[By Prof. William Birdthistle:] The World Cup stumbles out of the gate: Release the lawyers

June 13

SALVADOR, BRAZIL – JUNE 13: (L – R) Arjen Robben; Wesley Sneijder, Jeremain Lens abd Nigel de Jong of the Netherlands celebrate during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group B match between Spain and Netherlands at Arena Fonte Nova on June 13, 2014 in Salvador, Brazil. (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

What’s a worse way for the host to start a World Cup? With an own goal or with that opening ceremony in São Paulo? Brazil generously provided us with both.

Let’s start with the first horror show: can’t we just declare China the winner of the opening ceremony and spare future contestants any more embarrassment? The smattering of carnies hopping about the middle of a big, bored stadium yesterday was truly mortifying. A high school marching band — or even still shots of Carnival — might have been more impressive. The bright daylight and low-fi sound were particularly unflattering for Pitbull and J-Lo, who looked like they were desperately auditioning for a JV cheerleading squad. And not making the cut.

Having set the bar awfully low, the hosts quickly proceeded to limbo beneath it, slotting in an early own goal, to the nausea of an entire nation. Croatia — population 4.3 million — opened with élan, muscling Brazil about the pitch and deserving their one-nil lead. Brazil — population 200 million — equalized through the combined maladroitness of golden child Neymar’s scuffed shot and Croatia’s gormless goalkeeper. In all, the first half was a pulsating affair featuring attacking waves of play in the high style of a Champions League match. And then the second half began.

In the 71st minute, referee Yuichi Nishimura enhanced the stench of FIFA’s match-fixing rumors with his atrocious award of a penalty from a very soft encounter between Fred and Lovren. Fred’s gentle tumble should have won him a Life Alert necklace, not a penalty. And so we arrived at our first legal opportunity of the new tournament: should managers have a challenge via television replay?

FIFA’s brother leader, Sepp Blatter, has proposed the idea of allowing managers to challenge two decisions per match. And this tournament’s first game clearly illustrated how pivotal such a rule could be: had Croatia been able to challenge that penalty, Nishimura’s decision would almost certainly have been overruled. The game would then have stood at 1-1, a precarious balance for the hosts that could easily have produced a wonderfully tense final 20 minutes. Instead, one awful and unreviewable judicial ruling altered the outcome of the entire game. (The third Brazil goal was a combination of Croatia’s desperation to equalize and their goalkeeper’s lead feet.)

Purists usually argue that reviews are antithetical to the free flow of the game. But when the referee’s ruling leads to a stoppage in play anyway — as in this instance — the marginal delay of a review could be minimal. And many of the most monumental decisions in soccer do append themselves to a stoppage in play: goals incorrectly awarded result in a restart; goals incorrectly not awarded often (but not always) result in a free kick; fouls incorrectly awarded result in a free kick; and judo chops to the throat insufficiently punished (like Neymar’s on Modric) often produce a stoppage.

This kind of rule change would be awfully big, and I’m not yet certain it would work well — a trial period in domestic leagues would be very interesting to watch.

The other two technical changes debuting at this World Cup are far less likely to make a big difference: the first is the vanishing spray, which we saw on a few free kicks in the first match and is a welcome but relatively trivial help with housekeeping; the second is goal-line technology, which could be momentous (just ask Frank Lampard) but is almost certainly going to be used very rarely.

What does that leave? Extra referees behind each goal is one of the larger changes in recent years, though I’m not sure they have made an important ruling in a big match. They didn’t prevent Nishimura’s poor decision.

My own preference would be to find gentle ways to increase goal scoring. As the number of goals in matches rises, the marginal significance of penalties incorrectly awarded or denied should decline. The less we hear about Nishimura and his colleagues, the better. Brazil and Croatia could then leave the referees alone and focus their concern on their awful goalkeeping.

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Ilya Somin | June 12