evidence is not infallible. Television pundits are forever disagreeing on what they are watching because the camera angles are not always clear.

There is a possibility of using a smart ball, one with a computer chip implanted in it, which will alert one and all if the ball has crossed the goal line. But such technology might not be ready in time for this summer’s World Cup.

It is all very well to call for technology if you are in Europe, but can poor countries afford it? Not all can, and we will end up with a major inconsistency in the game. For example, French footballers will have the benefit of such technology, while those in Togo will not.

So the problems and the controversy, the howlers and the bumbling, will continue, and will probably worsen over here, owing to the close race at the top and bottom of the Egyptian league table. With seven games remaining, Ahli are leading, just two points ahead of Zamalek. Only six points separates the bottom seven teams, the last three to be relegated at season’s end. Thus, nobody wants or is willing to lose, certainly not by a wrong whistle.

While team passion is understandable, blaming every loss on the referee is a cop-out. Can’t a team lose and for once not put it down to a mistake from an official? Why can’t coaches and fans admit that when they lose they do so to a better team? Are the stakes too high and the rewards too great to be gracious in defeat anymore?

It is a shame that the culture in football deems it necessary to blame defeat on everything else: referees, the pitch, the weather, the food, the stock market, your mother-in-law, everything except yourself.

Referees constantly complain, and they have good reason, that they are scapegoats that people always remember their wrong decisions, never the right ones and argue that errors can never entirely be discounted.

Referees have one timeless refrain: they are only human and as such should not be considered fair game. I can’t argue with that, though some of them do appear more human than others.

Topics: Visa

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