Referees and football officials – we love them when they make calls for us but despise them and call for their heads when they go against our team. The official has the unenviable task of maintaining control of 22 on-pitch egos and trying to maintain a fair and balanced level of decision making. The official must keep up with play, make snap decisions and discipline players who go too far in their actions. Everything they do is under the microscope of millions of television viewers, tens of thousands of live fans and the two teams playing the game. Being an official is a thankless job but that doesn’t matter to most fans.
Many officials are good at their job and most of the calls made on the pitch week in and week out are the correct calls. That said, there are definitely a few officials in every league who leave us wondering how they keep their jobs over the course of a season. Add to that a few more inconsistent linesmen and their missed off-side and foul calls and it can reach a point where we seriously consider throwing the television out the window. No, as fans we tend to forget the great calls and focus on the bad calls because they are the ones that leave us fuming, ranting or throwing punches.
The following looks at 25 of the most mind boggling, inexplicable and just plain terrible calls made by officials in football. This goes all the way from second-division matches right up to the World Cup. From referees completely losing control of the match to decisions which make us wonder if the referee and linesmen have been drinking, there are so many botched calls that it would be easy to create a top 100. Some of these calls are so suspicious they rightfully had us wondering if the game was rigged. Others were so obviously bad we couldn’t comprehend how a human being with two working eyes could have possibly made the decision. Of course, amidst all the discussion of incorporating new technology, perhaps we’d be better off just cloning several dozen Pierluigi Collinas – widely recognized as the most consistent and fair official in the modern game. Pierluigi, if you are reading this, could you please send us some blood samples – judging by the following list, it’s for a good cause.
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25 Panathinaikos vs AC Milan – 2010
We’ll start this one off with one which didn’t count on the record. Fortunately for the officials, this was just a preseason friendly. That said, this missed goal demonstrated, yet again, that sometimes officials have no clue what they are calling. For much of the match, Panathinaikos dominated possession and should have taken a 1-0 lead in the 55th minute. Sidney Govou looped the ball over the head of the Milan keeper and across the line. Milan’s Daniel Bonera ‘cleared’ the ball out, but not after it had already crossed the line – and even then Bonera’s clearance struck the underside of the crossbar. The officials ruled that there was no goal. Fortunately, it was just a friendly.
24 2010 World Cup – USA vs Slovenia
At one point in this game, the USA were down 2-0 to the Slovenian side but managed to fight their way back in to tie it up at 2-2. Then, in the dying seconds of the match, the referee decided to spice things up. Team USA were given a free kick just outside the Slovenian box. Landon Donovan delivered a perfect cross in to find Maurice Edu who slotted home what should have been the winning goal. Shockingly, the Malian referee waved off the goal but gave no reason – nor did he include one in the post-match report. Replays showed no offside and no foul over the course of the play, but they do show the referee raising his arm before the ball even got to Edu.
23 Genk vs Kortrijk – 2014 Jupiler League
This is another refereeing decision which boggles the mind. During a December 2014 Jupiler League game, Belgian sides Genk and Kortrijk squared off. In the 15th minute, Kortrijk’s Stijn De Smet showed a good deal of skill by walking through the Genk team and shooting on goal. The ball was deflected by the keeper and came back off the crossbar from where another Kortrijk player tapped in the goal. In a completely inexplicable call, the referee signaled a corner kick. Replays and post-match analysis show the goal was clearly good and nobody can explain how the referee decided on a corner. The ball, literally, would have had to spin up and out of play before changing direction to come back and strike the crossbar.
22 Manchester United vs Manchester City, FA Cup 1996
One of the strangest penalty awards to happen in England occurred during the FA Cup 5th round tie between Manchester United and Manchester City. With the game tied at 0-0, United took a corner which came to nothing – at least initially. Referee Alan Wilkie blew his whistle, leaving most thinking it was a foul and probably a goal kick. Instead, Wilkie pointed to the spot, leaving both teams a little perplexed and commentators struggling to find something in the replay that warranted a penalty. No viable reason could be found and Eric Cantona smashed home the dubious penalty as United went on to win the game.
21 Atletico Junior vs America – 2008
Football has its share of divers. No matter what country and what league, players are always trying to con the officials for a free kick or penalty. Some are really good at it, while others need a lot of work. In the ‘not so good at it’ category falls Emerson Acuna of Atletico Junior, a Columbian team. When Atletico played league rivals America, Acuna performed one of the most pathetic flops in the game. Replays show the striker, who was offside at the time, falling to the ground with no one around him. The referee fell for the ploy and gave the penalty despite his linesman (who was in a perfect position) giving no indication a foul had occurred.
20 The “Phantomtor” – 1994
The Germans are known for having a word for everything. In 1994, they created a word for a goal that was given but never happened at all. Bayern Munich walked away from their Bundesliga match with a 2-1 victory over FC Nurnberg but that wasn’t the whole story. In the 26th minute, off a Bayern Munich corner, the resulting scramble resulted in the ball trickling out just wide of the post. As Nurnberg set up for a goal kick, Munich’s players burst into celebration because the linesman had indicated a goal. What was really infuriating about the call? Yes, it clearly was not a goal but, what made it even worse was the fact the referee was standing in the box watching the ball go out of play. He then inexplicably agreed with the linesman’s decision to award the goal.
19 Rangers vs Hibernian – 1995
This one isn’t about a referee making a bad call during the run of play, but instead having no sense of humor. When Scottish sides Rangers and Hibernian met in 1995, the result wasn’t even close with the Glasgow team taking a 7-0 victory. What did make news was referee Douglas Smith and his reaction to a cheeky gesture played by Paul Gascoigne. Following the end of a play, Smith had dropped his yellow card which Gascoigne picked up. The Rangers’ midfielder ran up the field and ‘presented’ the yellow to Smith in a manner in which an official would give a player a card. Smith didn’t see the funny side and booked Gascoigne to the disbelief of the players and commentators. It’s an episode which got Smith a lot of criticism from all corners.
18 MSV Duisburg vs FSV Frankfurt – 2010
Sometimes bad officiating can just add insult to injury. Take the Bundesliga Second Division match between Duisburg and Frankfurt in 2010 as an example. At 4-0 for Duisburg, the game was all but done. Not settling for four goals, midfielder Christian Tiffert stepped forward and intercepted a bad clearance by the Frankfurt keeper. Tiffert fired a shot from just outside the box that struck the crossbar and rebounded a few feet back into play. It was clear to everyone watching that the goal missed with even Duisburg players raising their hands to heads in dismay. The ref was having none of it and signaled the goal to the disbelief of players from both sides.
17 Coventry vs Crystal Palace – 1980
In 1980, Clive Allen took a free kick for Crystal Palace against league opponents Coventry. Allen struck the ball about as sweetly as you could, beating the keeper and putting the ball into the top corner. The only problem was that he struck it so well that it hit the back of the net and came right back out very quickly. The Coventry team continued to play as if nothing had happened and Crystal Palace protested. The referee consulted with his linesman, who clearly saw nothing as any talk of a goal was dismissed and play went on. It wouldn’t be the first time a clear cut goal had been disallowed and, unfortunately, goal line technology was still a few decades away.
16 Marriner’s Incompetence – 2013/14
Every now and then a referee comes along that is so bad he must be the bizarro-world opposite of Pierluigi Collina. During the 2013/14 Premier League season that official was Andre Marriner. Having given a dubious penalty to Chelsea following a Ramires dive against West Bromwich Albion, Marriner went one step further in the second half of the season. When Arsenal took on London rivals Chelsea, the referee gave a red card to Kieran Gibbs for handling the ball and possibly preventing a goal. The only problem was that it wasn’t Gibbs but teammate Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who handled the ball. Despite Chamberlain having a very different kit number, fluorescent yellow boots (Gibbs’ were orange) and even running over to the official to confess his role in the incident, Marriner stuck to his decision while the event was replayed on the big screen for all the crowd and teams to see.
15 Manchester United vs Tottenham– 2005
If you’re a fan of Tottenham Hotspur then you’re probably glad that goal line technology has been introduced into the Premier League. This is because Spurs seem to be at the center of a controversy at least every couple years concerning whether or not a ball actually crossed the goal line. Let’s take the brutally terrible call that went against them at Old Trafford in 2005. Heading into the 89th minute, Tottenham’s Pedro Mended fired a long range shot at United keeper Roy Carroll. The keeper tried to catch the ball but ended up putting it into his own net – and by more than a couple feet to boot. The goal wasn’t given and the linesman defended himself by saying he couldn’t tell from the angle he was viewing the incident.
14 2010 World Cup – Lampard’s Disallowed Goal
Despite the hype, most people probably thought the Germans would comfortably win the 2010 World Cup round of 16 meeting with England. In the end, the 4-1 score line suggests this was the case – but was it? In the 37th minute, the game was 2-1 for Germany when Frank Lampard fired a shot that beat the German keeper. The ball struck the underside of the crossbar and bounced on the goal side of the line. It was obvious to everyone watching, except the officials, that the ball had crossed the line before being collected by the keeper. Many think the outcry from the missed goal pushed FIFA to adopt goal line technology.
13 2010 World Cup – Argentina vs Mexico
Yet another 2010 World Cup officiating failure. This time officials allowed a goal that shouldn’t have been. When Argentina met Mexico, most believed the Argentinians were favorites. Unfortunately, the officiating crew ensured that was the case at the expense of the Mexican team. In the 25th minute, Argentina’s Carlos Tevez charged in on goal only to have the ball parried away. Tevez’s momentum carried him forward so that when Lionel Messi passed the ball back, he was more than a couple yards offside. Nonethless, an unobstructed linesman and the referee both failed to see the call and handed Argentina a 1-0 lead in a game they went on to win.
12 2014 World Cup – Mexico vs Cameroon
The 2014 world cup opened up with immediate officiating controversy when the Japanese official awarded Brazil a dubious penalty in the opening match against Croatia. The scandal continued into the next set of matches which saw Mexico face Cameroon. First, the officials wrongly flagged two goals by Mexican forward Giovani Dos Santos offside. Just to ‘even’ things up and share the terrible officiating, Cameroon was denied what appeared to be a pretty solid penalty claim at the other end. FIFA actually stepped in and replaced the Columbian linesman for future games – a big admission that things went wrong.
11 1982 World Cup – Germany vs France
Usually when a keeper comes charging out, gets none of the ball, and fouls the attacking player, there is a freekick and a card. Nobody appears to have informed the official of the 1982 World Cup match between France and Germany of this. As French defender Patrick Battiston charged in on the German goal unopposed, German keeper Harald Schumacher charged out, jumped and crashed into the Frenchman. Schumacher got none of the ball and replays show he deliberately threw himself into the oncoming Battiston. The Frenchman was knocked unconscious, had his spine damaged and lost several teeth. What should have seen the German keeper sent off and a penalty awarded turned into merely a goal-kick as the official demonstrated he had absolutely no understanding of the rules of the game.
10 1978 World Cup – Brazil vs Sweden
We’ve all been there – our team is down in injury time and we hope the official gives us those few extra seconds to get just one more shot on net. The 1978 World Cup match between Brazil and Sweden came to such a point. With the game tied 1-1, Brazil set up to take a corner just as the game entered injury time. The ball came in and met the head of midfielder Zico who deflected the ball into the net. Replays show there were no fouls and the goal was good. Referee Clive Thomas, however, inexplicably blew the final whistle at the same moment the ball was crossing the line off Zico’s head. It was a bizarre call and , unfortunately, not the first time Thomas had been at the center of a controversy as the Welsh official had more than a few controversial moments in his career.
9 The Hand of Fraud
In 2009, the Republic of Ireland and France held a two-legged playoff to decide who would go through to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. France won the first leg 1-0 and Ireland tied up the series when Robbie Keane scored 33 minutes into the second leg. All tied up, the game required extra time which led to Irish heartbreak and scandal. In the 103rd minute, a pass into the Irish box was met by Thierry Henry who looked to control and pass across to William Gallas who scored the winning goal. The Irish were furious and replays showed why. Henry had clearly stopped and controlled the ball with his hand before passing it to Gallas. The referee and linesman both missed the rather obvious hand ball and, in doing so, helped generate a media outcry which had Henry’s handball compared to Diego Maradona’s Hand of God.
8 Santacruzense vs Atletico Sorocaba – 2006
Those of us who watch a lot of football know that even non-players can get involved. Every year there seems to be some controversy involving the ball-boy – they aren’t fast enough, they favor one team, they interfere with the flow of the game. Now that I’ve finished my Jose Mourinho impression, let’s move on to Brazil and a Cup match between Santacruzense and Atletico Sorocaba. In the 89th minute, down 1-0, lady luck smiled on Santacruzense. With a goal kick called following a missed shot on net, the ball boy quietly slipped out from behind the net and tapped the ball into the Soracaba goal. The ref allowed the goal and the game ended a draw. The official later tried to place the blame on the linesman but ended up getting suspended anyway.
7 2006 World Cup – Portugal vs Holland
The 2006 World Cup last-16 match between Portugal and Holland, held in Nuremberg Germany, has been dubbed the Battle of Nuremberg – and for good reason. This particular match set a FIFA record for cards shown with four reds and 16 yellows. The game was an endless string of diving and fouls which included some brutal challenges and even a Luis Figo headbutt which only received a yellow card. The entire match remains a perfect example of an official never getting control of a match. That said, one of the key missed calls of the match occurred when Arjen Robben received Nuno Valente’s studs into his chest in the penalty area. It was a clear foul which was not called because the official had already called for an incorrect offside seconds earlier.
6 Graham Poll’s Counting Fail
Not helping the English FA’s reputation inside UEFA and FIFA are their officials who always seem to be at the center of controversies. Graham Poll was, at one time, considered to be the best official in England. Then he officiated the Croatia vs Australia 2006 World Cup match. Poll’s reputation and credibility diminished with every card he handed out during the match. So, you can imagine that when he handed Croatia’s Josip Simunic a second yellow but no red, people were left wondering what was going on. To make matters worse, Poll later proceeded to card Simunic for a third time before showing him red. Poll and his bungled three-yellow game is almost always included in any discussion of terrible officiating today.
5 2000 ACN Final – Nigeria vs Cameroon
Today we have goal line technology because football is supposedly getting too fast for the officials to keep up. Given what happened at the 2000 African Cup of Nations final in 2000, we should just give up on human officials altogether and start developing some form of robotic official. During the penalty shootout to decide the African champion, Nigeria’s Victor Ikpeba’s shot struck the crossbar and clearly bounced behind the goal line before coming out. Despite the referee having an unobstructed view and a linesman standing a few feet to the side of the goal having another unobstructed view, the goal was not given.
4 Rivaldo’s Flop
Prior to the 2002 World Cup, FIFA had publicly stated that it would clamp down on cheating during the tournament. Clearly nobody told Rivaldo or the officials at the match. While facing Turkey, the Brazilian forward became infamous for collapsing to the ground while clutching his face after being hit on the legs by a ball while waiting to take a corner. In fairness, the ball was kicked harder than normal at the Brazilian by Hakan Unsal. However, that it warranted a second yellow and sending off by the official remains highly debateable. Brazil won the match 2-1 and Rivaldo was later fined $7500.
3 2002 World Cup – Italy vs South Korea
Byron Moreno is a name which will forever be known among the Italian footballing community. The Ecuadorian official put in such a terrible display during Italy’s loss that many believed the game had been rigged. Moreno’s overall officiating was below average (so it didn’t stand out next to most of the other officials at the tournament) but gained attention for a couple of key decisions. First, he disallowed what looked to be a legitimate goal for offside. Then, he sent off Francesco Totti for a dive in the penalty area. Replays showed clear contact when the South Korean defender slid in and failed to get the ball. Italy lost the game, ending for them a tournament which ultimately left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.
2 2002 World Cup – Spain vs South Korea
For those of you who feel FIFA tournaments are more than a little corrupt and rigged, the 2002 World Cup only served to fuel the speculation. Yes, the officiating in this tournament was generally terrible, but it was the horrid officiating during games in which South Korea took part which raised eyebrows. Claims of scandal had followed the South Korean victories over Portugal and Italy – Spain was no different. The game went to penalties where the co-hosts won, but it really shouldn’t have. Earlier in the game the Spaniards had a goal wrongly called off. A cross into the South Korean box was met by the head of Fernando Morientes which beat the keeper. Replays show the goal was good from start to finish but the linesman ruled incorrectly that the ball had gone out of play. In fact, the ball had come nowhere close to being over the line.
1 The Hand of God
Perhaps not as scandalous as the 2002 World Cup in its entirety, the event which has become known as the Hand of God gets #1 on this list because it is the most infamous and well known botched call in football history. Thanks in large part to the iconic images of Argentina’s Diego Maradona handling the ball past English keeper Peter Shilton during the 1986 World Cup, the Hand of God has become as much a symbol of cheating as inept officiating. As if to highlight the total incompetence of the men in charge of the match, the Bulgarian linesman and Tunisian referee both agreed the goal shouldn’t have counted but each blamed the other for not calling the infraction. The linesman even later admitted he saw the infraction but felt he couldn’t raise his flag to call the goal off because the referee had already ruled for a goal.
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