Copa America : Notes – try your hand at it

This email is a plea. Soccer fans, it’s time to embrace instant replay. Insist on it even. We understand all the arguments against it, and we still think there’s overwhelming evidence to support it.

Let’s take a look at Brazil vs. Peru from last night – a Brazilian offense that created opportunities but couldn’t convert and a Peruvian offense that created ONE chance inside the box and came away with one goal. Teams win as the Peruvians did last night often enough in soccer, but they should do so on the back of tenacious defending and clinical finishing, not on a horribly missed call.

Brazil Peru Copa America Centenario
Data provided by Opta

Taking a quick look back at the goal, it could not be clearer that Raúl Ruidíaz played the ball with his hand. This was not a question of natural or unnatural positioning of the hand, not a question of whether the ball played the hand or vice versa, this was simply a botched call. Ruidíaz reaches back to get something on the ball, it goes in, the referees huddle for a matter of minutes and somehow, the goal stands and Peru go on to win. A popular reaction has been chalking the incident up to karma coming back around after Miller Bolaños’ disallowed goal against Brazil earlier in the tournament and the lack of a penalty call when Edison Flores was tripped in the box earlier in the same game.

Let’s take a look at controversial calls in the Copa games so far. There have been 6 calls flagged by the analysts at Opta as ‘contentious’. Referees have made plenty more head-scratching decisions, but these 6 were so blatantly off that our data providers flagged them as such! 2 of the 6 were questions of what color card a player deserved to see, relatively minor incidents especially given that both occurrences were late in the game. 2 of 6 were penalty kicks not given in tight games – significant errors given that penalty kicks result in goals 80% of the time, and magnified by the scoreline of the game. The final 2 of 6 were decisions about whether or not a goal should stand – indisputably significant situations, again even further magnified by a tight scoreline.

Team Benefiting Team Aggrieved Call made Correct call Result
Paraguay Costa Rica Red card Yellow card Kendall Watson, Costa Rica’s strongest defender was forced to miss their 4-0 thrashing at the hands of the USMNT
Ecuador Brazil Goal kick Goal for Ecuador Ecuador should have been awarded a goal in a game that eventually finished 0-0
Brazil Ecuador Yellow card Red Card Late on (85′) Brazil should have gone up a man for an awfully dangerous challenge – Jaime Ayovi stayed on, avoided suspension and scored in Ecuador’s following game
Jamaica Mexico No call Penalty Kick While down 1-0, Jamaica’s Clayton Donaldson should have been awarded a penalty kick – Mexico would add a late goal to win 2-0
Brazil Peru No call Penalty Kick With the game tied 0-0, Edison Flores was clearly tripped in the box, though the referee allowed play to continue, see the next line for more on how it worked out…
Peru Brazil Goal Hand ball Raúl Ruidíaz reaches back to make contact with a cross directing the ball into the net with his arm, Brazil lose 1-0.


People make mistakes all the time, referees are no different, but when these mistakes can be corrected, why shouldn’t they be? Why does soccer accept this? Why do fans accept this? The reasons are usually summed up hence:

  1. Uncertainty is a part of the game. The referee and linesmen are the arbiters of the action. Instant replay would limit their authority
  2. Football is global. Many places do not have access to the technology necessary to implement instant replay
  3. Football is a fast-paced game with few opportunities for stoppage. Instant replay would unnecessarily slow the pace

Let’s look at each closely, in reverse order:

Yes it’s a fast paced game, but you don’t have to review every foul, every offside, every tackle, not even every penalty shout or card – just start with the key spots like goalline events and the plays immediately preceding them. Essentially, go one step past the goalline technology implemented in the EPL (incredibly successfully, I might add). Those are the rare but significant events worth stopping things for and if a goal is given the game stops anyway – hell there was a multi-minute delay before restarting after Peru’s handball-goal last night anyway and they still got it wrong! A few 30 second stoppages over 90 minutes of play will not change the flow of the game.

Football is global, but so are basketball, cricket and tennis among other sports. The notion that instant replay at the highest level of the game somehow impacts access across the globe is disingenuous at best. Worse, it feeds conspiracy theories and vilifies the referees. Soccer has the largest playing area of any sport, and there’s no way referees (who run 6-8 miles per game) are going to be in the best positions for every call.

Uncertainty is part of the game – and given the low scoring nature of the game, that uncertainty is here to stay. But let’s not mistake the luck of ball deflections, odd bounces and narrow misses with the luck of a referee being tired from running 8 miles and making a bad call from a less than ideal position. Video replay would not disenfranchise the refs, instead it would give them more modern tools (to call video replay a ‘modern tool’ at this point only makes sense inside the hallowed halls of FIFA) with which to make better decisions!