June 28, 2006

Sticking Up for the Refs

American ref Aaron Corman talks to Gelf about his World Cup blog, why we need to lay off the refs, and which rules changes could improve soccer.

Carl Bialik

It's been a common refrain among World Cup commentators that the refs have blown too many calls and come down too hard on players, detracting from the world's best sporting event. Online, a lonely voice responds on behalf of the whistleblowers. Aaron Corman, a 38-year-old ref based in Albany, New York, who officiates high-level amateur games, has been writing with flair and authority about the games and the controversial calls at World Cup Referees. When ESPN blowhards tell me what they think of calls, I'm skeptical. But when Corman writes that the game-saving penalty call on behalf of Italy against Australia was just, or that ref Valentin Ivanov and players share the blame for the Portugal-Netherlands fiasco, or that Ghana shouldn't have been awarded that game-winning penalty kick against the US, I believe him, because he's read the rule book and backs up his arguments.

Aaron Corman
Courtesy Aaron Corman
Corman loves to see great soccer games; he doesn't care who wins.
Corman spoke by telephone with Gelf on Monday about how the Cup is making his girlfriend hate him, why he doesn't care who wins and doesn't think anyone else should, either, how refs can overcome the language barrier by thinking of players as dogs, and which rules changes—video replay, not sending off men for red cards, no offsides—could improve soccer. The interview has been edited for clarity.

Gelf Magazine: You mention in your bio that you were planning to go around the world and write a book about soccer. Are you still planning to do that?

Aaron Corman: I had been planning to travel for a whole year. But I scrapped the idea when I met my girlfriend. I basically just referee in the evenings now. When the World Cup is over, I have to get serious.
I'm from Albany. I lived in Portland for 15 years, and refereed there for 10. I became a state referee while I was there, and moved back here just in the past year. Hopefully I'll be back in Portland by next year.

GM: What do you mean about getting serious?

AC: Mainly I mean, getting some kind of a job. I'd still like to write a book. It would be more about my refereeing experiences. Anyone could write such a book, but I think I'm a decent writer and could make it entertaining.

GM: The referee perspective is really something missing from the TV and print commentary about the Cup. There isn't much of that now.

AC: There's really not. That's why I think there's an opportunity for me to get a book published. One of the reasons I took on this project of World Cup blogging is, I thought it might promote me in some way—people might read the website and say, this guy has something going on.

GM: Have you been watching and writing about every game?

AC: I have tried to watch every game and write about them all, too. There were maybe half a dozen games I wasn't able to take the time to watch, because on weekends I would sometimes take the time to referee four games a day. I wanted to spend time with my girlfriend, Jill, who pretty much hates me at this point. Well, she loves me, but a few days ago, she was really pissed at me because I was spending no time with her, and then I'm going to Germany for a week.

GM: So I take it she's not a soccer fan?

AC: She's not a soccer fan, and she never played, but she has taken an interest in the game through watching it with me. Since I don't have anyone to watch with, I'll make her watch controversial plays with me. I get so incensed when I hear the American announcers say things that I think are completely ridiculous. Then you have millions of people listening to what they believe to be an accurate assessment of the game, when they believe Tommy Smyth's British accent [ chat] makes him credible, when I don't think he's ever read a rule book.
It's my job to help educate people about the misinformation they get from ESPN and ABC. JP Dellacamera and John Harkes aren't so bad.

GM: But isn't Harkes the one who says "really" about everything?

AC: He may use the word a lot, but Shep Messing is difficult to listen to. With Marcelo Balboa, it's kind of the same thing. I don't like listening to him because of the way he talks. Like Messing, he says things that are off-base—they're overly critical of referees when maybe he shouldn't be. Balboa and Messing both say things that are just wrong. Shep Messing is just annoying. Eric Wynalda's postgame commentaries are sometimes ridiculous.

GM: In general, is the problem that people are too hard on refs?

AC: I think people are too hard on refs. We know that FIFA was going to take a hard line on certain things—shirt-grabbing, holding in general, diving—and that there wasn't going to be a whole lot of leniency toward things we've seen in the past. While we've all been critical of yellow cards, it's not really the referees making decisions. It's FIFA.

Another thing people lose sight of is, I know everyone wants to win, but the World Cup is really an exhibition of the world's greatest soccer talent. These guys [the players] aren't getting paid for what they're doing. Most of them have professional careers working for their clubs. It's like they're taking their vacation over the summer to work at the World Cup. And they don't want to get hurt. And people should keep that in mind. We want to see great soccer. We don't want to see people kicking the crap out of each other.

I'm not the biggest expert in the world, nor the world's greatest referee. I'm a pretty good referee, and a decent writer. But people should remember that these people want to go back to work next week.

You can say Pablo Mastroeni got a quick red card for tackling Andrea Pirlo [BBC]. But the question is, why is he making that challenge? You're up a man, in Italy's side of the field. But if I was his coach, I would be so pissed at him. The referee is out there to protect people.

GM: Considering the way the Dutch played that drop ball against Portugal, by keeping it rather than returning it [Eurosport], what could the ref have done to prevent things from getting ugly?

AC: I read some comments on my blog that said, the ref had no right to blow the whistle once the drop ball was made. Maybe he didn't, but he needed to restore some order to the game. I don't blame Deco for taking that guy out, but what he committed was a red-card offense; if what Mark van Bommel did was a red card, that was certainly a red card. [Ref Valentin Ivanov] was the one who allowed that situation to develop the way it did.

GM: Certainly the players deserve some blame there, too, for how the drop ball was played.

AC: I think everyone is to blame there. I assume they all speak a little bit of English, and even if you don't, I don't think that's necessary. All the referee has to do is gesture: You're going to give the ball back to those guys. If you want to give it back to Portugal, you can drop it back to them. Ivanov incorrectly assumed that the Dutch would play in a sporting way.

GM: Should he have just blown the whistle for a minute, taken captains aside, and told them to get a grip?

AC: Absolutely. After the head-butting incident [by Portugal's Luis Figo; Reuters], announcers said [Ivanov] lost control, and maybe they were kind of right. It seemed like all hell would break loose at any time.

There are a lot of things referees can do. One thing is called "killing a game"—you blow the whistle every time someone lays a hand on someone else's shoulder. One way you can kill the game is by having a quick conference. If there was a flashpoint, you bring players together. You bring van Bommel and Figo together and say, "Guys, what are we doing here? The world is watching us. Let's play like gentlemen, let's finish this game." Maybe he didn't have the language skills to do that. I assume that all those guys speak a little bit of English. It's kind of like talking to a dog—he understands when he's being scolded, even though he doesn't understand English. Players need a moment to cool down sometimes. You can make players shake hands. Anybody watching must have felt like the referee isn't an active participant in what is going on. He needs to be a leader.

GM: Are players complaining more this year?

AC: I never really watched the games with such a microscope on the referees before. I could probably argue that [the players have] been less sportsmanlike in the past. It seems like because players know refs are cracking down on things, because there have been so many yellow cards in this tournament, players know they'll get a quick yellow card from complaining or diving.

If we want our sport to really become a great sport in this country and the whole world, we need to focus less on bad refereeing decisions. It's unfortunate that they will be made. Maybe there are solutions. I'm not a big fan of the dual referee system, but maybe if you added another referee to the field you would have fewer problems. With Andriy Shevchenko's penalty kick the other day [for Ukraine against Tunisia; DPA], he tripped himself, and he did it deliberately. In real time, it was difficult to tell. When the ball is down in the penalty box, if you have a ref pretty close to the goal line, and a ref on the 20- or 30-yard line, you could have two different angles on Shevchenko as he's tripping himself.

One friend emailed me and said, "What is up with this offsides call? We need to get rid of it and have man-to-man marking." It's very difficult to make that call. In the Switzerland-South Korea game, the ball was played backwards by a defensive player. He wasn't in anyway intending to pass the ball to Alexander Frei. The assistant referee has to figure that out.

Even when it's pretty clear who's passing the ball and who's receiving the ball, there are too many mistakes made. It seems like 95% of bad offsides calls go against the offense and for the defense. It's almost like assistant referees are so afraid of making a bad call that might result in a scoring opportunity, that they make calls that will help the defense. And we the fans miss out on seeing goals. I just think there shouldn't be offsides as a rule.

GM: That would be a massive change. How would that happen? Would FIFA put it in for some friendlies, and see what happens?

AC: I guess. It would change the way the game is played, and it would change the way defenders operate. But unless we want to continue seeing controversial decisions that oftentimes are not the right decision ... It's almost like the soccer community loves controversy, just loves the drama. Our wives aren't treating us right, our jobs suck, the dog crapped on the rug. We get to transfer these complaints to the referee.

GM: What do you think of the idea of video replay? It seems like you could do something like the NFL does, with a few replays per half and it wouldn't slow down play that much.

AC: People do forget that there are tons of stoppages already. Before the World Cup, there were people making suggestions like that. One guy suggested that each side could dispute one or two or three calls per game, or per half. For a very crucial decision, you could challenge the call. I don't know what the repercussions would be if you're wrong about a challenge.

On Shevchenko's dive, it would be great if we could say, "Wait a minute, I didn't touch him," and then see on replay that he did it himself, on purpose. I think something like that is needed. We do see too many situations like that. If people don't like that idea, the governing body could come back and watch videotape after the game, and say, "Your team won that game, 1-0, but you'll now be suspended for four games, because you cheated." I think Shevchenko is a great player, but I think he should be ashamed at himself for what he did.

GM: Such behavior detracts from the exhibition of the Cup, even if it helps the national team.

AC: I agree, but people place a whole lot of stock in their national pride through their soccer team. My planned trip, I had called the Football for Peace tour. The idea was that football is a way to bring people together.

I had one guy question me, saying, "Football for Peace, that's so ridiculous. How could you even consider that when there's been wars started over soccer games [and books started over soccer wars]? It leads to the spectacle of national zealotry."

He makes a good point. I'm not sure what to do about that. I almost feel like soccer has lost control of itself. People have lost sight of what this sport is about. Who cares if your country wins or loses? I only want to see good soccer games. I want to see an exciting finish, with lots of goals, a close game with lots of skill. I think people get too wrapped up in winning and losing and lose sight of what's good about the game.

Maybe that's why I'm a referee: Because I don't care about who wins.

GM: Do you root for any team in any sport?

AC: The other day, I wanted to see Germany and Argentina win, but that's only because I wanted to see them play each other. I really did want to see those teams play. When I was a kid, used to root for some teams more than others. I have a friend who's a huge Jets fan. We went out one night to watch the Dolphins play the Jets. The Dolphins were up by four touchdowns, but the Jets ended up coming back. But she was pissed and left before the comeback.

People's whole lives depend on their team winning and losing, and I just don't get it. Honestly, who the fuck cares? Maybe that's my attitude as a referee. I understand that people want to win. I played soccer for 20 years. I had to stop, because if I got injured, I couldn't ref. And it got to the point where I would rather referee than play. Because I didn't like the win-at-all-cost mentality, more from the teams I was playing against than my teammates.

Some people got pissed the other day at Carlos Simon when he gave a second yellow card to Teddy Lucic while smiling. [Expressen] He wasn't glad to give him a yellow card. He was adding levity to the moment, as if to say, "Hey, you know you have a yellow card already. Why are you putting me in this position?"

I do really good amateur games. I have a little bit more leeway. I don't have FIFA looking over my shoulder. I like to have conversations with players. I like to joke around with them. Maybe the language barriers at the World Cup prevent that. One guy wrote a comment about my post after yesterday's game, that cards are not the way to control the match. That's how I've been taught. The guy I consider my mentor says, If you issue a lot of cards, you've had a bad game. But for some reason, FIFA wants to hold the line. You don't want to see a referee pull a red card willy-nilly.

GM: Do you think teams shouldn't have to play down a man if they get a red card?

AC: Maybe not. FIFA needs to really think about that. When you take a man off the field, you've really made a huge, huge impact on the game. That's why I as a referee try to avoid doing that. I told a kid the other day, what you just did should be a yellow card, and you already have one, so you have to be careful.

GM: The announcers have been implying that if a player already has a card, or has a marquee player, or if it's at a crucial time in the match, he shouldn't get another card. Is that kind of reasoning just?

AC: All of those things are relevant at certain points. But we're talking about what FIFA has told refs. When Zinedine Zidane got his second yellow card in that game against South Korea, at least to me, it seemed he tried not to make contact with that defender.

There's a great book by a former FIFA referee, Bob Evans, called For the Good of the Game. He makes the point that a good referee, for big matches, should keep in mind that if I give that guy a yellow card, he's out for next game.

But a player should have as much responsibility as a referee. Balboa says it over and over, that the ref should have just talked to that guy. I may do that if I'm calling a game. But it's almost like referees in the World Cup have no choice. I don't like rules, and I don't like doing what other people tell me, so I don't think I'd like refereeing a game as FIFA told me to. It'd be great if they could just say, "That was pretty reckless. I'd like to see you not do that for the rest of the game." It does seem referees themselves are on a very short leash, and that this is what FIFA wants from them. Maybe we'll see for future Cups, that it will be important to discuss with players before issuing soft yellow cards. Maybe FIFA is afraid of lawsuits from teams.

The bottom line is, what is a referee's job? It's to protect the players. Yes, it's to ensure a fair game. But their No. 1 responsibility is to protect the players at this month-long exhibition every four years, maybe more so than any other soccer game ever played—because these are the highest-paid soccer players in the world, and FIFA doesn't want to have to deal with lawsuits from Chelsea or Liverpool because one of their star players got injured at the World Cup.

Related in Gelf

Zooming In rounds up press coverage of the Cup from local papers around the world, while Gelflog looks at the future of the Serbia & Montenegro's side, Togo coach Otto Pfister's alter ego, and US commentators' factoid-finding mission.

Related on the web

•Corman also blogs at Planet Soccer.

•FIFA asked refs to take a tough line in the Cup, and now it's complaining about the refs have sucked, the Daily Telegraph reports.

•The Guardian's Sean Ingle makes the case for video replay review.

•Liverpool's manager called for FIFA to compensate clubs when players are injured on international duty, after Liverpool striker Djibril Cisse broke his leg playing in a World Cup warmup match for France against China, the Associated Press reports.

Post a comment

Comment Rules

The following HTML is allowed in comments:
Bold: <b>Text</b>
Italic: <i>Text</i>
<a href="URL">Text</a>


- Sports
- posted on Jun 30, 06
james Halpin

Stay with your girlfriend mate & dont analize the refs and PLEASE dont write a book. World cups have always been political and thats the last thing you yanks need at this time

Article by Carl Bialik

Contact this author