It was predictable that Tim Cahill would damn the referee after Australia's defeat by Chile. Blaming the referee is post-match 1.01 in soccer. It is in AFL and rugby league, too, but they cover it up with empty caveats about how the ref has a difficult job, or else they plead that they cannot say anything about the officiating for fear of a fine, and so tacitly get their message across anyway.
It was less predictable that Cahill would accuse the Chileans of cheating. It was a bolt from the blue that he would recount a conversation on the pitch with Chilean defender Eugenio Mena, who he called a cheat, and Cahill says replied thus: "Yes, I'm a cheat. So what?"
In the Chilean's baldness, there lies a truth about most sport. Sport likes to think that it showcases the best in us. In fact, just as often, it reflects our venal selves. Cheating in the context Cahill described is like tax avoidance, sickies or thieving from the lolly jar. It's cheating if you get caught. Otherwise, it's smart play.
The trouble in soccer is that because of the dynamics of the game, this devolves an unconscionable onus onto the referee. It is a non-contact sport in which there is a great deal of contact. That makes for many grey areas, to which there are only black-and-white solutions. Knowing this, players try elaborate ruses to con him. If he is conned, one side expresses horrified indignation. If not, the other does. If he makes a mistake, the beneficiary gestures smug approval, the victim projects aghastness. The referee is damned if he does, damned if he doesn't, damned for being involved at all.
It was and will be forever thus. The referee's job, wrote Uruguyan author Eduardo Galeano is to make himself hated. "The losers owe their loss to him and the winners triumph in spite of him," he continued. "Scapegoat for every error, cause of every misfortune, the fans would have to invent him if he didn't already exist. They more they hate him, the more they need him."
Referees seem to accept this. Soccer seems to accept it. More than the other football codes, there is a conscious staginess to the game, with dramatic effects separate from the intricacies of the play. When not overdone, it adds to the sense of a big soccer match as a performance as well as a game. Soccer can be thought of as a Shakespeare script, a work of art in itself, better with the theatrics.
But the blame game does become wearying. The first penalty of this World Cup was awarded against Croatia's Dejan Lovren to Brazil's Fred in the first game. Lovren said it was a FIFA plot. Fred said it was there. But it did look soft, and easily might have been awarded, in which case the stances of Lovren and Fred would have been reversed. The way players in formation confront the referee at the awarding of a penalty, it is a wonder one does not pull out his spray can, mark a line and insist that they make their protests from behind it.
Referee discontent is the perennial subplot at every World Cup, and for that matter in every AFL and NRL season. After just three days, it is to the fore again here. Every Australian player on Friday night made frustrated mention of the referee. All claimed Cahill should have had a penalty because defender Gonzalo Jara had hold of Cahill's shirt, conveniently overlooking the fact that Cahill also was holding Jara's shirt. Two wrongs made the referee about right.
Cahill is a national treasure, but sometimes too precious. Australia has had two wins in World Cup football, and Cahill featured decisively in both, scoring two goals against Japan in Kaiserslautern in 2006 and another against Serbia at Nelspruit in 2010. Less remembered is that Cahill was lucky not to give away a penalty in each match, one for a trip, one for handball, each time at a juncture when it might have changed the course. It is less remembered because it does not fit the narrative.
Asked in Nelspruit if he had his heart in his mouth at the time, Cahill fixed the questioner with an affronted glare and asked in reply: "Did you think it was a penalty?" "Well, I've seen those given," said his interlocutor. "Yeah, well, it wasn't, was it?" Cahill rejoined. Evidently, the referee sometimes does get it right.