How World Cup referees missed the Luis Suarez biting incident

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When a player seemingly bites another one on the soccer field in the biggest tournament in the world and gets away with it, the question naturally turns to the role of the referee in the incident.

Giorigio Chiellini turned the spotlight on the refs after Tuesday’s Italy-Uruguay game, in which Uruguay striker Luis Suarez seemed to take a bite out of Chiellini’s shoulder in an off-the-ball incident. Chiellini excoriated Mexican center referee Marcos Rodriguez for calling nothing more than a foul on Suarez and granting a direct kick to Italy—this after Rodriguez had earlier issued a red card to Italy’s Claudio Marchisio for a studs-up challenge.

“It was absolutely shameful,” Chiellini told Sky Sports Italia. “The game was decided by the referee and if one team should’ve gone through it was us.”

I rewatched the Suarez incident multiple times on replay, to try and get a sense of what the center referee and his assistant saw and what they missed, based on positioning and mechanics.

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In terms of positioning, a center referee typically wants to “box” play—that is, he wants to keep the preponderance of action between him and the assistant referee on the side of the field in question—so that there are two sets of eyes watching play and so that the center ref remains in eye contact with his assistant ref. In practice, this means the center ref runs a “diagonal” from one side of the field to the other, traversing the center circle to box play with the assistant ref. (The two assistant refs are positioned on opposite sides of the field; in addition to watching for offside, they are empowered to signal for fouls and other misconduct, though the center referee has the final decision on all calls.)

The guideline concerning boxing play, however, is in constant tension with the necessity to be in close proximity to the ball. A center ref doesn’t want to simply set up on the left side of the 18-yard box when the play drifts toward the right. To be in position to make critical calls, he’s got to move with the action, to some extent. But if the ball switches quickly to the other side of the field after he’s drifted toward the center, he can find himself in a less than optimal position, neither boxing play nor being close to the ball.


​In the incident in question, center ref Rodriguez sets up in good position on the left side to box play as Uruguay moves into the attacking third. The assistant referee is to the right side of the field in the picture below, out of the scene.


​As the action intensifies on the right side, Rodriguez drifts closer to the top of the center circle. There are a lot of bodies and twice as many feet to look at, and he wants to be sure he’s close to the ball to get a good view of what’s going in those tight spaces.


​Rodriguez here has the ball and 16 players—pretty much anyone who could make a play at this point—in front of him. However, his positioning in the middle of the field leaves him susceptible to a shift of play to his left. That’s exactly what happens.


​The Uruguay chip floats in, and Chiellini heads it away.


​If there is a point at which we can criticize Rodriguez’s mechanics, it is here. Chiellini’s header sends the ball to Rodriguez’s left side. The referee, fatefully, turns his body, without much urgency, in anticipation of where the ball will go. At the same moment, Suarez is closing in on Chiellini.


​The better move for Rodriguez here would have been to side-step to the left or back-pedal a few feet, keeping his body facing more toward the goal line. Instead, Rodriguez has angled toward the ball, leaving most of the players—including Suarez and Chiellini—out of his direct line of sight.


​He now begins to jog toward the ball, at the precise moment at which Suarez digs in on Chiellini’s shoulder. Had the center ref been further to his left, he might—might—have been in position to get a clearer view of the Suarez-Chiellini incident, though he would have been even further away from it.


​Now Rodriguez turns his head to see the two players tumble to the ground. At this point he is about 20 yards from the two players. My sense, from watching this video and ESPN’s tactical overhead view, is that the assistant referee, who is even further from the action, may have indicated the foul through the headset.


​Rodriguez blows the whistle to stop play.


​And immediately signals a direct kick for Italy. The quickness with which this decision is made is further evidence that he has received info through his headset from the assistant. It’s possible he saw enough through his peripheral vision to make the call, but his positioning and body mechanics make that unlikely.


​The question at this point is, what did the center ref and his assistant ref see? This is the insidiousness of biting—just as we saw with the Ivanovic incident, it’s both difficult to see in close quarters and difficult to believe even if you did see it. But even if neither official saw the bite, Suarez is guilty at the very least of a head butt (one much more egregious than that which got Pepe sent off against Germany) and should have received a red card for that alone. As for those who say Rodriguez should have taken note of the bite marks Chiellini showed him, I just don’t see a referee taking that kind of evidence into account after the fact.

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What is the upshot from a refereeing standpoint? Would better positioning and mechanics have allowed Rodriguez to see what happened? Was the assistant ref not bold enough to call for a red card on Suarez for violent conduct? Would an additional referee on the field have made a difference?  I’m generally opposed to anything—from throwing more referees onto the field to adding technology—that complicates and slows soccer. Part of the game’s global appeal is its simplicity, and its human element. But I wonder whether an official behind the goal line, as has been used in various European leagues and tournaments in recent years, would have spotted Suarez’s assault on Chiellini and provided the center referee with the information he needed to make the more appropriate call in this case.

It’s unfortunate that Suarez was not sent off at this point, as he well deserved to be. No one wants to see the referees at the center of a momentous result like a World Cup match. But that is the game we’re given and the game we love. For the most part, the refereeing has been quite good at this World Cup, which only brings the incidents like this one into sharper relief.

FIFA certainly has enough evidence to issue harsh discipline to Suarez. Personally, I don’t think he should ever be allowed on the pitch again. He has surrendered any benefit of the doubt. Imagine the anger Chiellini must feel right now. No opponent should ever be subjected to that again. Luis Suarez is not worth it.

To borrow a baseball phrase, three strikes and you’re out