Peter Goldstein is a professor at Juniata College in Pennsylvania in the USA. He has been
World Cup crazy since 1966. He will share his views about the past, present and future of
Read earlier columns
Giving the Devils their due
Like everyone else, I've been dismayed by the refereeing errors at the 2002
World Cup. I don't know if there are more this year than before, although
they certainly seem to have had a more dramatic effect. But before we get to
the matter of South Korea and the "conspiracy" (very nicely punctured by
Matthew Monk in his recent column on the site), we should look at the way
the other teams in the competition have been helped by refereeing errors.
The fact is, in 2002, there just isn't much difference between the top-tier
teams and the second-tier, and every team is going to need some luck to
advance. Every single one of the eight teams in the quarterfinals received
significant help from the referees. Let's start with the quarterfinal losers
first. In its initial game against Slovenia, Spain received a very dubious
penalty call whereas Slovenia was denied what looked like a clear penalty.
Against Uruguay, Senegal received a penalty on a dive and also had an
offside goal allowed to stand. The USA caught a huge break when the referee
missed a clear handball in the penalty area in the game against Mexico. And
England received a penalty against Argentina on a play in which there
appeared to be minimal contact.
As for the winners, Brazil received a penalty against Turkey for a foul
committed outside the area. Turkey got a break when Costa Rica was whistled
wrongly for offside no less than three times in the second half, two of
which would have led to clear goal opportunities. And Germany got away with
a handball on the line against the USA, and although I thought the call was
the correct one, the Germans themselves thought the penalty should have been
Then, of course, there's South Korea. The home advantage at the World Cup
has a long and not particularly honorable history. There are many instances
to choose from. In 1970, Mexico received an outrageous penalty call against
Belgium for the only goal of the game. In 1978, when Argentina played
France, the Argentines got a penalty for an obviously accidental handball,
while the French were denied a clear penalty of their own. It's ironic that
Spain should be one of those who felt aggrieved by home decisions in this
cup, for in 1982 they were the recipients of a series of outrageous calls
obviously designed to get them into the second round. (A FIFA official
admitted that the success of the tournament depended on Spain's
advancement.) Against Yugoslavia they received a penalty for a foul clearly
committed outside the area; when the shooter missed, the referee ruled the
keeper had moved and allowed them to take it again. (The keeper had moved a
little, but how often do you see it called?) Against Northern Ireland, in
the final group game, an Irish player was red-carded for a relatively minor
foul. After Spain was eliminated by South Korea, I checked a
Yugoslav/Serbian online newspaper to see if they would mention the 1982
game. They sure did.
Italy, the other country that feels hard done by against South Korea, also
was the beneficiary in 1990, if not quite as shamefully as Spain in 1982. In
the final group stage game against Czechoslovakia, the Czechs scored an
obviously legal equalizing goal, which was disallowed for a phantom offside.
The ensuing victory gave Italy first place in the group, and an easier path
in the knockout rounds.
When refereeing errors take place, it is no surprise that they favor the
home team. Leaving aside the occasional obvious cases, such as Spain 1982,
officials, because they are human, are subconsciously influenced by the home
crowds and home setting. Ideally they'd get the calls right no matter where
the game is played, but when you go in to play a home team in football, you
know you have to be extra sharp to win.
That's why I have absolutely no sympathy for Italy. No one told them to sit
on a one-goal lead for most of the game; no one made Christian Panucci flub
a relatively easy play with only a few minutes to go to allow the equalizer;
no one forced Christian Vieri to miss the sitter of the tournament with
seconds to go before extra time. All that took place before any of the
officiating errors came into play. Plus, Italy gave up the winning goal from
open play: Ahn beat Paolo Maldini to the ball and headed it home in fine
style. The Italians are screaming about corruption, but that's only because
their domestic football has been hopelessly corrupt for years. They expect
that sort of thing to happen because they so readily do it themselves.
Spain is another matter. To start with, they were unlucky not to have Raul
in the game; I think with him there they would have won relatively easily.
Even without him, they attacked as much as possible, and kept South Korea
away from their goal for 120 minutes, scoring a couple of apparently
legitimate goals themselves. I think the tournament is poorer for their
exit, and they have a right to feel aggrieved. But in Serbia they still
remember 1982, and what goes around, comes around.
Another reason the referee errors have been unfortunate is that they've
tarnished South Korea's achievement at this cup. In about 18 months Guus
Hiddink turned them from perennial losers into a team capable of staying on
the field with anyone in the world. Anyone who saw them lose to Holland 5-0
in 1998 knows exactly how far they've come. They were certainly worth a
quarterfinal place, if not quite a semifinal. After their brilliant group
stage against relatively ordinary opposition (I include a disappointing
Portugal in that category), strong teams like Italy and Spain revealed their
weaknesses. For one thing, they don't have a consistently good
possession/passing man in the middle of the pitch. Yoo Sang-chul is their
best there, but he wasn't as effective against Italy and Spain as he had
been in the group stage. When he came out early against Spain, Lee Young-pyo
was shifted from the wing into the middle, and contributed little. They also
lack overall depth; Hiddink has been going with almost the same starting 11
every time out, and they're starting to tire.
But if we forget the refereeing errors for the minute, it's hard not to be
thrilled by what South Korea has brought to this World Cup. Before 2002,
football was a poor second to baseball in Korea. Now the stadiums are filled
with crazy, yet orderly fans; the country as a whole seems to be one
beautiful red devil wave; football is now the supreme passion, and, because
it is so new, somehow more innocent than it might be in Europe or South
America. And if for nothing else, Korea's joy has been worth it for the shot
of Ahn after the winning goal against Italy: lying alone face up by the
corner flag, with about six thousand photographers snapping his picture, his
face an inseparable mixture of bliss, incredulity, and utter exhaustion. It
was easily the most memorable moment of the tournament so far, and we should
be grateful for it.
By the time you read this, we'll probably know the result of Germany-South
Korea. For the good of the game, as they say, I hope the game will be fairly
and correctly officiated, and I hope the more deserving team wins. If it's
Germany, as expected, the series of calls that propelled South Korea to the
semifinals may be allowed to fade into the background, unless we live in
Italy or Spain. But if South Korea wins, and wins legitimately, let us give
them our support. The players are doing what all players do, giving of their
very best, and they have shined and entertained from their first moment on
the pitch. Football is the better for them.
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