Fans are lead to believe that all sports are played on a level playing field. How wrong they are. Every supporter remembers those moments that sucked the life out of their team – that bad call robbing them of a chance at glory. These athletes go through months of sweat, blood and tears only to fall at the final hurdle because the man with the whistle can’t tell his left from right. It’s enough to drive the most placid person crazy with rage!
Two sports tend to stand out for their outrageous howlers at the expense of the official. The NFL notoriously dropped the ball during their period of replacement referees when it became abundantly clear why they were viewed as second rate. Even Blind Freddie could have seen the error of their ways. Then there’s the horror show of world soccer, failing to award clear goals, hand balls and even count to two.
But no sport is immune. From the MLB, boxing and basketball, every competition around the globe has suffered at the hands of the incompetent masquerading as an all-knowing authority. A majority of these referees are adequate during the regular season; it’s the shift to the big stage when the blood is pumping, the crowd is roaring and the heart is beating a bit faster that the mistakes are made. Only under pressure do you really find out what a person is all about.
These screw-ups have happened all before and you can bet will happen again. Until sports invest in robotic technology and outsource referees that way, this is what we have to put up with. Fortunately these case studies have given way to change, like goal line video replays in soccer and the coaches challenge in the NFL. Neither is perfect, but they help to eliminate the howler.
Here is the top 15 moments when the refs screwed up and screwed us, the fan, big time.
15 Graham Poll 3 Yellow Cards
Croatian defender Josip Simunic could not believe his luck. When his side was taking on Australia in a crucial group stage match of the 2006 FIFA World Cup, the defender was shown a cautionary yellow card not once, not twice, but thrice. Even those who are not soccer aficionados will tell you that two yellows equal a red and an instant dismissal. Fortunately for the Socceroos it didn’t cost them qualification to the knock out stages with the 2-2 draw enough to see them through, but it forever damaged the legacy of Poll’s career and highlighted how flustered an official can get under pressure.
14 Don Denkinger
The baseball equivalent of the man on the grassy knoll, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory is the infamous 1985 World Series where umpire Don Denkinger called Jorge Orta safe! Replays showed that the St. Louis Cardinals baseman clearly had possession of the ball with his foot planted, but Denkinger would not have a bar of it. It was a clutch game for the Kansas City Royals who won Game 6 and would go on to win the World Series. As for Don Denkinger? The incident defined his career and we don’t believe he’s stepped foot in St. Louis since.
13 Nani Goal vs Spurs
Tottenham Hotspur has suffered time and again visiting Old Trafford, but on this occasion they had every right to be furious with someone other than the players. In 2010, Manchester United winger Nani got away with murder in soccer terms, diving to win a penalty before picking the ball up, standing in front of the goalkeeper and tapping the ball into the net. Referee Mark Clattenburg’s reputation took a nosedive after that when it became abundantly clear Nani should have been pulled up on the dive, hand ball and offside. On all 3 counts he got away with the crime. Daylight robbery!
12 Tuck Rule 2002
“I think this will be talked about for quite a bit,” said one commentator. “You think?” replied the other. That 2002 Raiders and Patriots AFC blockbuster in the snow had everything on the line and with Oakland leading 13-10 with 1.45 left in the 4th quarter, young quarterback Tom Brady was sacked and the Raiders had the ball. Or so we thought. The officials deemed that Brady stopped his passing motion and moved to “tuck” the ball back under his arm. For some reason that turned into an incomplete pass ruling, giving the Patriots the chance to tie up the game, win it in overtime and go on to take the Super Bowl.
11 Frank Lampard’s Disallowed Goal
It’s the moment that pushed through goal line technology, but the moment England and Frank Lampard would like to forget. Taking on Germany in the last 16 of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the former Chelsea midfielder blasted a shot that came down off the crossbar as goalkeeper Manuel Neuer sheepishly picked the ball up and play was waved on. Amid howls of protest from the players and commentators, there was nothing anyone could do because the assistance was not there to help the officials. That goal would have leveled the score at 2-2; instead Germany went on to crush England 4-1.
10 1999 Phantom MLB Tag
Jimmy Williams knew something was up, racing onto the field to confront the umpire over a tagging call that had everyone perplexed. The bad blood between the Yankees and Red Sox went into overdrive in Game 4 of 1999 ALCS, as Jose Offerman’s run between first and second base resulted in a double tag. Replays clearly showed daylight between tagger Chuck Knoblauch and Offerman as the outstretched arm failed to reach the target, but the ruling stood. The Yankees took out the pennant and World Series after that call. Staggering.
9 Zico’s Disallowed Goal 1978
What is it about World Cups and referees not allowing goals to be scored? In 1978 Welsh referee Clive Thomas defied all logic by blowing full time split seconds before Brazilian legend Zico headed in an equalizer against Sweden. The footage is bizarre as the official turns away and blows for full time with the ball in midair as Zico dives in for what would have been a 2-1 winner with the last play of the game. In every other context soccer refs allow the final passage to play itself out, but not on this occasion.
8 Jay Cutler’s 2008 “Fumble”
The 2008 Jay Cutler fumble call remains a stain on the reputation of official Ed Hochuli’s record. The blemish occurred when the Broncos played the Chargers as Hochuli ruled an incomplete pass, even though replays clearly showed a fumble on the 10-yard line. San Diego linebacker Tim Robbins grabbed possession but the officials decided that Denver should keep the ball because the whistle for an incomplete pass had already been blown. The Broncos scored from the ensuing play and won the game.
7 Ghost Goal At Watford
A regular season match in England’s second division isn’t the thing of legend, but what would transpire when Watford hosted Reading in 2008 continues to leave those that watched it speechless. Young referee Stuart Attwell was only 25 at the time and somehow managed to award a goal for a ball that went over the touchline, not the goal line! To compound the error the touchline official backed the mistake before sending off the Watford skipper for complaining. If referees really don’t want to be the center of attention, then Stuart Attwell did everything to put the spotlight on him.
6 Seahawks 2006 Super Bowl Loss
This top 15 list is highlighted by single moments that defied belief. In the 2006 Super Bowl, the Seattle Seahawks could point to the officials time and time and time again for their 21-10 defeat. To Pittsburgh Steelers fans it is purely academic and maybe even sour grapes, but the vision tells it’s own story. The touchdown reception to wide receiver Darrell Jackson was somehow called off for pass interference, then Sean Locklear was called for holding before Matt Hasselbeck was pulled up for a low block. 4 years after the fact referee Bill Leavy admitted that he got those calls horribly wrong.
5 Manny Pacquiao vs Tim Bradley
The list of shocking calls in boxing history is long and endless. But in 2012 many believed those shockers were in the past, until it was decided on a split call by the judges that Timothy Bradley had somehow defeated Manny Pacquiao. The commentators were baffled, the fans were enraged and even Bradley appeared surprised by the officials ruling. “Well I’ll tell ya - I don’t think we’re blind, I think Harold Letterman is the best scorer alive and I think that is a terrible, bogus decision,” announced one commentator. The other simply said, “I’m dumbfounded. I don’t know what to say.” He didn’t have to say much, the silence said it all.
4 Seahawks v Packers Replacement Refs
Sometimes newscasters get the opportunity to lay a zinger or two, which is exactly what ABC News managed to do in 2012. “And now the call that turned Monday Night Football into Monday Night Mayhem!” The period of replacement referees in the NFL took a turn for the worst when a Hail Mary throw from Seattle was awarded a touchdown amid a flurry of confusion, anger and utter bemusement. To this day the memes and GIFs from that night which cost the Green Bay Packers dearly remains a bone of contention and showed why the labor dispute was a costly exercise.
3 Thierry Henry Handball
Ireland is still fuming about it and Thierry Henry doesn’t enjoy talking about it. The Frenchman’s decorated career was soured by a handball that allowed the striker to control the ball and pass it to a teammate to knock Ireland out of the South Africa 2010 World Cup. France were bundled out in the group stages and left amid a civil war between the coach and playing squad at the tournament itself, but that’s no consolation for the Irish who missed out on a World Cup appearance.
2 USA v USSR 1972 Olympics
This was so much more than you’re average Gold Medal Olympic Games match. When the USA and USSR locked horns in 1972 for the ultimate basketball clash in Munich, the drama that ensued from the closing moments remains one of the most infamous moments in the history of sports. Team USA were positive they had won the game 49-48 on the buzzer, until the officials put 3 seconds back on the clock. That allowed the USSR to go up the court and lay a basket to win 50-49. How or why any of that occurred remains a mystery.
1 Maradona Hand of God
It is the refereeing error that’s enshrined in legend in Argentina. Frankly it adds to the mystique about Maradona and the 1986 World Cup, knocking out bitter foes England on course to their title. The story goes that El Diego was questioned by a reporter about raising his hand to put his side ahead in their knock out game against England and rather than showing any sign of remorse he explained that it was the “hand of god.” How the officials thought that the miniature Maradona could leap above the English keeper without the use of his hands is still something that remains a mystery.