Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Euro 2012: Officials in Spotlight as England Progress

by George Kimber-Sweatman

Rooney scores
(NY Times)
On a night which most supporters began worried that the team would not progress from the group stages of the competition at all, England’s players ensured that not only did they qualify, but progressed as Group D winners with a little help from Sweden, who unexpectedly defeated France to hand England top spot – meaning that reigning World- and European-champions Spain were avoided in the quarter-finals. However, unfortunately, the team of Hungarian match officials lead by Viktor Kassai were in the spotlight come the final whistle, as a goal line controversy brought the issue of goal line technology back to the fore.
Ukraine started well, dominating the first half without really creating any clear-cut chances as England’s well-organised defence restricted them to long-range efforts which either flew off target, or were comfortably saved by Joe Hart. Despite the Ukrainian dominance, it was England who created the best chance of the opening period, as the returning Wayne Rooney just failed to time his jump well enough to nod home Ashley Young’s dangerously inswinging left-wing cross. England were no doubt happy to hear the half time whistle whilst still on level terms after a half which offered little to get the pulse racing for the watching millions.
The second half was bound to be a bit more exciting, though, as the group stages of the competition came to a climax with England, France and Ukraine all still in with a chance of grabbing the two remaining quarter-final berths. It certainly started well enough, especially from an English point of view, as the Three Lions took the lead within 5 minutes of the restart. Steven Gerrard sent in another fantastic right wing cross (as he has done to assist a goal in every England game so far at the tournament), doing well to work the space for himself, and, after three deflections off Ukrainian players, Wayne Rooney was on hand at the back post to head home the opening goal from just a couple of yards out and, in the process, notch his first goal at a major tournament since 2004.
Only a few minutes later, it could have been two, as Rooney was released by Gerrard during an England breakaway, only for Andriy Yarmolenko to race back and save the day for the co-hosts, whose 51,504-strong home crowd was beginning to quieten. But the game was far from over as, on 61 minutes, Artem Milevskiy missed a golden chance to equalise from a Yarmolenko cross – heading over from little over 6 yards out. However, it would have been an injustice had he found the target because he should have been ruled clearly offside by the assistant referee.
The moment of huge controversy came during an exciting and eventful minute just afterwards. Ukraine launched an attack with a long ball from left-back Yaroslav Rakitskiy, which ended with a Marko Devic shot partially blocked by Joe Hart, before former captain John Terry scrambled back to clear the ball from the goal line. However, having viewed several replays, it emerged that the ball had actually fully crossed the whole of the goal line and that; therefore, a goal should have been given to Ukraine. Conversely, the situation should never have arisen as the Ukrainian player who received the pass from Rakitskiy and who set up Devic for his shot was in an offside position when the ball had been played by the left back and, consequently, should have been given offside and an indirect free kick given to England. To continue this minute of madness, England broke away immediately and were only denied a clear attempt on goal by a Ukrainian foul.
The remainder of the match passed with only a few chances for either side – Ashley Cole denied his first international goal by a fine Andriy Pyatov save and Yevhen Konoplyanka denied by a stunning Joe Hart save from long range.
England’s defence never really seemed likely to concede their lead after the goal that never was. The Three Lions again looked solid and well-organised in defence under Roy Hodgson and, although they relied mainly on the counter attack in order to threaten the opposition goal, they reaffirmed their reputation as one of the better teams in the tournament when the opponents have the ball. The only negative was the performance of right-winger James Milner, who seemed fairly anonymous for the third match in a row, but captain Steven Gerrard proved that he is the best man for the job with another inspirational performance, which included his third assist in three European Championship games. John Terry also put in another strong performance to silence those who doubted his inclusion in the squad ahead of Rio Ferdinand.
As for the match officials, led by Viktor Kassai, the criticism that they have received in the media has been somewhat unfair. The decision not to award a goal to the Ukrainians, it is argued by the press, is not good enough. They argue that, with the additional assistant referees installed by UEFA, whose sole job is perceived to be to judge goal line incidents, there should be no mistakes made. Yet what they have failed to consider is that, in order to make their judgement that the wrong decision has been made, they needed to view the video footage in slow motion and had to pause it to produce a freeze-frame image in order to judge with confidence whether the whole of the ball had crossed the whole of the goal line. For one man, who only occasionally acts as an additional assistant referee (he is usually the referee himself), to be expected to make such a decision in an instant at such a rapid speed is wholly unreasonable. He does not have the benefit of a static image of the instant at which the position of the ball must be judged and, as such, his task is practically impossible.
To make the match-turning decision that a goal should be awarded, the match officials have to be 100% convinced that they are correct; otherwise they will not, and should not, make such huge decisions based on guesswork. As such, the calls for goal line technology to be introduced to top-level football have again been brought to the forefront of the mind. Sepp Blatter (FIFA President) has since reaffirmed his desire for technology to be introduced for such decisions and, with the machinery having been tested recently, this could happen within the next few years.
On the other hand, in defence of UEFA’s decision to introduce additional assistant referees, who are stationed behind the goals during the match, contrary to popular belief, their responsibilities stretch far beyond just judging goal line decisions. As UEFA’s Chief Refereeing Officer Pierluigi Collina intimated after the match, despite the incessant claims of television pundits that they have “never seen one of those extra officials make a decision”, there have been countless key match incidents such as penalties and red cards decided by these assistants since their introduction. The ‘experts’ seem to be unable to comprehend that the assistants have communications kits through which they can subtly speak to their fellow officials and, therefore, there is no need for a lavish gesture to please the viewing audience! Collina said that the decision in this match was “a human mistake made by a human being” and it is hard to disagree with that – as stated above, it is almost impossible to be 100% sure that the decision is correct at full speed, especially when the judgement involved in this case concerns a matter of centimetres at a split-second in time. It is almost inevitable; nonetheless, that goal line technology will be introduced eventually as despite their additional decision-making, the additional assistants require technological assistance to ensure that every decision made with regards to the ball over the line is correct.
Other than the disputed decision and a couple of offside calls, the match officials had a relatively successful evening decisions-wise. Referee Kassai started the match as one of the favourites to be awarded the honour of refereeing the tournament’s final, but considering the performance of his team as a whole in this match, unfortunately this seems a little less likely. Only time will tell.
Returning to the matter of the England victory, the team’s progression to the knockout stages of the competitions means that expectation levels at home are on the rise, with many genuinely starting to believe that the Three Lions have the ability, temperament and spirit to go all the way to becoming European Champions for the first time. By winning Group D, they have perhaps made their route to the final a little easier – we will discover whether or not this is a correct assumption to make on Sunday against Italy in Kiev. Fingers crossed!

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