Day 3 of Euro 2008 will long be remembered as the day when common sense took the day off.
Swedish referee Peter Frojdfeldt played by the letter of the law and allowed Ruud Van Nistelrooy's offside goal to stand yesterday, sending Holland to an historic 3-0 win over Italy. Notice the use of "letter of the law." He would have been better served observing the spirit of FIFA regulation 11:11, and then ignoring it altogether.
The first Dutch goal yesterday left the Azzurri seeing Oranje. Italy never recovered, conceding two more tallies, including a textbook counterattack tally by Wesley Sneijder. Sneijder, however, had the easiest leg of that relay race, converting a precious Dirk Kuyt header pass and completing a play that started nearly 100 meters earlier when defender Giovanni van Bronckhorst cleared a sure Italy goal off the line and ultimately delivered the pass to Kuyt at the other end of the pitch. Fittingly, van Bronckhorst closed it out 10 minutes from the finish with a header for the 3-0 final.
Overshadowing the storyline of Italy being handed its worst loss in a major tournament since the 1970 World Cup final, the offside call by Frojdfeldt is the first controversial moment of the tournament. The call too allow the goal dictated that Italy change tack away from its defense-first tendencies. It also opened a groundswell for new interpretation and evaluation of rule 11:11.
The reg, a mere five years old, was put into place to prevent players from intentionally stepping out of bounds to create an offside situation. Therefore, players off the field are active, and technically, Van Nistelrooy was onside. But let's look at the play. Defender Christian Panucci and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon collided, sending the ball bounding in play and Panucci a few feet beyond the touchline in a heap. It wasn't intentional. It wasn't malicious. Panucci wasn't begging for a foul or a stretcher. It happened in the run of play and Frojdfeldt should have the sack to observe the situation and rule Van Nistelrooy offside.
As Martin Samuel wrote in the Times of London today:
And it was from that prone position, not even watching the action, that [Panucci] was somehow judged to have played Ruud van Nistelrooy onside and allowed him to score one of the most controversial goals in tournament history. Not because it was indisputably illegal, for it was quickly established that, despite Italy’s ire, Holland’s first goal was within the new rules as so interpreted by Fröjdfeldt, but because it was so daft, so wrong, so clearly a mistake, that it should have been scrapped on commonsense grounds. Yet when was clarity of thought last on nodding acquaintance with the offside laws? Not for some time. Maybe this will spark a re-evaluation.The goal and the outcome are a shocking statement on the state of refereeing in the game when a contender in a major tournament is in arrears because of a shoddy decision. Why would Frojdfeldt choose to resurrect this rule at this moment? Had UEFA briefed its referees pre-tournament to be mindful of such situations and strictly enforce the letter of the law?
Granted, a 3-0 final indicates bigger issues with the Azzurri, such as the loss of Fabio Cannavaro to injury, which did plenty to cripple at the very least, the stability of the Italy back line. But the fact that Peter Frojdfeldt's name has been typed here more often than the players people buy tickets to see, proves something was rotten in Berne yesterday. Good referees are like Hollywood actors, you know the ones: the strong silent types. If you know a ref's name, you know too much about him.
Here's hoping this is the last time we have to write about an officiating decision in this tournament. Granted, I'd rather write about this than France's performance against Romania yesterday.