Perhaps the most important moment of Sunday’s World Cup Final between France and Croatia came when the ball wasn’t in play. It didn’t involve the players – not directly at least – or the coaches or the fans. The pivotal moment of the game came 33 minutes into the contest, when referee Nestor Pitana listened intently through an earpiece to someone called the Video Assistant Referee, or VAR – basically some guy who lets the ref know if it’s worth looking in a monitor to review a decision. Like whether something was a goal, or if there was a penalty. They were talking about a play where the ball seemed to hit the hand of Croatian player Ivan Perisic inside their penalty box off a corner kick. The ball flew out of bounds outside of the goal and initially was given to Croatia for a goal kick, ending the imminent scoring threat and continuing what was then a dramatic 1-1 tie game.
When Pitana returned from the sidelines after reviewing the play as the entire sports viewing world watched him watch the play, he overturned his initial decision and awarded France a direct penalty kick, which, for those out of the soccer ecosphere, is as close to a free shot as you can get. France scored on the kick, took a 2-1 lead, and essentially never looked back in route to a 4-2 World Cup Victory. Beyond the obvious change in score in a sport where a one goal deficit feels like Mt. Everest, it also vastly altered the momentum of the affair, something Croatia had grabbed after scoring their first goal to tie the game. Sports may be a world of stats and analytics, but under that is all human psychology.
Needless to say, this call hasn’t come without critique – and perhaps controversy. Whether or not it was an actual penalty is a question of nuance, I suppose. While the ball clearly did touch Perisic’s hand, it’s not clear that he could have moved it away in time, or that he attempted to make contact. Soccer experts – which I am not – have lined up on both sides, so it’s futile for me to even attempt to clarify that decision. But what is worth discussing was the response of the Croatian coach after the game. He said, quite simply, “You don’t give a penalty like that in World Cup Final.” Not whether or not it was penalty, or the nuance of the rules, or the value of video replay, or even if it’s a good rule at all. Just simply, in a moment like that in a situation like that with a play like that, you don’t call a handball.
That’s exactly what I said to my kids when we were watching the game. Not that it wasn’t a penalty, or that I could argue my case with clarity. Simply that you don’t make that call in a World Cup Final. Not with the score tied at one, not with both teams seemingly deserving of a title, not in the penalty box on a shot that wasn’t going in the goal anyway. Not on a penalty that clearly didn’t impact the trajectory of the game – until it was called.
Soccer isn’t unique in this quandary. Take basketball, for example. It is virtually impossible to get a defensive penalty on the last possession of a close game. You basically need to rob someone at knifepoint on the court to get a whistle. Things that would be obvious, perhaps even flagrant in the first half go unnoticed as time expires. They call it swallowing the whistle, or making sure refs don’t decide the game. You can extrapolate this to football, baseball, cycling – pretty much any place where human judgement is part of the referee’s toolbox.
Which leads us to an uncomfortable truth about athletics, particularly those with high stakes and well-matched opponents. As much as we’d like to assume victory comes to those who are most deserving, in some cases, it also depends largely on human judgement – judgement that evolves in real time. Nestor Pitana could have looked at that video, seen Perisic’s hand touch a soccer ball, and decide that it didn’t warrant a penalty. Play would have continued, and Croatia may or may not have taken a lead. Which may or may not have forever changed the outcome of the game and the history of World Cup soccer – especially for Croatia and France. Heroes and legends and myth, all based on the situational judgement of a singular referee. Not whether it was a penalty. But whether it was a penalty at that particular moment. Imagine how players feel about that concept throughout their years of training and sacrifice, hoping for some tiny advantage over their opponent. All for that.
Such is the emotional cost of elite athletics, I suppose. Where human performance is only part of the picture. And where the most important moment of the game might come when no one is playing.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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