Referees in middle of Italian storms too

Blame the referee — we all do it.

But the past few days have not been a happy time for the men in the middle.

“Even the Premier League is in trouble” was the headline yesterday in Gazzetta dello Sport and you can’t help sensing the Italians in particular feel relieved when other countries are plunged into big post-match controversies.

There were four controversies over the weekend in Serie A, not what was wanted after Friday’s announcement of new prosecutions for match-fixing, this time involving Napoli.

Both Rome clubs were on the wrong end of some poor decisions.

Lazio felt they were robbed at Fiorentina, losing 2-0 after a strong penalty appeal was turned down and a goal was wrongly disallowed for offside. For good measure they also finished the game with nine men.

Roma lost 3-2 at home to Udinese after being two up — in this case it was an offside not given and a very soft penalty award that caused Roma manager Zdenek Zeman to explode: “It’s always said that referees don’t decide who wins the title: in reality I think they can.”

But the incident that has truly ignited a sense of injustice came down south in Sicily, and almost inevitably it involved Juventus.

The champions are closing in on their 50th consecutive league game without defeat. As Italy’s favourite and least favourite club Juventus are in much the same position as Manchester United in England. Every football fan is watching their games like a hawk — or in some cases like a vulture, because of their history of ‘influencing’ match officials.

In this case the key official was Luca Gervasoni. Not the most experienced referee — he’s taken charge of just over 80 games in the six years since being promoted to the top flight — but with an assistant, Luca Maggiani, who has been an international referee since 2004.

Italy now also has goal-line assistants and behind one of the goals was Uefa elite referee, Nicola Rizzoli, who you might recall from a big match in Dublin a couple of weeks back.

25 minutes into the game in Catania the home side scored. Nicolas Spolli headed a cross against the foot of a post and Gonzalo Bergessio following it up poking the ball past Gigi Buffon.

Gervasoni signalled a goal, on the touchline Maggiani set off back towards the centre-circle for the restart. Passing the Juventus bench he was harangued by several players, whereupon he stopped and called Gervasoni over for a chat. After a few seconds it became apparent both of them were talking through their headsets to Rizzoli behind the goal.

Seconds passed. Then more seconds. The discussion continued. The Catania fans’ joy turned to doubt, then outrage. Almost a minute after the goal was signalled, Gervasoni reversed his decision and awarded a free-kick to Juventus, ruling Bergessio had been offside in the build-up.

A great example of officials being prepared to change a decision — unfortunately the replays showed they were wrong. Maggiani had kept his flag down, correctly. The Juve protests had caused him to doubt his instincts; then Rizzoli’s advice that the ball had deflected off another Catania player before striking the post convinced him.

“Psychological subjection” is a term they often use in Italy — the way officials instinctively side with the bigger club when it comes to a close call. It obviously happens, and not just in Serie A. But this particular case also shows there can be psychological snags when you have a top referee doing the goal-line job.

You have the benefit of experience to make the call on crucial decisions, such as a foul in the goal area or whether the ball has crossed the line. However, standing behind the goal is not a good vantage point to assess whether someone is offside on the 18-yard line.

There is a risk that officials on the goal-line can influence decisions they are in no position to judge, especially when they can pull rank on the man in the middle.

Referees need all the help they can get: but it also needs to be help they can override.

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Saturday, September 18, 2021

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