In more academic legal circles, there is a concept called “procedural justice”: in essence, the notion that fair procedures are the best guarantee for fair outcomes. For the most part, this is a concept that seems to have little application outside the esoteric worlds of judicial decision-making and legal system design. Yet I may have recently discovered the most visible, public, and nonacademic test case for the idea of procedural justice imaginable: the World Cup.
Along with the rest of humanity, I have spent the last few weeks watching the World Cup. I have never been a true soccer/football fan. But I used to play as a kid, and I root intensely for the U.S. team out of patriotic pride. In this particular World Cup, though, I have been stunned by just how often the linesmen and referees get it wrong. Soccer is a low scoring affair to begin with. Every goal counts. Often a single goal makes the difference between winning and losing or tying. And a single loss or tie often makes the difference between a team advancing or going home.
The U.S. match against Slovenia was an obvious example. In the last few minutes of the match, with the score tied, the U.S. seemed to score on a free kick. The referee called some sort of unexplained foul, which no one else in the world saw, disallowing the goal, resulting in a final score of 2-2 (FIFA subsequently made the ref subject to an expedited review, and he was conspicuously left off the list of officials for the next series of matches).
Then, just this past weekend, there were two more horrible calls. In the Germany-England match, with Germany leading 2-1, England clearly scored on a shot that hit the upper crossbar and then fell behind the line. The German goalie pretended that the ball had not crossed the line. The referee went with the German goalie and said that there was no goal. But the replay showed the it was not even close. The ball fell over a foot behind the line. Although Germany went on to win 4-1, and some may say that the missed call did not matter, anyone who watches soccer knows that a game tied at 2-2 is played very differently from a game played at 2-1. The second blown call was Argentina’s first goal against Mexico, which was (as Argentina striker Carlos Tevez later admitted) clearly offside.
The bad calls themselves are not all that extraordinary. All sporting events have bad calls. But there are two things I do find extraordinary about the World Cup. First, in this technologically-advanced age of instantaneous, slow-motion television replays, why has FIFA taken no steps to implement instant replay reviews of such super-important calls? Soccer may be the only major sporting event left where no form of replay review is used. Even line calls in tennis are now reviewable. Second, why do the fans not seem to care? One would think in a sport where one goal really does matter, the fans would soon learn not to bother watching at all. If we can have no confidence in the best team winning fairly under the rules, then why do we even watch?
But then it struck me. The only fans that care about a bad call are the fans of the team that is the victim of that bad call. The rest of us unconsciously love bad calls because of the drama that ensues. It makes the event more entertaining to watch. The World Cup is first and foremost about making money. Whether there is any justice in the outcome is beside the point. It is not a pure test of finesse, athleticism and skill under given rules. It is only a carefully choreographed (and marketed) illusion, fiction masquerading as fact.
In soccer, as in law, as in life, I am a proponent of the rules. I want the result to be correct. I want the best team to win (and like any good litigator, I want to be on that best, winning team). While controversy may cause extra drama, it also detracts from my interest in following the sport at all. Just as no sane person would suggest that what the legal system really needs is a little uncertainty to spice it up, true sports fans should insist that the leagues put into place any reasonable step to ensure that the rules are followed and enforced. Tennis did not become less enjoyable when the “hawk-eye” system was put into place. American football did not become less enjoyable when instant replay was employed to see whether the receiver really caught the ball with two feet in bounds. Soccer will not become less fun to watch when replay is used to determine whether the ball that hit the crossbar landed behind the line or the player who received the ball was offside when it was passed to him. The event will be more fun to watch because the fans will know that there was some justice in the result. That the match was worthwatching. That the sport deserves our attention.
Until then, I am done with the World Cup.