Eduardo’s flop. Rooney’s pseudo-flop. Arshavin’s non-flop no-call. Chelsea’s transfer ban. Man U’s potential transfer ban. Bolton’s red card vs. Liverpool. Old Trafford’s record of convenient calls. The ejection of Arsene Wenger. The FA charges against Rafa Benitez. Clock management and injury time. The transfer value of any player. Pretty much every tackle, every non-tackle flop, every clutch, every grab, every player who was clutching and then was grabbed, every referee grudge, and every game that isn’t decided by 3 or more goals… though plenty of blowouts are included, too.
All of these come down to judgment calls. Often, they come down to a single moment, a single judgment that turns a game or results in a punishment or determines what a club will charge for one of its players. Sport is typically portrayed as a haven of objectivity, a place where rules governing behavior between white lines create the conditions for absolute correctness. Soccer shatters this illusion.
The Beautiful Game is closer to court room drama than it is to a 100 meter dash. Competing sides argue their case before a judge, pursuing whatever strategy they believe gives them the best chance for a verdict in their favor. But at any moment, the judge can rule out evidence, alter the proceedings, or toss someone out because he/she’s grumpy from gas pain.
Everybody tries to bend the rules as much as possible. Everyone constantly cries foul at the other side. And everyone genuinely feels cheated all the time while protesting any attempts to curb their own “creativity.” Sometimes, one side or the other makes a clear mistake and there’s little chance for subjectivity to enter into a decision. But any well-fought battle will include dozens of close calls, toss-ups, and rock-and-hard-place rulings for the judge. And that’s just what happens during the main event. Outside of the proceedings, various boards make ethical rulings, everyone is trying to poach talent from everyone else, and there are tons of off-the-record conversations that would make believers in justice blanch.
Take the case of Eduardo. One side argues there have been plenty of flops just like his that have gone unpunished. They also argue that the rules explicitly state that no rulings can be made on actions that were not penalized by a referee. They argue precedent. Then you have the other side, who want justice in this individual case against a player who clearly flopped and turned the game — why should he get away with this just because other players have? Isn’t that why players continue to flop in the box, because there is no threat of punishment? They want justice for this moment and a landmark decision designed to deter future crime.
Honestly, everybody is right. But either Eduardo will or won’t be punished, and thus someone will be left to cry foul… and then flip to the other side when Wayne Rooney does them up the same way.
Litigators will tell you that “big players” in the courtroom often have friendly relationships with judges and “get the calls” against less-established opponents. Often, corporations can simply afford to throw millions at piles of lawyers that will drown the little guy in paperwork and counter-suits. Likewise, soccer sees results lean in favor of the powers that be. Then again, when one of them is slapped with a transfer ban, one of the central reactions is “how can you do this to us?!” The aggrieved French club even claimed that Chelsea bragged about how they’d get away with stealing the player because they’re Chelsea.
Speaking of Chelsea, Roman Abramovich had no qualms about spending more than he made on the club to build a title contender. But now that Man City wants to do the same, he’s trying to partner with UEFA to prevent it. If those aren’t courtroom-style shenanigans, what are?
Instant replay won’t make soccer objective. Nothing will. There are too many moving parts, all of them trying to get away with as much as they can, arguing and acting for any advantage. And ruling bodies are always going to have to make difficult calls on incomplete evidence with competing precedents about what is and isn’t fair play on and off the pitch.
All we can hope is that our side wins. But at no point should we confuse a rooting interest with being right or wrong. Or, perhaps more accurately, at no point should we assume being right or wrong has anything to do with winning or losing. That’s soccer.