Penalized by the Penalty Kick
By: Jonathan Townsend
The clocks ticks closer to the 89th minute as the crowd swells with anticipation. The match is close with one goal separating the two sides but as certain as the ball is round, everyone can feel something is about to give way to the ridiculous. The center midfielder takes the ball off his back line, pivots to the right to dodge the challenge of the opposing team’s tired striker, and looks up the field. The wingers are in advanced positions with their boots on the chalk as the target man checks to the ball and the other striker runs behind in the gap the big man created. The libero, slots the ball between two baited defenders now left for dead as the opposition’s centerback lines up the striker as he collects the ball in the penalty area. Contact is made, the striker goes down, arms go up and the collective gasp of everyone in attendance mixes with cheers and jeers. The referee looks at his linesman, who himself wears a mask of uncertainty.
The ref, certain contact was made and the ball was touched, is not sure if it was by the laws of the game. The attacking team swarms the ref like a horde possessed as the striker continues to roll around theatrically on the pitch turf. The defending team pleads their innocence as the referee points to the spot. Penalty kick awarded. The armchair cynics and media box pundits have the luxury of replay after replay — from every conceivable angle. We know the truth. He, the referee, is unsure. The penalty kick is converted. Such is the way hearts break and results are made.
With the pace of the game increasing faster each year, there are really two games occurring simultaneously. One is played in the middle of park, along the sidelines and in the corners. The other, however, is a different game altogether. That game is played in the penalty area. As with any advantage that would and could be gained in a Premier League campaign that is arguably as close as it’s ever been from top to bottom, the decision to award and deny a penalty is the most tumultuous. This decision puts referees in a limelight more aptly made from the refracted rays of the sun. It puts repeat offenders who have been legitimately fouled at odds with their shady pasts and it puts the league’s darlings in the position to con the referee and the game itself.
The solution is simple. Instant video replay. The league is armed with a plethora of cameras at every football ground capable of breaking down the frames per second of the match as accurately as possible in high definition. The axis cameras allow analysts and pundits see what the referee cannot. These decisions do not need to be made based on assumption. And yet they are. Football is notorious for embellishment, both in the actions players take and the embellishment of the “human element” of the sport. There is something oddly romantic about using a referee — a mere mortal who is not a professional by trade as he holds a day job — accountable for the heaviest and most controversial of decisions.
With the stakes so high in the professional game, there ought to be an instant review process made by a fifth official and a team of video analysts who are all experts at dissecting the play in an effort to produce the correct call on the field of play. The problem is football loves controversy and it loves the unpopular or popular call, not necessarily the correct call. To many dissenters, this process would be considered too time-consuming, too intrusive to the natural ebb and flow of the game (as though a player writhing around for minutes at a time only to pop back up and continue play is not intrusive), and too robotic to aid the game. But surely, we live in a gilded age rife with plentiful resource and a bounty of on-the-spot knowledge that can help maintain a sense of balanced fairness in football. In sports like ice hockey, every goal is reviewed and sometimes calls are correctly amended. The same should be considered in football’s most popular league.
Additionally, players found to be cheating should be penalized with sin-bins or retroactive punishments to help eradicate the dishonesty from the game. There is no harm in reviewing a penalty decision and the correct call could be change the course of not only a single match, but an entire league campaign — for what it’s worth.