Comment: Man in middle of confusion

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The Independent Online
HARDLY a week goes by in football without a controversy over a refereeing decision. Complaints about referees, of course, are as old as the game itself. When so much flows from the consequences of one man's actions it is inevitable that he will frequently incur the wrath of one side or the other. In most cases the storm blows over, and rightly. But recent events point to a deeper problem, which needs resolving quickly.

Three incidents this season stand out. Two of them involved the non-dismissal of players who many felt should not have remained on the field. There was Ronald Koeman, playing for the Netherlands against England in the World Cup qualifier in November; and Mark Bosnich, keeping goal for Aston Villa in their Coca-Cola Cup semi-final second leg against Tranmere Rovers last week. The third incident, Luton Town's winning goal in their fifth-round FA Cup tie at Cardiff City, took us into the vexed area of what constitutes offside.

What these incidents have in common is that a referee's response to them is, in theory, governed by a higher authority. Take Koeman and Bosnich. Both looked like cases of serious foul play - a forward deprived of a clear goal-scoring opportunity - for which Fifa says players must be sent off. But how similar were they?

Koeman's foul on David Platt as he advanced on goal was exactly the sort of cynical action the directive was brought in to counter. Bos

nich's felling of John Aldridge looked rather different - the familiar case of a goalkeeper diving at the feet of an onrushing forward, missing the ball, and bringing him down.

Allan Gunn, the referee in the Villa-Tranmere match, did not send Bosnich off. Other referees might have done. But the matter has to be left to the referee's discretion. It is no good citing the Fifa directive and expecting the same response - a sending-off every time - after all instances of what looks like 'serious foul play', when the degree of heinousness involved can vary from one foul to another.

Likewise offside. The problem here has arisen as a direct result of the back-pass rule. It is now worth a forward's while to pressurise a goalkeeper as he receives the ball from a back-pass and is forced into kicking it away. But if he does manage to clear the ball back to, say, the halfway line, the forward is left stranded upfield, and 'offside' if one of his team-mates, as often happens, then returns the keeper's clearance to where it came from.

The FA's line on this - spelt out to clubs this season - is that although the forward in that situation is in an offside position, he is not committing an offside offence. So on that basis the referee in the Cardiff- Luton match was right to let Luton's goal stand. Equally, he should be free to disallow goals in similar situations if that is what he thinks is right.

The problem with directives to referees is that no two incidents are the same. Instead of clarifying, they merely confuse. The referee must decide.