RICHMOND, VA—There are only certain conditions under which all of a soccer ball crossing all of a white line painted on a patch of green grass has any significance whatsoever. But Frank Lampard and England had every right to believe that the ball he struck from about 20 yards out over German keeper’s Manuel Neuer’s head met all of the relevant conditions:
A competitive soccer match was under way, the ball was in play, no foul was committed, no one was offside and the ball hit the underside of the crossbar before bouncing at least a yard behind the line. Under the laws of the game, that is supposed to be a goal. But the laws of the game also say that it can’t be a goal unless the referee gives this. And as both the referee and the assistant referee were badly out of position, neither saw the play clearly, and play was allowed to continue.
The significance of the blown call in this match was, to put it lightly, large. England had been thoroughly outplayed by Germany over the first half hour, lucky to be trailing only 2-0. But Matthew Upson’s headed goal produced an adrenaline rush, and if Lampard’s goal had been properly given, England would not only have leveled the score but would have an enjoyed nine or 10 minutes of fevered momentum going into halftime, in which they possibly could have grabbed a third. At a minimum, they would have gone into halftime on a high and feeling good about themselves, not aggrieved.
Instead, the Germans withstood some English pressure the first part of the second half, finally converting a counterattacking opportunity off an England free kick into a third goal with cool precision, as keeper David James got caught leaning the wrong way on a ball that ended up being shot almost right at him. An overloaded England then conceded the fourth shortly thereafter in embarrassing fashion.
Now it is entirely possible—indeed, one of the likelier scenarios—that if England had leveled the game at 2, the final score would have ended up being Germany 4, England 2. Indeed, one of the ancillary dimensions of the injustice of this match is that Germany is deprived full credit for its performance—thoroughly better than England for most of the day.
And one of the ancillary beneficiaries of the focus on the not-given goal will be England’s back four, that was cut open time and again and gave up two thoroughly embarrassing goals (the first and the fourth) on long balls (the first a goal kick), will not be the sole focus of post-match analysis.
So certainly England might well have lost this match anyway. But we will never know. And not just England but the football watching world were deprived of seeing what would have gone down as an instant classic—any match at this level that reaches 2-2 by default approaches that category, no matter what happens next in the game.
Where should the finger be pointed? Not at the referee or the linesman, but at Sepp Blatter, the FIFA honcho who has stubbornly refused calls to use video technology in the sport whatsoever. He likes to argue that human error is part of the game. I agree, but when there are convenient ways to remove the most obvious human errors without disrupting the flow of the game, it should be used. The one call in soccer that should be subject to review is whether a fairly struck ball in play crossed the line. Goals are so rare in soccer that you have to get it right, as often as possible, to preserve the fairness of the competition.
This is especially true in a sport where the culture is very much one of “do what you can get away with.” Neuer had to have seen that Lampard’s shot crossed the line, but he promptly picked the ball up and played it out as if it hadn’t. In a sport like golf, he would be called a cheat. Maybe he should be called a cheat in this case, too. But Neuer is simply conforming the culture of the sport. Very rare is the occasion in which a player in this sport hand back a gift from the referee. On ESPN, Steve McManaman at halftime called upon Germany to deliberately score an own goal at the start of the second half as a matter of fairness. Nice thought, but no chance of happening in this sport.
Employing video technology for exactly one purpose—deciding whether the ball crossed the line—needs to be implemented immediately, even if this means forcibly removing certain people’s heads from other parts of their body. Jurgen Klinsmann was right to describe the non-call as a “disgrace.” England simply weren’t good enough in this World Cup, but if the nature of their defeat leads to a straightforward, easily implemented change in how the game is officiated that eliminates the worst errors, it will not have been a campaign in vain.