The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.

We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.

Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.

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Deus Absconditus

You need not hear what orders he is giving
to know if someone has authority,

you have only to watch his mouth:
when a besieging general sees

a city wall breached by his troops,
when a bacteriologist

realizes in a flash what was wrong
with his hypothesis, when,

from a glance at the jury, the prosecutor
knows the defendant will hang,

their lips and the lines around them
relax, assuming an expression

not of simple pleasure at getting
their own sweet way but of satisfaction

at being right, an incarnation
of Fortitudo, Justicia, Nous.

— W. H. Auden, from “Sext”

I first came to understand the passions that soccer could arouse when I was about twelve years old, though at the time I had never seen a match. I may have noticed some people kicking a ball around, though I doubt it; I expect that I had been exposed to a few grainy highlights on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. No, I learned about soccer obsessives the way I learned most other things I knew, or believed I knew, when I was twelve: through reading science fiction.

My instructor was Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote a story about a World Cup final held in a South American stadium on a hot sunny day. The 100,000 fans had been given commemorative programs printed on shiny silver paper, and when the match’s referee made a dreadful call against the home team they all tilted the sheets to catch and reflect the sunlight, focused a hundred thousand beams of light on the ref, and flash-fried him to a blackened lump. (Cool, I thought, and Would that work?)

Thesis: No referee lives, or has ever lived, or ever will live, whom someone will not think deserving of Death by the Ray of Archimedes. The standard deviation of fans’ judgments about referees is staggeringly high; opinions about players are comparatively almost unanimous. Nobody thinks Cristiano Ronaldo is a lousy player. Nobody thinks Titus Bramble is the best defender in Europe. Yes, there are fans who think that Gareth Bale was dramatically overrated after just a couple of impressive performances against Inter, but no one — no one at all — is saying that Bale has barely the quality needed to ride the bench for Scunthorpe. Yet there are plenty of people who say, and probably even whole-heartedly believe, that Howard Webb lacks what it takes to ref League Two matches.

My own view of Webb is that he’s the Tony Romo of referees: he goes on for a good while like a champion, a master of his domain — and then suddenly, at a moment of high tension and great consequence, he makes a completely ludicrous decision. And then, another day, he does it again. And then again. Eventually operant conditioning kicks in, and then every time his name is mentioned the thought that springs instantly and unbidden to mind is What the hell was he thinking? Probably not fair, but there it is. Pavlov and Skinner understood these things. But operant conditioning makes rational assessment difficult.

The sine qua non of refereeing excellence is the Hemingwayesque “grace under pressure.” Yes, of course, a ref needs to know the rules, to be in excellent physical condition — you tell ’em, Sir Alex! — , to be divinely impartial, and all that. But the most important gift of all is to have clear sight and a calm mind when all hell is breaking loose on the pitch.

Or perhaps that’s not right. Perhaps the greatest gift of all is to convince others that one has that unshakeable inner calm. Webb can’t seem to generate that confidence, at least not consistently; and (long before he inadvertently aroused the hatred of some deeply twisted Chelsea supporters) Anders Frisk had the same problem. There was just something about the dramatic way he moved about the pitch, and especially the d’Artagnan-like flourish with which he produced yellow cards, that made players think he was a guy who simply couldn’t be relied on when the chips were down. Which meant that for many fans all of his key calls, or non-calls, were deemed wrong until proven right; and no debatable call is ever proven right.

In my time as a soccer fan, no referee has come closer to achieving this rare and distinct form of charisma than Pierluigi Collina, and I’m writing this post primarily because I’ve been thinking about him lately and missing his presence in big matches. It was actually fun to watch him on the pitch, because he seemed to be always aware of the emotional dynamics among the players; he knew whom to talk to, and when, and how — sometimes holding his hands out, palms towards the grass, gently pressing down the anger, and sometimes lasering threat at an offender with those terrifying protuberant eyes. He seemed to radiate the calmness of assured authority — which of course doesn’t mean that he was always right; but it’s telling that when the Real-Barça rivalry was spiraling out of control last year UEFA called Collina in as an observer. Not that that did much good — but (I wonder) how would he have handled things if he had refereed one of those slugfests? And when I think of the last World Cup final, I always ask myself whether he would have sent off Nigel de Jong for putting his foot through Xabi Alonso’s chest.

These are pointless speculations, but I can’t resist them. And I suspect that for those who don’t despise Collina — those who do despise him will show up in the comments here pretty soon — his reputation will probably be burnished by time. Certainly he remains an imposing figure in Italian soccer, though in ways that are sometimes hard to construe by an outsider like me. What, for instance, to make of the bizarre protest Napoli supporters staged last year, when they expressed disapproval of calls going against their club by holding aloft pictures of Collina? Was this their way of blaming Collina for the unfairness, as the New York Times claimed? Or was it, as I prefer to think, an invocation of a Lost Father, of a deus absconditus, the great and wise one who has departed but — Attenzione, arbitro! — is still watching? Yes, he is watching.

It certainly can’t hurt Collina’s reputation that the former director of Juventus, Luciano Moggi, whom police wiretaps once caught denouncing Collina for being “too objective,” has just been sentenced to five years in prison for match-fixing.

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Deus Absconditus

by Alan Jacobs · November 10, 2011

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