Pity the Ref--Soccer Devotional #3
When God saw what they (the Ninevites after Jonah preached to them) did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.
But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. He prayed to the LORD, “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Jonah 3:10-4:2
I only watch soccer once every four years—but during the month that the World Cup is on, I become a real fanatic, taping all the games and watching each one twice. I have watched virtually every game of every World Cup since 1978 and can remember a few games as far back as 1970.
One of the most gut-wrenching and disappointing moments for me in the time I have been watching World Cup Soccer came in the championship game in 1990 between Germany and Argentina. Now, I need to tell you that Argentina and Germany are certainly not among my favorite teams. Indeed, Argentina may be my least favorite team on the American Continent, but continental loyalty obligated me to root vigorously for them in 1990 once Brazil got sent home.
But what made the 1990 World Cup final especially interesting for Ceci and me was that the referee chosen for the game (and the ref for a World Cup Final is supposed to be the one judged by his peers to be the best of the tournament) was a Mexican—Antonio Codezal, and just the fact that soccer refs can be celebrities should tell you something. As the game began, Ceci and I were sending up fervent prayers, not for Argentina, but in this vein, “please let the ref look good; don’t let the ref blow a call; please don’t let the ref lose control of the game.”
I have read about how tough baseball umpires have it, and with all the 300 lb bodies flying around, American Football officials certainly run a risk. The job of a professional soccer referee, however, is uniquely challenging in the world of sports. In the first place, a soccer ref works virtually alone. He (I’ve never seen a World Cup ref who wasn’t a “he,” something that I admit demonstrates the fundamental sexism of the sport.) has two assistants, who are confined to the sidelines and for the most part are limited to watching for offsides. Even when a sideline assistant lifts his flag to show the ref that an offsides has ocurred or a ball has gone out of bounds, the ref can overrule the assistant and say “play on.”
The referee of a World Cup match has an amazing amount of power. In talking about sports we sometimes say that an official handed the game to a particular team. In other sports, this complaint is usually figurative because one bad call on one particular play cannot be the measure of the entire game. In soccer, however, where scores of 0-0 are not uncommon, the referee can indeed make a call that will hand the game to one or another team. Consider the powers that a ref is given: 1. he can throw a player out of the game, and if he does the player’s team cannot replace the player, meaning that they have to play with one less man. 2. since the ref is also the official timekeeper, he can add time to the end of a match. It is not at all uncommon for a team to win or tie a game during time that the ref has added to the match. 3. if the ref calls a foul or a hand ball inside the goalie box, he will award a penalty kick to the opposing team. Penalty kicks occur from so close to the goal that a good player can make them 90% of the time. It is the closest thing in sports to a “death penalty,” where a single infraction has a good chance of costing you the game.
Because a soccer ref has such immense power, and because there is no higher court of appeal (instant replay or appeal to another official), there is more lobbying in soccer than any other sport. Not only do the crowd, the coaching staff and the benches of the teams yell at the ref constantly; the players on the field crowd around the ref threateningly after each potentially controversial call. Players can get themselves “carded” (officially warned) or expelled if they too vigorously recommend a visit to the optician or speak unkindly of a ref’s ancestry. But players don’t just argue with the ref, they engage in drama for the ref’s benefit. When I first started watching soccer, I didn’t understand how it was that a player, who had apparently barely been touched by an opponent, would be writhing and screaming in pain, and then would be up and running at full speed seconds later. At the World Cup level, the acting is much better than that, and it has to be convincing because if the ref believes you have been acting around the goalie box (trying to get him to award a penalty kick), you can get “carded” or thrown out.
Refereeing a soccer match is not so much a science as an art. A good referee has a sharp eye, fairness, physical endurance to run nonstop for 90 minutes (they are supposed to be close to every play, wherever that play occurs on the entire field—you never see a soccer ref who is overweight), and a sense of intuition to avoid being taken in by the acting. A great ref has a sense of when to apply the rules strictly and when to bend them. In fact there are two subjective elements that are an integral part of the game: intention and advantage. Suppose the ball hits the hand of a defender in front of the goal. The referee determines in a moment whether the handball was intentional or accidental, and even though he might call handball anywhere else on the field, he might not call it there because it’s not fair for a team to win the game on a penalty kick for an unintentional handball. Or suppose that a player gets creamed by a defender who is obviously not going for the ball but to shatter an ankle, but the ball bounces into the possession of a teammate of the fouled player who in turn is in good position to shoot. The ref might not call a foul because even if the player who was hit may need to be carried off on a stretcher, it may be to his team’s advantage for play to continue at that moment. In other words, unlike basketball, in soccer the ref is not supposed to allow the defending team to derive an advantage from intentionally fouling someone.
The subjective element is not unique to World Cup Soccer but unlike other sports (think Olympic Figure skating) a credible accusation that a ref was partial to one team or another is very rare. I’m sure that somebody somewhere has tried to bribe a ref to influence the outcome, but the consequences to reputation and personal safety would be so great that I can’t imagine anyone accepting such a bribe.
Our prayer on that Sunday in the summer of 1990 was not answered. Mr. Codesal faced the intense pressure of calling a World Cup final and he lost. In the second half the game turned ugly, with the German defenders chopping down Argentine ace Diego Maradona at every opportunity, with the Argentine players responding by keeping the faces of German strikers Voeller and Klinsmann continually imprinted on the grass. The game became more and more violent and more and more boring as the ref showed himself reluctant to “card” players early and to face them down to earn their respect. Late in the second half he made three calls that sealed the game. First, he threw out one of the Argentinian defenders. Then, he gave the Germans a penalty kick, and finally, he threw out another Argentinian player. It’s not that the Argentinians didn’t deserve it, but they didn’t deserve to be singled out. We felt even worse that it was our Mexican ref who had cost them the world championship by essentially handing the championship to Germany.
God must love soccer referees. He has a lot in common with them. The game He calls, though, is the greatest game of all and He is up to it. He is everywhere, seeing everything; He is able to discern the intentions of the heart to adjust His calls. He is able to handle the pressure of the fans, the coaches, and the players without getting upset or losing control. As long as the players are playing, He prefers to give them a great deal of freedom because His art is to create a stage upon which we can exercise freedom. God intervenes with reluctance. All we players on the field of life are bent on making his job as difficult as possible, as we complain, as we play act, as we try to chop each other down behind God’s back, and as we pressure Him in every way to make a bad call. If God is indeed like the referee of one huge global soccer game, then God is deserving not only of our love and admiration, but of our empathy.