Friday, April 20, 2018


The World Cup starts in 55 days, assuming there are no delays for video review.

  • Welcome the video assistant referee.
  • Mexico is America’s team.
  • Messi makes the earth move under his feet.
  • Russia to host Fan Fest in Crimea.
  • World Cup ticket sales.
Howard Webb - World Cup referee.

Let’s go to the videotape.

Surely the referee suspected something was wrong.

Peter Shilton, the England keeper, immediately raised his right arm high toward the Mexican sun. Terry Fenwick beseeched the referee to blow his whistle while Glenn Hoddle violently slapped his own hand. Their England teammate Peter Reid, irate and practically foaming at the mouth, told the referee unequivocally: It was a fucking handball. (Watch the video.)

Still, referee Ali Bennaceur could not be persuaded. He said later he didn’t see Diego Maradona — or God for that matter —  punch the ball for Argentina’s first goal against England in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal.

Thirty-two years and countless injustices after the most infamous goal in soccer history, FIFA will use video replay at the World Cup.

Video assistant referees, or VAR, will sit in a control center in Moscow wearing the same Adidas track suits as the referees on the field. They’ll monitor every game using 35 cameras — two just to watch for offsides.

“It’s not like watching a match on the sofa sipping coffee,” said Pierluigi Collina, FIFA’s chief of referees. "They  sweat as much as someone on the field, because the tension is very high."

"They can't do two matches per day — it's too stressful," he added.

And more than a little confusing.

The VAR can alert the referee if he or she misses something in four game-changing situations: goals, penalties, red cards, and if the wrong player is issued a card.

The review is meant to be quick, relaying the reason for the decision to broadcasters so they can explain it to viewers, and to stadium crews who show replays on the big screens. (Stadium replays won’t run before a decision so the crowd can’t influence the referee.)

But VAR have come under fire this season in Italy and Germany for delays and botched calls, just like field referees.

During  the Mainz-Freiburg match in Germany on Monday, the referee awarded a penalty after the players had already gone to the locker room for halftime. Both teams were called back to the field because the VAR spotted a handball against Freiburg.

Usually, video review takes about as long as the average goal celebration. And it’s used only to correct an error, not settle a question of interpretation.  

“The aim is to avoid mistakes on the field, and make the correct call in clear and obvious situations,” said Howard Webb, a former World Cup referee and the general manager of the Professional Referee Organization in the U.S. and Canada.

The VAR is not there to overrule the referee, Webb said, or to use technology to re-referee the match.

Breaking: VAR takes back Maradona’s 1st goal against England for a handball not initially seen. Travel arrangements are being made for teams to return to Mexico for England to restart from their own box and play the last 39 minutes.

— Kyle Martino (@kylemartino) April 17, 2018

Bennaceur, the Tunisian referee in charge of the 1986 quarterfinal, has always maintained he didn’t see Maradona punch the ball, and said his assistant Bogdan Dotchev had a better view.

"If you watch the game, you can realize that one of the line judges was better placed than me,” a French magazine quoted Bennaceur as saying in 2015.

I watched that game, and I remember more vividly the replays of Maradona’s “hand of God” goal than I do the real-time play. The broadcast images, from multiple angles, carried a blinking yellow “R” in the top left corner of the grainy, standard-definition screen to indicate the play was not live. With each new camera angle, Maradona’s guilt and Bennaceur’s gaffe were clearer.

Soccer has changed: Players are faster, the technology is better and the stakes are higher. Referees say they appreciate the help from video assistants.

“The system gives you confidence going into big games,” said Webb, who refereed in the 2014 and 2010 World Cups. “You know it only comes in on the most important calls, so you don’t have to worry as much.”

“You’re not going to miss something that could be career defining,” he said.

Webb was in charge of the World Cup final eight years ago in South Africa. He said a video assistant would have saved him in that match.

“The decision on Nigel de Jong’s kick to the chest of Xabi Alonso of Spain in the final against the Netherlands lives with me forever,” he said. “It would have been rectified easily with video assistant referee had it been available then.”

Martin Hansson, a referee from Sweden, once admitted to me that he cried in the locker room after a World Cup playoff in 2009 when he realized he missed Thierry Henry’s handball that earned France a spot in the 2010 World Cup at Ireland’s expense. Had he been able to see the video at the time, the goal would have been called back.

Even Maradona now backs VAR. “I think VAR is something really good because it reflects what happens on the field,” he told Ominsport last month. It is not just about recognizing a goal or an offside."

When asked what would have happened if video review was available in 1986, Maradona scoffed: "Nothing. I would play against the VAR!"


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RUN OF PLAY | Great Reads and More

1. ‘We’re becoming mainstream.’

Last week, I wrote about the dilemma vexing some American fans who have no team to be passionate about in this tournament. The U.S. team’s archrival, Mexico, is making a bid to attract some of them.

“Fervent U.S. supporters would never root for Mexico, not after the fiery encounters between the teams since the 1990s,” wrote Steve Goff in The Washington Post. “But casual fans might swing to Mexico’s side — for a few weeks, anyway.”

The  Mexican federation is casting an even wider net to lure Americans feeling left out of the World Cup: It  launched Twitter and Facebook feeds in English.

“We are speaking English now — not because of us, but the people following us,” said Guillermo Cantu, the Mexican federation general secretary.

Read more from Goff in The Post.

2. I feel the earth move under my feet.

When Lionel Messi scores a goal, the earth shakes. Literally. It’s science.

Researchers installed a seismometer near Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium that records terrestrial vibrations. “There is a clear spike in the data as fans jump up and down,” the BBC reported — especially when Messi scores. Nerd out with the academic paper too.

“Soccer seismology” was even a topic of discussion at the recent meeting of the European Geosciences Union General Assembly in Vienna.

Listen to Jordi Díaz from the Institute of Earth Sciences Jaume Almera.

3. Welcome to Russia, sort of.

Russia’s deputy minister of sport has announced plans to host an official World Cup Fan Fest in Crimea— a move that seems either like a deliberate provocation or a calculated move to normalize the status of the disputed Black Sea peninsula that Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

“In order to open a fan zone and hold a fan festival, we need to sign an agreement with FIFA,” deputy minister Natalia Parshikova told the Russian news agency TASS. “The Crimean Football Union remains in close contact with the local organizing committee in discussing the issue. I think a Fan Fest square will be definitely opened there.”

Read more about Russia’s World Cup political propaganda from Quartz.

4. FIFA ticket sales by country

The last batch of World Cup tickets went on sale Wednesday. FIFA announced a day later that more than 160,000 of them had been snatched up, more than half by Russian fans.

About 1.7 million tickets have been sold since last fall, with almost 800,000 bought by Russians. Here’s a breakdown of the top 10 ticket-buying countries from abroad:

  • United States — 80,161
  • Brazil — 65,863
  • Colombia — 60,199
  • Germany — 55,136
  • Mexico — 51,736
  • Argentina — 44,882
  • Peru — 38,544
  • China — 36,841
  • Australia — 34,628
  • England — 30,711
Kicking + Screening
Check out the 10th anniversary of this soccer film festival in New York, May 22-25. It features, "joy, sadness, friendship, inclusion, tragedy, resurrection, politics, style, and more." More?  Really?

The great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning. It's nothing of the kind. The game is about glory. It's about doing things in style, with a flourish, about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom.

— Danny Blanchflower
Tottenham captain and Northern Ireland international turned journalist

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