Soccer / Premier League

The Strange Case of the Penalty That Wasn’t

The fourth official saw on the TV monitor that it wasn’t a penalty, and informed the referee.

Before discussing the strange event on Saturday at Bloomfield Stadium during Maccabi Tel Aviv’s win over Hapoel Acre, when referee Daniel Bar cancelled his mistaken decision to award Acre a penalty, I must first present two basic assumptions as to the case: first, that Bar Natan was wrong when he awarded the penalty; second, that Bar Natan was wrong when he cancelled his decision to award the penalty.

Why was the first decision wrong? Because Eliran Danin’s cross hit Eitan Tibi’s thigh, not his hand. Why was the second decision wrong? Because the fourth official peeped at the TV monitor during the replay and then whispered in Ben Natan’s ear that it wasn’t a penalty. In 2013 this is still forbidden.

This case is intriguing since usually when we discuss the performance of referees, the question is “did it happen or not,” while this time it’s more like “it didn’t happen, but what the hell did?” or, if you prefer, “what happened is what happened, so how come the opposite happened as well?”

In other words, assuming a penalty shouldn’t have been awarded in the first place, the issue isn’t factual but procedural, and therefore one must question what is more important: the law forbidding officials to use TV replays or their commitment to reach the correct decision? What is the referee’s priority – to reach the right decision or the manner in which the decision was reached?

In criminal cases, crooks sometimes get away with a crime due to the illegal manner in which evidence was obtained. In a hypothetical case, a man murdered his neighbor and the most convincing DNA evidence that proves his guilt was obtained illegally. In such a case, the evidence will be thrown out of court, even if the judge is convinced of the man’s guilt, and the murderer will be released. Why is that? Because the law believes in procedures.

The public, on the other hand, will view the procedure as secondary. Why should the public agree to the release of a murderer only due to the wrongdoing of a police officer?

If one can judge by the debate as to the officials’ conduct, when it comes to soccer, the public places procedure above essence. This preference is in line with the Referees Association decision to suspend the officials for three weeks. When dealing with a penalty, not a murder, most of us would prefer a flawed decision that was reached according to existing rules than a correct decision reached by bending the rules. It seems that sometimes procedures are, indeed, an essential matter.

The case led to a logical contradiction in the arguments of those who believed to be hurt by the decision. When Acre coach Yuval Naim said that the referee determined the outcome of the game by his decision, he meant to correctly point out that procedures can be bent in favor of the larger clubs. Still, Naim’s comments are problematic, meaning in effect that the referee determined the outcome by not awarding a penalty in a case where a penalty shouldn’t have been awarded.

In a year, or two − or three − when officials’ use of TV replays will be the natural course of things, we might return and see the case in a different light, one reserved for anecdotes or events that preceded their time. No, the two officials didn’t get up on Saturday and decide to emulate Rosa Parks’ act of defiance in their effort to change soccer rules.

Sometimes, the most sweeping changes are not the result of outstanding vision, but rather of actions reflecting the fruition of conditions − in this case, technological conditions. In this case it was nothing dramatic: The fourth official happened to see that it was a mistaken decision and informed the referee. No big deal.

Sharon Bukov