L ast week Northern Irish World Cup dreams were shattered at the hands of Switzerland, ultimately by one incredibly controversial refereeing decision. A Swiss attempt struck Corry Evans on the back in the penalty area, but the referee saw differently. Evans was deemed to have handballed, conceding a penalty which AC Milan defender Ricardo Rodriguez slotted home coolly. This was the first and only goal of the two-legged tie, and therefore the one thing fans will point to in Northern Ireland’s heartbreaking farewell to a place in Russia next year.
We don’t need to venture too far to bring up another example of refereeing calamity on the international stage. 8 years ago the Republic of Ireland were robbed of a World Cup in despairingly similar circumstances. In a playoff fixture that saw them put in a remarkably plucky performance, they were undone by a spot of juggling by notorious Frenchman Thierry Henry. Henry evidently controlled the ball with his hands before squaring the ball to William Gallas, who bundled the ball in to extinguish Irish hopes of making the trip to South Africa 2010.
International football clearly provides the platform for this extent of refereeing bewilderment, and this stems from the high-stakes nature of tournament football. However, neither Northern Ireland, the Republic nor England will consider this a coherent explanation of why their team crashed out of a world cup. The latter will not appreciate any reminder of their exit from the 2010 World Cup. Despite being 2-1 down to Germany, the Three Lions were growing in confidence after Matthew Upson had salvaged a foothold in the game. Minutes before halftime Frank Lampard drilled an effort that cannoned off the crossbar over the line for a memorable England equaliser. Everyone in Bloemfontein prepared themselves for the restart, apart from referee Jorge Larrionda who was adamant that the German defence had not been breached. Play was waved on and England sunk to a 4-1 humiliation.
But none of these clangers come close to the legendary performance of Graham Poll at the 2006 World Cup. Josup Siminic, a Croatian left back, committed two bookable offences in a group match against Australia. Poll rightly made the decision to brandish two yellow cards, one in each half. However, his bookkeeping went awry and Siminic remained on the field, not quite believing his luck. The Croat only got his comeuppance in injury time when a further foul earned him a third yellow, with Poll finally showing red. Whether Poll tried redefining the rules or simply made an unforgivable error we’ll never quite know, but this calamity culminated in his retirement from football during the next season.
“As hilarious as they are heartbreaking”
For every refereeing blooper, there’s a wave of demand for procedural change. The 2010 World Cup catalysed the motion for goal-line technology, and Northern Ireland’s recent injustice will only increase the appetite for video replays to be made available to referees across world football. On the other hand, some argue that infrequencies in refereeing are just another component of the game’s unpredictability. For me though, they’re as hilarious as they are heartbreaking and that’s enough said.