Leave it to Spain to grab headlines again on the world’s stage. How the mighty have fallen, or as ESPN commentator Ian Darke expressed in the waning moments of today’s match: “The kings of soccer have abdicated.”
GROUP B, Match 19
18 Jun 2014 - 16:00 CET
Estádio do Maracanã, Rio de Janeiro
SPAIN - CHILE
Referee: Mark GEIGER (USA)
Assistant Referee 1: Sean Mark HURD (USA)
Assistant Referee 2: Joe FLETCHER (CAN)
Fourth Official: Nawaf SHUKRALLA (BHR)
Spoiler Alert: Players win games. Coaches lose games. Referees spoil games… but not today. Although it wasn’t always “poetry in motion,” our North American hybrid crew was again effective with their decisions and presence on the pitch.
And, in this Blogger’s opinion, Mark Geiger, Sean Hurd and Joe Fletcher have absolutely earned their rightful place in the Round of 16.
June 18, 2014 might just go down in soccer history. After 8 losses and 2 draws in previous match-ups, Chile defeated Spain – rather convincingly – sending Netherlands and Chile into the Round of 16 and ending the defending champions’ reign. Spain knows full well that their epic collapse in Rio is their own doing. Chile, meanwhile, showed what this spicy little country that finished third in CONMEBOL qualifying can do when they put their minds to it.
Closer to home, North American soccer can relish in its own success on the field today. PRO, MLS, U.S. Soccer, the Canadian Soccer Association, PSRA, the New Jersey Referee Committee and all the rest have great reason to celebrate.
Yes, referee Mark Geiger looked understandably nervous early on (with the stakes this high, we’d expect the same from Collina!), and his performance lacked the extreme confidence and panache we enjoyed in his first assignment on Saturday. But make no mistake and let me state the obvious loud and clear: Mark Geiger, Sean Hurd and Joe Fletcher showed that North American officials can be entrusted to manage a high stakes, pressure-filled game.
And they have earned their place in the Round of 16.
This game wasn’t exactly poetry in motion – not by a longshot – but that’s not the result of the officiating, nor is it the fault of the officials. I have a saying I’ve shared often over the years: You have to play the hand you’re dealt. And today, the officials played it well… and effectively.
Mr. Geiger was strong when he needed to be:
- Issued timely cautions for the two worst fouls of the game
- Whistled down a corner kick restart to admonish players for excessive jostling
- Consistently convinced players to retreat 10 yards on ceremonial free kicks
- Didn’t cave to time wasting tactics by Chileans throughout the second half
Overall, foul selection was good. Was it perfect? There were times that one could debate – is this a foul, was that a foul? When you have tight marking, close-in battles, and frequent tackles in succession, you are going to have decisions that can be second-guessed… especially when a team goes up 2-0 at half time and then drops in 8, 9 or even 10 players (at times) behind the ball.
Mr. Geiger was consistent for 90 + 6 minutes, everyone got a fair shake, and no one was intimidated out of his game by unruly opposition. No serious foul play. No violent conduct. No questionable penalties awarded. And no mystery calls.
The assistant referees were again solid, if not perfect, as both Sean Hurd and Joe Fletcher exhibited great concentration and made correct touchline and offside decisions. But, each was a bit too anxious as they raised flags for offside on balls that went directly to the goalkeeper – Mr. Hurd in the 73rd minute and Mr. Fletcher three minutes later.
Mr. Hurd earned kudos for correctly identifying offside in the 15th minute, after a shot was returned by Chilean goalkeeper Claudio Bravo at very close range (inside the goal area) to a Spanish player who was in offside position. And when Chile went up 1-0 in the 20th minute, Mr. Fletcher did equally well to concentrate through a series of tight passes that resulted in a clean strike by Eduardo Vargas.
This game really was a tale of two halves. Unlike the half-court style (with occasional Chile counteracts) of the second half, the first 45: produced more entertaining flow, as both teams attacked and created chances, with Chile capitalizing on two plays (one could argue were mistakes on the part of Spain).
In the 25th minute, I was impressed that Mr. Geiger correctly identified and penalized the “first foul” when Chile’s Alexis Sanchez pulled the shirt of Sergio Ramos as they challenged for a rolling ball. Not only did he not “take the bait” as Mr. Sanchez lobbied for an elbow by his opponent (replays showed it truly wasn’t), Mr. Geiger made his point to “knock off the non-sense” when he called out the Chilean. Impressive.
The three cautions issued in the match were timely, decisive and effective. In the 26th minute, Mr. Geiger made an example out of Arturo Vidal when the Chilean blatantly Delayed The Restart by stepping in front of an opponent’s free kick. This one was text book… and Mr. Geiger did well to keep it as such.
And guess what? There were no further delays of restarts today. Effective.
The shirt pulling incident, the caution on restart after another foul, and a third foul to Chile just a few seconds later made for the only difficult stretch of the first half… things turned a bit “testy” midway through, but our crew maintained composure and carried on well.
In the 35th minute, Mr. Geiger took a calculated risk – and it appears to have paid off well for him and for the game as well. While we wondered aloud if he would again reach into his pocket, he opted instead to have a thorough (one might say exaggerated) talking-to with Spain’s Pedro Rodriguez after he took down his opponent right at the halfway line. Effective man management skills diffused the situation.
The two obvious clunky challenges that demanded cautions today were handled appropriately. First, in the 40th minute, Xabi Alonzo went into the book for a late challenge through the plant leg of Chile’s Mauricio Isla. In the 61st, Chile’s Eugenio Mena was cautioned for tackling Pedro Rodriguez from behind. I agree with both, as did the game – coaches and players accepted the rulings and went about their business.
Not that Mr. Darke is the ultimate authority, but I side with the commentator wholeheartedly when he complimented Mr. Geiger for attempting to play advantage in the 43rd minute as Chile worked to penetrate the Spain penalty area. Ultimately, a foul was correctly whistled down, resulting in a free kick to Chile from 25 yards. And that free kick was famously returned by goalkeeper Iker Casillas to Charles Aranguiz, who put Chile up 2-0 at the break.
In the end, coaches coached, players played and well, we’ve waited 12 years to see an American work as a World Cup Referee… so far, we’re two-for-two.
Now, we’ll need to wait a few days to learn if our trio moves onto the knockout stages. Let’s hope they soon receive their just rewards, and that Mr. Geiger becomes the first American to whistle into the Round of 16... and beyond!