Lessons From the FIFA World Cup

The international football (soccer) circus known as the FIFA World Cup rolls around every four years and I spend way too much of the early summer watching the games. The best place to watch, I think, is an outdoor patio, preferably surrounded by partisans of one or both of the contenders. In Toronto it’s easy to find supporters for every team in the tournament.

This year, the games were played at either late morning or early afternoon Toronto time. Downtown office buildings have giant screens in lobbies or food courts so fans don’t have to sneak too far away from their offices for an extended lunch hour. Some spend much of the game on phones or laptops, presumably so bosses don’t know how much they’re shirking.

I enjoy the spectacle, the drama and emotion. I don’t really care who wins, as long as there are enough upsets and surprises to make things interesting.

I wrote about some of the dispute resolution lessons from the 2014 World Cup In my Practical Resolutions blog: playing to win vs. playing not to lose; how quality and team play usually prevail in the long run.

This year my idle thoughts were on the challenges of adjudication, especially adjudication in real time, in situations where everything (and nothing) may turn on each decision.

One of the biggest challenges the referees face is that players are always trying to bend the rules as much as they can get away with. The pushing; the shirt-tugging; the 20-meter stroll down the sideline before a throw in. All part of the game within the game.

As usual, social media was afire with complaints about the diving and fake injuries. Players who manage to carry an opponent on their backs in their own end of the field drop to the ground at the slightest touch when they near the opposing goal, trying to draw a penalty and a scoring chance.

The referee often waves off the obvious fakes, but they are sometimes taken in.

As Globe and Mail sports writer Cathal Kelly noted in a column early in the tournament, it’s all all part of the “realpolitik” of the game.

When Brazilian superstar Neymar Jr. – the most expensive and, quite possibly, most talented player today – rolls around on the ground in mock agony, he’s not fooling anyone. But he is buying himself a bit more room to move when he gets into scoring position.

(Those who haven’t seen Neymar’s over-the-top fakery can simply Google his name and find hundreds of hilarious memes including giant pandas rolling on the ground and soccer practices where kids learn to dive on command.)

It all reminds me of the tactics I sometimes see in disputes where every point in issue is argued like it’s a matter of life and death. Every request from the other side is unreasonable, unethical, and grossly unfair; every request from our side is a merely a question of justice and fairness.

Even if the procedural wrangling has nothing to do with the merits of the case, counsel will do the legal equivalent of writhing on the ground clutching their ankle, to try to get what they want from the adjudicator.

If they don’t, well, eventually they jump up and run off to re-join the play, until the next issue comes along.

Does it affect the outcome of the dispute? I like to think not, but it’s only human nature for the adjudicator to pay more attention to these tactics than they deserve.

In the final game of this year’s World Cup, the first goal was scored after a French player went down just outside the penalty area. To me, the replay clearly showed he had fallen before the Croatian player touched him, but the free kick had been awarded and the shot deflected into the net off a Croatian player.

Bad luck for Croatia all around, but they evened things up with a pretty goal shortly after. Karma, I thought.

Then, a second French goal that was even more controversial, when a penalty kick was awarded for a “hand ball” after a video replay.

This year, for the first time, FIFA used a video assistant referee (VAR) system to review calls on the field. The replays are supposed to be used only to “ensure that no clearly wrong decision” is made on the field in connection with goals or penalties. As usual with these systems, it showed the referee was right more often than not. In some cases, it did change a bad call; more often, it was inconclusive, so the call stood.

In this case, the replay showed the ball glancing off the player’s arm. No question there. But penalties for hand balls are supposed to be awarded only if the player intentionally puts a hand or arm in the way of the ball.

How is the referee supposed to know what is going on the the player’s mind, especially from a slow motion replay after the fact, when intention must be read into every slight movement of the arms while he’s jumping for a ball in a jostling crowd of other players?

The decision to award the penalty put France up 2-1 at halftime and it looked like it would be the deciding factor in the game. Not as it turned out. France scored two more beautiful, skillful goals from the field in the second half. I’m sure that was a relief for the referee as much as the players involved.

Croatia also scored one more in a losing cause, when the French goal tender suffered a brain cramp and kicked the ball close to an an opposing player who tapped it into the net.

This, too, reminded me of disputes I have adjudicated, where one side or the other momentarily took their eye off the ball – or tried too hard to make a clever play – with disastrous results.

Missed and blown calls from the referee; own goals by both teams. These things shouldn’t happen in a high-stakes game played by world-class teams, but they do.

Final score: 4-2. The better team on the day won.

And once again, football offers us some important – or maybe just mildly interesting – life lessons.

Comments are closed.