The Greatest Refereeing Controversies of all-time

December 29, 2017

- Grant Whittington

It’s fair to say referees have a difficult job, especially so in the modern age – where so many cameras are now focused on the action and the level of media scrutiny is more intense than ever.

Media aside, the job of refereeing top-flight football matches (and managing player egos) is challenging, and it’s fair to say that even the best officials have been responsible for some truly controversial decisions through the ages.

We’ll look back at three of these controversies and assess the impact that they had on those involved.

 Over the line? Geoff Hurst’s winning goal in the World Cup Final, 1966

We all know that English football reached its zenith in 1966, when the national team won its first (and only) World Cup.

Were it not for a controversial refereeing decision in the final, however, the match could have had an entirely difficult outcome. It was evenly poised at 2-2 entering extra time, with England pressing forward and West Germany content to play patiently on the counter-attack.

Then, 11 minutes into the first period of extra time, Alan Ball burst down the right and delivered a low ball into the feet of striker Geoff Hurst. The forward, who had equalised for England during normal time, turned sharply in the box and thundered a shot towards goal. The ball struck the underside of the crossbar with immense force, before bouncing down and being cleared by a German defender.

Referee Gottfried Dienst seemed confused for a moment or two, as England’s players appealed and the fans began to celebrate. He then consulted with his linesman Tofiq Bahramov, who vehemently indicated that the ball had crossed the line and compelled Dienst to award the goal.

This decision is questionable to say the least, with Bahramov’s positioning far from the ideal and the referee clearly uncertain as to whether or not the ball had crossed the line. The video footage from a single camera lens is also inconclusive, although most neutrals would probably agree that the goal should not have been given.

Despite this, history was made and Hurst’s hat-trick goal in the second period of extra time settled the result beyond any doubt. This remains the single most controversial refereeing decision of all-time and one that just happened to decide the biggest game in world football.

You did what? Zico’s header ruled out, 1978

If the decision to award Hurst’s goal in 1966 was the most controversial refereeing moment of all time, our next selection is the most baffling.

During the opening game in Group 3 of the 1978 World Cup (hosted in Argentina), a talented Brazil side took on Sweden in Mar del Plata. The Brazilians were fancied to begin their campaign with a convincing win, but the Swedes started well and took a first half lead through Thomas Sjöberg. While Reinaldo scored a forceful equaliser before the break, Brazil struggled to break down an organised and determined Swedish side as the second half progressed.

As the game ticked into stoppage time, Brazil forced a right-wing corner. Although English referee Clive Thomas seemed to signal that this would be the last action of the game, the corner was delivered into the area and midfielder Zico managed to meet it with a powerful, six-yard header.

Somewhere between the corner being dispatched and Zico burying his header in the back of the net, Thomas inexplicably decided to blow his whistle for full-time. Cue confusion and vehement protests from the Brazilians as they realised that the goal would not stand, while the Swedish players celebrated a superb result.

Thomas stands by his decision to this day and it’s fortunate in some respects that it did not hinder Brazil’s progression to the second group stage. They eventually claimed third place ahead of Italy, helping the players to accept Thomas’ decision.

Is this the worst refereeing decision of all time? Schumacher floors Battiston, 1982

While the first two decisions were controversial, they were no means the worst examples of refereeing in the history of the game. Our third selection is arguably the worst ever refereeing decision and one that still leaves a sour taste in the mouth to this day.

In 1982, a stylish French side progressed to the semi-finals of the World Cup, where they took on a battle-hardened West Germany outfit. They were favourites to progress, but the game was evenly poised at 1-1 after an hour when the game’s decisive moment took place.

During a rapid breakaway, French defender Patrick Battiston found himself racing towards goal in pursuit of a diagonal through ball. At the same time, the German goalkeeper Harald Schumacher began to race off his line in order to confront Battiston, in what appeared to be an attempt to clear the ball.

Schumacher’s reactions were a little slow and Battiston was able to direct the ball goalwards. A split second later, he was floored by the marauding Schumacher, who leapt towards his adversary and twisted his body to ensure a collision. Battiston was immediately knocked unconscious by Schumacher’s hip, while he also suffered damaged vertebrae and lost some of his front teeth. Emergency medics even had to administer oxygen on the field, while Battiston later slipped into a temporary coma.

While Battiston’s shot trickled wide, there seemed little doubt that France would be awarded a free-kick on the edge of the box and Schumacher would be issued a red card. Cue utter amazement when Schumacher’s reckless challenge went entirely unpunished, with referee Charles Corver keeping his cards in his pocket and awarding Germany a goal kick.

The game ended 3-3 after extra time, with Germany progressing 5-4 on penalties.



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