International Sports

World Cup: Day 21

By Pete Grathoff/McClatchy Newspapers

There are just 17 rules for soccer, but one causes the most controversy. The offside law.

“It’s one of the shortest laws in the book and yet it brings up the most debate,” said Chris Strickland, a referee’s assistant in Major League Soccer. “Every World Cup there are offside decisions that get debated. That happens in every tournament.”

It came up Sunday when an Argentina player was clearly offside during its 3-1 victory against Mexico. Last week, the United States needed a late goal from Landon Donovan to beat Algeria only because an American player was incorrectly ruled offside while scoring a goal.

According to FIFA, soccer’s worldwide governing body, when a pass is made, a player is in an offside position if he is level with the second-to-last defender or level with the last two defenders.

Strickland, 42, has been with MLS its inception in 1996, and he said the offside ruling can be difficult to detect.

“Technically a lot of it is impossible,” Strickland said. “If you look at the speed at which you can move your head, the speed at which you can process things and the speed at which the ball moves, you are always going to be a tiny bit behind.

“So you have to train yourself that you’re always going to be a little bit behind and know where everybody was, and you take a ton of tiny little snapshots in your head as the play goes on. So you can say,

’OK, I know exactly where this player is as soon as the ball is kicked.’ Because as soon as you turn your head and try to process, just in the time it takes to refocus, players can have moved 3, 4, 5 yards.”

There has been a lot of attention on the officiating at the World Cup in South Africa, and not just because of the offside calls.

In last Sunday’s other game, a goal by England wasn’t counted even though it clearly crossed the line.

Critics immediately blasted FIFA for not embracing instant replay, and the organization initially reacted by not having replays shown at stadiums in South Africa. However, FIFA president Sepp Blatter changed his tune last Tuesday.

“Naturally we will take on board again the discussion about technology,” Blatter told reporters.

Strickland, who lives in Branson, is in favor of replay if it doesn’t disrupt the game. The NHL, NFL and major-league baseball all have it, but they also have regular stoppages of play.

“It flows naturally into those games,” Strickland said. “In soccer you don’t have that natural bridge. All the goal-line technology in the world wouldn’t have made a difference in the Mexico game.”

Strickland, who was a fifth official at the 2006 World Cup, worked a game in Peru a few years ago when a microchip was put in the ball. It was supposed to send a signal to the referee when the ball crossed the line.

So how’d that work?

“What we found in one game, according to the chip in the ball there were eight goals,” Strickland said. “In reality there was one and the chip didn’t record it. The other eight, the ball went over the crossbar and did (record it). The technology is just not working."

Strickland is in favor of having referees work as goalie judges, sort of the way they have in the NHL. Since five officials are assigned to each World Cup game, it would require FIFA adding just one more match official.

Strickland bristles at the notion that the referees are doing a poor job at this World Cup.

“A game referee makes anywhere from 4,000 to 7,000 decisions in a game,” he said. “So if a referee makes two or three mistakes in a game, what’s our percentage versus how many shots on goal are taken by a forward and how many actually hit the target?

“Our percentage is way higher. Unfortunately when we make a mistake it tends to impact a game in a negative way. Nobody considers when a forward makes a mistake in a game that impacts a game. They just say, ’Oh, that’s the way it goes.’ “

Friday's quarterfinals: The Netherlands vs. Brazil, 7 a.m.; Uruguay vs. Ghana, 11:30 a.m.