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Controversial refereeing decisions in sport

Alex Dimond
March 11, 2011
On the all-time list of controversial decisions, one wonders what Robin van Persie would make of Diego Maradona's goalscoring effort © Getty Images

Robin van Persie called it 'a joke' - and more than once, just in case you missed it the first time. Arsene Wenger also said a number of less-than-complementary things about referee Massimo Busacca's decision to send the Dutchman off for a second bookable offence on Wednesday - a decision he believes led to Arsenal's ultimate Champions League defeat at the hands of Barcelona.

Controversial decisions from officials are nothing new to sports - even in games where one side (*cough* Arsenal *cough*) fail to even have a shot at goal. But before Wenger and Van Persie get too high-and-mighty about their misfortune, they might want to take a look at these ten questionable decisions from the sporting annals:

Diego Maradona's 'Hand of God', 1986
On the Mount Rushmore of bad refereeing decisions in football, this would occupy George Washington's spot - and possibly the other three, too. Quite simply, no other officiating decision continues to linger in the memory, particularly of England fans. In the aftermath of a Falklands War that created a great deal of enmity between the two nations (particularly on the South American side), Argentina looked for revenge in the quarter-finals of the 1986 World Cup. With the scoreline at 0-0 just five minutes into the second half, a sliced clearance from Steve Hodges looped up inside the penalty box. With Peter Shilton rushing out to meet the ball, the diminutive Maradona lept into the air and ensured his closed fist beat Shilton's into the ball ... knocking it into the unguarded net. The referee, Ali Bin Nasser, seemingly didn't see it - quite frankly rubbish officiating. Maradona subsequently showed his undoubted quality with one of the finest goals in World Cup history to clinch the match - a dichotomy that would in many ways sum up his career - but, for some reason, it was the first goal that would remain embedded in English memories for decades to come.

The USA's Olympic basketball golden streak is ended, 1972
Matches between these two world superpowers always took on a sharp political edge - heightening the drama of games like the 'Miracle on Ice' at the 1980 Olympics - but this game was dramatic on its own sporting merits. The USA, having never lost an Olympic match, came into the final of the 1972 basketball tournament comfortable favourites to defeat the USSR (who hadn't lost in the previous rounds either). With three seconds left, however, they were 48-49 behind - but looked like being saved as Doug Collins intercepted a pass and drove to the basket, drawing a foul and earning two free throws. He made both of them - but not until after a chain of events that left practically everyone confused. The USSR claimed they had called a timeout after the first of Collins' two throws (enabling them to make changes and prepare a final, last-ditch play) but the inexperienced officials never allowed it. Instead the Russian players were forced to inbound the ball after Collins' successful second throw - as FIBA rules did not allow timeouts at such a point in a game - and time expired, allowing the US to celebrate their 64th consecutive Olympic victory and another gold medal.

But the Russians were having none of it, remonstrating with officials over their perceived slight. Eventually, FIBA chief Renato William Jones intervened and it was decided that the final seconds would be replayed - but intially only one second was put on the club instead of three, ensuring time expired before it should have and the sending the USA into raptures once again. But Italian-born Jones stepped in again, forcing another go-round. At the third time of asking the Soviets successfully inbounded the ball, and Aleksandr Belov collected a heaved pass, evaded two defenders, and dropped in an easy lay-up to grab victory - and this time it was final. The Americans subsequently voted to refuse to accept their silver medals, a stance that remains to this day. Jones was unrepentant about the whole palaver: "The Americans have to learn how to lose, even when they think they are right."

Geoff Hurst's dubious goal, 1966
With no higher stage in football than a World Cup, it is disappointing but perhaps not surprising that it would attract some of the most controversial calls in the game's history. While England were on the receiving end of Maradona's 'Hand of God', 20 years earlier they had certainly benefitted. Never mind the defeat of Argentina en route to the final - where captain Antonio Rattín was dismissed for foul language despite the referee not speaking Spanish - it was against West Germany that the hosts had their biggest slice of luck. With the game already in extra-time, Geoff Hurst's swivel and shot clattered off the underside of the bar, off the line and out. To this day replays remain inconclusive, but the Azerbaijani assistant linesman gave the goal. Hurst would go on to grab a hat-trick with the last kick of the game, but who knows what might have happened had the decision not gone England's way.

Dustin Johnson - partly through his own stupidity - fell foul of the rules at Whistling Straits at the worst possible time © Getty Images

Dustin Johnson's sandy grave, 2010
Offering rulings on on-course problems and disqualifying players who sign for incorrect scores is often as much as golf officials have to get involved in on tour, but controversy still managed to find them at the 2010 USPGA Championship. Staged on a Whistling Straits course that is littered with 900 tiny, rudimentary sand-based 'bunkers', officials decided to keep them classed as such - despite the fact spectators would walk through many of them during each day's play - and thus keep the rules that surround them. Fast-forward to the 72nd and final hole of the event, then, and leader Dustin Johnson. After airing his tee-shot out to the right, Johnson found himself in exactly one such bunker - except he wasn't aware, believing it instead to be grass worn away by four-days of trampling underfoot. The American grounded his club as he addressed the ball, forcing officials to subsequently inform him he would have to accept a two-shot penalty. That cost him victory in the major championship - and with his head all over the place he would be knocked out of the subsequent playoff first as Martin Kaymer ultimately benefitted from his misfortune. Johnson might not be the brightest button on tour, and the PGA have since insisted the local rule was clearly labelled around the course and clubhouse, but odds suggest the 'bunkers' will not be classed as such next time a major event comes to town.

Hair sends Pakistan packing, 2006
Pity the cricket umpire - for years having to suffer as every one of his LBW and run-out decisions were poured over by sceptical pundits, and these days having the added ignominy of seeing many of them referred by players and then reversed by colleagues in the stands with access to replays and greater technology. But arguably one of the most controversial umpire decisions in the history of the sport didn't fall into that category - it was an unprompted decision to penalise the Pakistan cricket team for ball-tampering in 2006 at The Oval.

An experienced ICC referee, Australian Darrell Hair doubtless knew what he was doing when he, alongside Billy Doctrove, penalised the Pakistan side five runs for tampering with the ball, but even he probably didn't expect the subsequent fallout. Pakistan, led by Inzamam ul-Haq played on until tea, but refused to come out for the final session after enjoying their light refreshments. Hair returned to the dressing room to order them back out, but they refused - leading to the umpires removing the bails and declaring the Test forfeited in England's favour (the first such ending to a contest in history).

Pakistan, presumably aware that a significant line had been crossed, would subsequently re-emerge, but by then the umpires deemed it too late and the game, and its participants, was plunged into a period of prolonged mudslinging. It wasn't Hair's only brush with controversy - he had previously been one of the first to penalise Muttiah Muralitharan's suspect bowling action - but it was his most serious, ultimately leading to his retirement from the circuit.

Gallaraga cruelly denied a perfect game, 2010
Many of the most controversial decisions in sporting history aggrieve (or aid) an entire team, but when they affect an individual and blight his pursuit of a memorable milestone it perhaps becomes even more poignant. That was the case that befell poor Armando Galarraga, a pitcher with the Detroit Tigers. Perfect games in baseball - where the pitcher does not give up a base the entire game - are rare enough, with only 18 recorded in over a 100 years of the game's modern era. But Galarraga was just a few pitches away from one of his own, after recording two outs in the ninth and final innings of the regular season game. And then umpire Jim Joyce scuppered the dream, incorrectly calling the Cleveland Indians' Jason Donald in on a ground-ball when television repeats clearly showed he was comfortably out. Joyce, quickly realising his mistake, was disconsolate at scuppering the Venezuelan's milestone pursuit.

"I just cost that kid a perfect game," Joyce said. "I thought [Donald] beat the throw. I was convinced he beat the throw, until I saw the replay." Galarraga took it with a grace that would later see him awarded a 'Medal for Reasonableness', saying: "Nobody's perfect." But he hasn't come near achieving the holy grail of a pitcher's career before or since.

Serena Williams let it be known she disagreed with the line judge's inopportune call © Getty Images

Williams talks her way out of the US Open, 2009
There are forgettable ways to exit a grand slam tournament ... and then there is the way Serena Williams found herself dumped out of the 2009 US Open at Flushing Meadows. Serving at 5-6 down in the second set (having lost the first), Williams was in trouble at 15-30 when she faulted on her first serve. Then, on her second, the female line judge called for a foot fault - a decision rarely if-ever made at such points in a match, especially with such dubious evidence - that handed Clijsters a match point. Williams, outraged at the call, stormed up to the Japanese judge and reportedly said: 'If I could, I would take this ******* ball and shove it down your ******* throat.'

After her comments were reported to the match umpire, Serena was penalised a point - therefore handing the match to Clijsters, who would go on to win the final in emotional circumstances. Williams remained overwhelmingly unrepentant. '"An apology for? From me?" she asked afterwards. "How many people yell at linespeople? Players, athletes get frustrated - I don't know how many times I've seen that happen.

"I haven't really thought about it to have any regrets. What did I say? You didn't hear? I've never been in a fight in my whole life, so I don't know why she would have felt threatened."

Cueto tries, but video referee says he failed, 2007
The rise of video referees in many sports (although still not football) has greatly reduced the number of obvious and marginal calls officials get wrong. But what happens when even the replays are somewhat inconclusive? That was the case during the 2007 Rugby World Cup final, as England winger Mark Cueto crossed the line while being dragged out into touch by South Africa defender Danie Rossouw. Replays from a number of angles failed to provide a conclusive picture of the incident - with a breakdown in communication between the French TV producers and Australian video referee Stuart Dickinson adding to the three minute delay in making a decision - before ultimately the try was disallowed. England, 8-9 down at the time, went on to lose the final, and would cite the decision as the turning point in the match. Dickinson maintained he was "100% happy" with his decision, but Cueto disagreed. "I will take with me to the grave the certainty that I should have been given a try in a World Cup final," he later wrote.

Roy Jones Jr punches his way to Olympic defeat, 1985
Boxing frequently throws up many controversial decisions - they are almost par for the course in a judgment process that, ultimately, is somewhat subjective - but the light-middleweight gold medal fight at the 1984 Olympics really takes the biscuit. Held in Los Angeles, throughout the boxing tournament opposing countries had claimed United States boxers had been looked on favourably by officials. The most vocal opponents were South Korea, whose fighter Park Si Hun would come up against the blistering Roy Jones Jr in the light-middleweight final. A 19-year-old Jones Jr completely outmatched the Korean, knocking him down for an eight-count and forcing him to commit a number of holding penalties, and ultimately finished with 86 connected punches to Park's 32.

Nevertheless, judges Bob Kasule of Uganda, Alberto Duran of Uruguay, and Hiouad Larbi of Morocco came back with the verdict that Park had won, leading to a 3-2 majority and gold for the battered brawler, a decision that shocked the match referee. Amid many rumours, an IOC investigation ten years later would declare that the three judges received hospitality from South Korean officials that may have influenced their decision-making, but declined to reverse the fight result and give Jones Jr - who would go on to become a world champion at numerous weight classes, while Park would never opt to turn professional - a gold medal he surely deserved.

Russians skate on extra-thick ice, 2002
Skating is an underrated source of sporting controversy - few who know the story will need reminding of the Tanya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan drama - and it is also the only event in which the Olympic Committee has ultimately awarded two gold medals. That happened in 2002 in the figure skating pairs, as the Russian pair of Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze faced off against the Canadian duo Jamie Salé and David Pelletier. Russia had won every gold in the event since 1964, and were determined not to see the streak end in Salt Lake City. But a slight but distinct technical error from Sikharulidze in the all-important final free skating section of the event looked to have proven the difference as the flawless Canadians appeared to have the upper hand. But the judges disagreed, as the Russians' superior presentation scores (at the time weighted more heavily than the technical ones) enabled them to ride to victory amid much disbelief.

Cheating was immediately suggestion, with various dodgy dealings involving the Russian media alluded to in the press. Tearful French judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne later broke down, hinting she had been pressured into favourably grading the Russian pair by her domestic governing body no matter how the routines turned out. After an investigation, the IOC decided that awarding both pairs a gold medal was the quickest way to end the controversy, a landmark move that has yet to be repeated. Nevertheless, the bad taste remains - but so does Russia's prodigious record in the event.

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