Back in 2001 (plus or minus a year), when I was cutting my teeth as a National Referee, we welcomed former U.S. National Team and Kansas City Wizards coach Bob Gansler to our national camp in advance of the MLS season. He was the first of several speakers to drill into our heads the importance of having the right “feel for the game” in order to interpret team tactics and individual players’ decision making – these are critical skills for referees, especially when officiating at a level much higher than you played at years before (and yes, that is the reality for every referee in the room… none of us played in MLS).
Fingerspitzengefühl is a German term, literally translating to "finger tips feeling" and meaning an intuitive flair or instinct, having superior situational awareness, and being able to appropriately and tactfully respond to changing conditions. Mr. Gansler spoke of it eloquently that day (and without accent). Later that day and throughout the next, Alfred Kleinaitis and Esse Baharmast echoed the rather profound message (but with more profound accents). I think even Julie Ilacqua tried to work it into her vocabulary that weekend.
After reviewing MLS games this weekend, I find myself asking if all of our current PRO referees have mastered this art… especially one “replacement referee” who remains on the pitch long after the PRO vs. PSRA lockout ended.
For your consideration: How many times have we been told by instructors and assessors that there are yellow cards… and then there are SECOND yellow cards. And yes, if a player doesn’t modify his behavior after being cautioned and being advised to do so, he just might deserve a second one. But make sure that he truly deserves it!
In Saturday’s Vancouver Whitecaps/Colorado Rapids match, some 21,000 spectators were denied a thrilling and just result to a match their side had largely controlled, thanks to one Ioannis Stavridis – yes, MLS “replacement referee” Ioannis Stavridis – and his lack of understanding of the F-word (there has to be a Greek translation, no?)… along with his total disregard for common sense. To assert that his one dubious decision determined the game’s outcome would be a stretch. But we cannot overlook or condone his lack of perspective and sense of fair play (again, refer to that F-word).
For those who have not witnessed the carnage, please allow me to set the stage: In the 54th minute of a scoreless game, Whitecaps’ holding midfielder Matías Laba was cautioned for a rather clunky challenge. One could certainly make a strong argument that his efforts were reckless, and perhaps unnecessary as well. Fair enough. Caution given and into the referee’s book he goes:
As referees (Graham Poll included), it is our responsibility to keep track of players in the book… and that shouldn’t pose a challenge when only ONE player from a particular team has been written into the book.
It’s also our duty to remain sharp, focused, and in anticipation of what might come next – for 90 minutes plus whatever stoppage time we might add.
Moving along, the Whitecaps finally pulled ahead 1-0, and the game is now in the 77th minute. While they are not dominating play, they are having the lion’s share of chances and match control. A betting man would suggest a 2-0 result before a 1-1 draw.
In the 77th minute, after his team is dispossessed, Colorado’s Nick LaBrocca might, or might not, challenge Mr. Laba unfairly from behind. You decide:
For me, it’s a simple foul and a no-brainer: Keep the game simple. Call what the game gives you. A simple foul in the 20th minute is still a simple foul in the 77th minute… assuming you possess one ounce of the F-word.
You can guess what happens next: The man-up Rapids score two goals (one was quite amazing) and steal the result 2-1… all to the dismay of 21,000 strong filing out of BC Place. The first goal – scored only a minute after the send-off – has a good chance of being named MLS Goal of the Week:
And only three minutes later, even Rapids broadcasters Richard Fleming and Marcelo Balboa were shocked to find the Rapids suddenly in the lead. Listen closely to what Mr. Balboa is still going on about as the game-winning goal is being scored…
Game over. Let the showering of boos begin. According to the local press, Whitecaps coach Carl Robinson and captain Jay DeMerit were quick to criticize Mr. Stavridis. “The ref’s got it wrong,” said Robinson to Marc Weber, beat write for The Province. “You could argue that is a yellow card, yeah. But if you miss a decision on the first one, you can’t penalize a guy on the second one, and that’s my point.”
Said Mr. DeMerit: “Everyone gets assessed on their performance, including the referee, so hopefully people look at that and assess it in the right way.”
And here’s where things become frightening – as in cats and dogs peacefully co-existing: I entirely agree with Coach Robinson’s perspective. We all miss fouls. In a situation like this, we can’t make a bad decision (“missing” a foul) 10 times worse by pouring gasoline on the fire.
That’s not to suggest that Mr. Laba should be absolved of his sins. “Play the whistle” is preached from our very early days in AYSO (for Mr. Laba, that would be the Argentine Youth Soccer Organization). And, in hindsight, his decision to reach for the ball was foolish -- but how often do we see free kicks given for fouls suffered only after the victim falls onto the ball or handles it? In an ideal world, the foul is called for Mr. LaBrocca's challenge… even if the whistle blows 2 or 3 second later. So what? Justice prevails. No harm done.
I can also (reluctantly) accept a simple foul and free kick for handling the ball – perhaps with a stern warning not to do it again. (Note: Had a referee given me such a warning, my reaction as a player would have been “I promise I won’t do it again if you don’t!”) No, it’s not our job to sweep players’ errors under the rug… but some compassion, common sense, and that F-word would have gone a long way to save the day here.
And so I have to ask the difficult question to one Peter Walton safely tucked away in his New York bunker: Why was Ioannis Stavridis assigned this game?
Depending on who you ask, we have either 135,000 or 145,000 registered referees here in the United States, and I am told that there are several thousand more in Canada. Both federations have clear standards about referee grades, fitness test requirements, and other standards to advance and become a “pro” referee.
Is there an international exchange program I don’t know about? Is Fotis Bazakos on his way to Greece? If he doesn’t meet the current standards of a U.S. or Canada “pro” referee, why is Mr. Stavridis a PRO referee -- and why is he allowed to spoil an MLS game?
Spoiler Alert: Anyone care to guess who is scheduled to whistle in Philadelphia next weekend? I'm not going to name names -- just in case a change is hastily made -- but I will give a clue and that is "Russia 2018 or Bust!"