Being an official is by and large a thankless task. Good decisions are just overlooked as doing your job and bad one’s are lambasted, often leading to intense scrutiny, abuse and in some cases even death threats. It is for this reason that one tends to defend referees, who do a very difficult job under incredibly difficult circumstances, having to make split-second decisions in game’s often played at a frantic pace.
Having said that, there are occasions in which it is difficult not to pull your hair out at the mind-boggling decisions some officials make. While human error is to be accounted for, it does not account for the shambolic and bizarre decisions on this list. From disallowed goals to ending games early, this is a list of some of the worst decisions ever made by soccer referees.
Of course, poor decisions are made every week in soccer, so thousands of dreadful calls can’t make the list, but these are twenty of the most unusual, high-profile and noteworthily terrible decisions ever made. It might interest you that four of the twenty entries include bizarre decisions which have gone in favor of the host nation at a World Cup, you can make of that what you will. Here are the top 20 worst decisions in soccer history:
20. Pedro Mendes Goal That Never Was
Pedro Mendes is no stranger to controversy, and it seems he emerges with little luck more often than not. An incident a year after this one saw Mendes knocked unconscious following a vicious elbow by Ben Thatcher, yet the Man City defender only saw yellow. It was in January 2005 though that the worst decision involving Mendes occurred, when Tottenham were denied a clear goal at Old Trafford after Roy Carroll fumbled Pedro Mendes’ speculative long range effort. The linesman defended his decision, saying he had to be in-line with the defense to watch for offside, but the Spurs fans weren’t overly forgiving.
19. Clive Thomas Denies Brazil in 1978
In Brazil’s opening game of the 1978 World Cup, they faced Sweden. With the game tied at 1-1, Brazil won a corner in the dying embers of the game. A wicked delivery was turned into the net by Zico, and the Brazilians began celebrating what seemed to be a last-minute winner. Welsh referee Clive Thomas though had blown the final whistle the second in which the corner had been delivered, meaning Zico’s goal wouldn’t count.
18. Dougie Smith Books Gazza
Dougie Smith’s decision to book Paul Gascoigne is unlike any other entry on this list, but it is still a horrific decision. One of the image battles referees face is the idea that they take themselves too seriously, and that they are pedantic and petty. Never has one man re-enforced that image as much as Dougie Smith did one Saturday at Ibrox during a 7-0 win by Rangers over Hibernian. Having dropped one of his cards, Gazza jovially showed the card to the referee. Unamused, Smith brought Gazza back and booked him.
17. Emerson Acuna Dive
You have most likely never heard of Emerson Acuna. He is a 36-year-old Colombian striker currently playing in Peru. He spent most of his career in Colombia though, playing for Atletico Junior, and it was with At. Junior that Acuna went viral for his dive which some have described as the worst in history. In a 1-1 draw against America in 2010, Acuna took an incredible swan dive, despite having no defender anywhere near him. Somehow, the ref bought it, and awarded a penalty.
16. Watford vs. Reading Ghost Goal
There have been a few notable ‘ghost goals’ in soccer history, and two of them make this list. The first came in a Championship game between Watford and Reading. On the half hour mark, Reading delivered a corner into the box, which was headed against the crossbar and back out. The linesman flagged, but the referee ran over to him and a goal was awarded. To this day it is difficult to see when or how the linesman thought the ball crossed the line. Watford went on to pull one back and draw the game 1-1.
15. Paddy Connolly Goal Not Given
From a goal being given when the ball never crossed the line, to no goal being given when the ball clearly did cross the line. During a 1993 game between Dundee United and Partick Thistle, Connolly was denied a hat-trick after firing the ball into the goal. The ball struck the back stanchion of the goal and rebounded out, only for the ref to say it never crossed the line. Even more bizarrely, the Partick Thistle defender caught the ball and handed it to his goalkeeper after the goal was scored, yet no penalty was given. Dundee United still managed to win the game 4-0 despite the horrific decision from the referee.
14. Duisburg vs. Frankfurt Ghost Goal
The second ghost goal to make this list, and this one was a recent one. During the 2010 2.Bundesliga season, Duisburg midfielder Christian Tiffert saw his long range effort hit the crossbar. It bounced well out of the goal, hitting the ground 1.5 meters away from the goal-line, yet a goal was awarded. The Frankfurt players were miffed, but they couldn’t have too many complaints overall, given that they lost the game 5-0 and the referee’s call, despite being a shocker, really couldn’t be to blame for their woeful performance.
13. Argentina vs. England 1986
The 1986 World Cup Quarter-Final between Argentina and England is without doubt one of the most controversial games in football history. The game is best remembered for two incidents, both involving Diego Maradona, and both have become legendary for very different reasons. The first has become known as the ‘Hand of God’ as referee Ali Bin Nasser of Tunisia somehow missed Maradona rising above Peter Shilton and punching the ball into the goal.
The second was quite possibly the greatest goal ever scored. The Argentine genius carried the ball 60 yards, beating four England players before rounding Peter Shilton. Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ wasn’t the only terrible decision by Nasser in that game though, he also made a howler by not sending off England defender Terry Fenwick who launched into Maradona twice during the game, with both incidents worthy of a red card on their own and certainly of one when combined.
12. Schumacher vs. Battiston
During the semi-final of the 1982 World Cup, Patrick Battiston entered the fray in the second half with the scores tied at 1-1. After just 10 minutes on the field, Michel Platini put Battiston through on goal with a wonderful pass. The West German goalkeeper Harald Schumacher raced out of his goal and clattered into Battiston, with his hip smashing into the Frenchman’s face. Battiston was left unconscious, with a damaged vertebrae and a number of teeth knocked out. He later slipped into a coma. Despite this, the referee didn’t even award a free-kick, let alone send Schumacher off. West Germany went on to win the game in extra time.
11. Rattin Sees Red
The first of a number of bizarre decisions which seem to have gone in favor of the home team at a World Cup, and this one came at the 1966 World Cup in England. Although the Argentine team were notoriously aggressive at this time, the sending off of their team captain Antonio Rattin seemed to have very little justification, and England would later win the game 1-0 thanks to a seemingly offside goal. Rattin was given a yellow for a foul on Bobby Charlton and a second yellow supposedly for the way in which he spoke to the referee.
The referee, Rudolf Kreitlein, did not help himself when he apparently cited the fact that he “did not like how he had looked at him,” as one of the reasons for the second booking. The German ref also said “violence of the tongue” was a reason behind the dismissal, despite the fact he did not speak a word of Spanish and Rattin did not speak a word of German. The Argentines still refer to the game as the “theft of the century”.
10. Palace’s Stanchion Curse
Much like Paddy Connolly’s goal that wasn’t given against Partick Thistle having struck the back stanchion of the goal and somehow escaped the eyes of the referee, Palace had a similarly unfortunate experience. Except, it was even worse for the Eagles, with this most uncommon of mistakes actually happening twice to the club. The first incident was a free-kick by Clive Allen, which thundered into the goal yet was never given, and the second followed a close-range effort by Freddie Sears which was also not awarded.
9. Argentina – 1978 World Cup
While Argentina may have had a right to feel aggrieved when decisions went England’s way when they hosted the World Cup in 1966, they more than made up for it when they got their own chance to host the competition 12 years later. Argentina had a very good team at the 1978 World Cup, but that didn’t stop them asking for a little help from referees along the way. In their opener against Hungary, Argentina kicked lumps out of the opposition at the beginning of the game. When Hungary responded in a similar fashion, they had two players sent off.
When they lost their third and final group game 1-0 to Italy, the Argentine FA demanded that the referee of the game was not selected for their games again, despite the fact he had been the favorite to take charge of the final. Prior to their 6-0 defeat of Peru in the semi-final the Peru team were visited by an Argentine general before the match. Argentina went on to win the final 3-1 against the Netherlands in extra-time.
8. Dorchester Player Tackles Streaker
From the World Cup to the English non-league. It’s something of a fall from grace and rather different to the other decisions on this list, but just as absurd. During a game between Dorchester and Havant & Waterlooville, a streaker ran onto the field of play wearing a mankini. After the stewards failed to catch him, Dorchester’s player/manager Ashley Vickers rugby tackled him to the ground. Despite the stewards thanking him, the referee sent Vickers off, in a bizarre turn of events.
7. Robert Hoyzer – Hamburg vs. Paderborn
While many of these decisions have been called dodgy by some, the refereeing in the game between Hamburg and Paderborn in 2004 we know to have been a result of match fixing. Referee Robert Hoyzer awarded Paderborn two highly controversial penalties as well as sending off Hamburg player Emile Mpenza for complaining. It was later revealed that Hoyzer was the subject of a 2 million euro match fixing scandal.
6. Italy – 1934 World Cup
Much like Argentina in 1978, Italy should never really have been allowed to hold a World Cup under the reign of Benito Mussolini, but FIFA has a habit of awarding unusual World Cup destinations. Under the fascist dictatorship, Mussolini sought to make the competition a propaganda campaign, just as Hitler did with the Olympics two years later. Mussolini insisted on picking the referees for each of Italy’s games as well as holding a meeting with that referee prior to each game.
Unsurprisingly questions were raised over Il Duce’s insistence on doing so, and suspicions were heightened when the Azzurri seemed to get a number of favorable decisions. In Italy’s semi-final win over the favourites Austria, the referee even intercepted and headed clear an Austrian pass. The referees of Italy’s Quarter-Final, Semi-Final and Final games were all dismissed when they returned to their native countries and leagues.
5. Graham Poll Gives Three Yellow Cards
English referee Graham Poll was one of the most highly-regarded officials in the world in 2006, and after impressive displays in his first two games, he was being touted by some as the potential referee of the World Cup final. However, in Poll’s third game in charge, between Croatia and Australia, he made a horrible mistake. Having already sent two players off, Poll managed to show the Croatian left-back Josip Simunic three yellow cards before eventually sending him off. He retired from refereeing international games after the embarrassing mistake.
4. 1930 World Cup Controversy
The 1930 World Cup in Uruguay was the inaugural FIFA World Cup, and as with anything, mistakes are to be accounted for in the first attempt at anything. The officiating at the competition though was frankly laughable. While the first international game between England and Scotland occurred in 1872, most nations were still in their infancy with the idea, and it showed. Bolivia incredibly had four goals disallowed against Yugoslavia while the game was at 0-0, before Yugoslavia went on to win 4-0 themselves.
Yugoslavia found the officials weren’t on their side in the next game though, having a perfectly good goal ruled out before Uruguay ran the ball out of play, only for a policeman to kick it back on, allowing Uruguay to score a goal and the referee giving it a big ‘OK’. Other incidents included a referee ending a game eight minutes early before realizing his mistake and asking the players to come back and one game even being officiated by the Bolivia manager.
3. Brazilian Ball Boy Scores a Goal
During a 2006 FPF Cup game in Brazil, a regional competition between the teams of Sao Paolo, one of the oddest ‘goals’ ever scored took place. With Atletico Sorocaba leading 1-0 in the 89th minute, Santacruzense had a shot which went wide of the goal. A cunning young ball boy sensed an opportunity though, and tapped the ball into the goal at the referee’s back was turned. Somehow, despite the ball clearly going wide and no players celebrating, the ref was convinced, and Santacruzense snatched a late draw.
2. South Korea vs. Italy & Spain – 2002 World Cup
The fourth and final example of the host nation of a World Cup being on the winning end of some extraordinary decisions came fairly recently, in the 2002 World Cup held jointly by South Korea and Japan. The first controversial game was against Italy, officiated by Byron Moreno. South Korea were awarded a penalty early on which they missed. With the scores tied at 1-1, Italy scored what looked to be the winner in extra time, but Moreno ruled it offside, even though it wasn’t.
He then sent Francesco Totti off for diving, when he hadn’t. South Korea won and Italy were outraged. Byron Moreno was suspended when he returned to Ecuador and later became involved in drug trafficking. In the semi-final against Spain, the decisions seemed even more ridiculous. Spain had two clearly legitimate goals disallowed, and the Egyptian referee, like Moreno, was subsequently suspended for match fixing.
1. Australia vs. Equatorial Guinea Handball
Topping this list is not only the worst decision in soccer history but also the strangest and most surreal one you’ll ever see. The first entry on this list from the women’s game takes top spot, with this incident occurring in the 2011 Women’s World Cup in Australia and Equatorial Guinea’s second group game. With Australia leading 1-0, they were on the attack again. A ball into the box was flicked against the post before rebounding to a Guinea defender.
Not only did the Equatorial Guinea player handle the ball, she actually caught the ball, with both hands, and held it for a number of seconds, before releasing the ball. Miffed Australian players couldn’t believe their eyes, and were even more horrified when the referee waved play on and the game continued as if no wrong-doing had been done. Thankfully, the incident didn’t affect the result, as Australia ran out 3-2 winners.
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