It’s already been
labelled as the greatest injustice in Australian sporting history. There is no
doubt that the Round of 16 penalty awarded to Italy against Lucas Neill will be remembered forever and
cause ongoing debate within Australia.

I played competitive football for 25 years before qualifying as a referee and officiating
at Premier League games. As a player, I rarely had doubts about what was a
correct decision. If I was involved in an incident, I knew my own motivations.

Much to my surprise when I started refereeing, decisions became far less clear.
Did that player dive or was he tripped? Was that a body check or did the two
players simply run into each other? Was that a deliberate handball? And it’s
not simply yes or no, foul or not. There are four stages of “punishment” for each incident, and the
referee must decide between:

  • No foul, play on;
  • Foul play, award a free kick only;
  • Foul play, deserving a yellow card;
  • Dangerous play, deserving a red card.

Imagine that. Every one of the hundreds of
incidents in a game must be instantly graded. The referee must stay up with the
game when the ball can be hit 75 metres by some of the fittest athletes in the
world, with billions of people receiving replays from every angle.

Now to the Italian penalty. Lucas Neill slid in front of Fabio Grosso to make a
tackle. Grosso turned back inside Neill, placing Neill between the ball and the
attacker. Grosso then fell over Neill, and maybe he dived. The crucial point,
though, is that Neill does not simply lie on the ground. He actually raises his
left arm as Grosso goes over him. It’s highly likely the Italian would have
dived in any case, but the referee sees the incident in its entirety. He was a
few metres away, and saw what looked like Neill’s attempt to block his
opponent. No hesitation, no doubt in the referee’s mind, penalty. Lucas Neill
had an outstanding tournament, but he should not have gone to ground and then
raised his arm and created the opportunity for the Italian.

Mark Viduka called it a “soft decision”, and Craig Foster said it was “50/50”.
It was not a ridiculous penalty decision, it was not a stupid refereeing
mistake. It was a reasonable judgement call that the official had to make, even
if it was harsh and could have gone either way.

I suspect most Australians, many new to the game, are particularly
upset because
of what might have been, and this clouds their judgement. We almost
extra time, we played well with the majority of possession, and we
somehow “deserved” better. Whatever the reason, the penalty itself was
not a complete
injustice, and welcome to the beautiful game.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey