Wednesday, July 18, 2018

It’s Good News Week! (and blame the ref for the bad news)

Watching the news these days is usually a depressing experience, as Donald Trump continues to insult America’s friends and embrace its enemies, the UK continues to lurch like a lame lemming towards the fecal morass of Brexit, and human rights are increasingly under threat everywhere from Venezuela to Vladivostok – via Hong Kong.  However, the last week or two has been unusual in that there have actually been a few items of good news for a change.  For one, Liu Xia was finally released from house arrest in China and allowed to leave the country.

Meanwhile in Thailand the 12 young lads and their football coach trapped in a flooded cave complex were all safely rescued.  What made this case particularly heartwarming was that experts came from all over the world to contribute to the complex but finally successful operation to save the boys.  In a world full of division and strife, it is refreshing to see people cooperating across national borders to help others – that’s the way the world should work.

And until the semi-final, the unexpectedly successful run of England’s football team in the World Cup was – if you’re English – another cause for celebration.  Then they had the misfortune to come up against not just the mighty Croatian team but the Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir, who provided some of the worst refereeing I’ve ever witnessed in a major tournament.  In the early stages of the game, Croatian players went on an orgy of pushing, shoving, tripping, obstruction, elbowing and shirt-grabbing, much of it directed at England captain Harry Kane, and all of it ignored by the ref.  If he had stamped his authority on the game at this stage, who knows how much more Kane could have achieved with more room to move, rather than being hemmed in by a string of fouls?

When Cakir did eventually get around to booking a Croatian player, the commentator was convinced that he’d picked the wrong one (though the correct one picked up a yellow card later).  And if the ref’s objective was to keep the game flowing by ignoring minor transgressions, then why did he stop play for one foul on an England player when England still had possession and were charging forward, instead of applying the advantage rule?

But perhaps Cakir’s worst error was to give Croatia a goal kick when video coverage clearly showed that England should have been awarded a corner.  A quick look at the VAR would have made this obvious, yet Cakir was oblivious – as he generally was throughout the game – to all pleas, entreaties and complaints.  A truly shoddy performance which has rightly attracted heavy criticism (and accusations of bias) online.

None of which is to say that England would necessarily have won under a better official – it’s too easy to blame the referee for a loss.  England certainly made mistakes, and when not testing the limits of the rulebook the Croatian team – especially Luka Modric – played some magnificent football.  Yet England’s young team, under the superb management of Gareth Southgate, went far further in this tournament than anyone expected, playing intelligent football with passion, commitment to the very last minute of the game, and strong team spirit without a trace of a superstar ego.  They are still maturing, and I look forward to seeing them do better in future tournaments – under a different referee.

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