Nobody ever said being a professional referee would be easy. These men and women are subject to merciless taunts, intense scrutiny, and the wrath of thousands of fans at the stadium and millions more at home.
There will always be missed calls in sports. We don’t expect perfection from our referees and umpires. But when a call is easy to see, even at home on grainy television sets, or from the back row of the worst section of the arena, we expect the officials to see it and call it like it is. Usually they do. But there are instances where for some reason or another, the call is blown. Is it simply poor performance? Was the referee in a bad position? Did they get the call wrong on purpose?
These head-scratching calls (or non-calls) are 10 of the most famous of the past 30 years. Can you remember any others?
10. Thierry Henry’s Handball vs. Ireland – 2009 World Cup Qualifying
In November 2009, France and Ireland were locked in a two-game playoff to determine who would advance to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. After Ireland’s Robbie Keane had scored to make it 1-0 in the second game, the teams were even on score and the match entered extra time.
France were attacking Ireland’s goal, and off an odd bounce, France forward Thierry Henry clearly used a hand to stop the ball before passing to teammate William Gallas, who promptly scored. Despite the shouts of Irish players and obvious use of the hand, the goal stood. That goal made the score 2-1 in favour of France, who would go on to advance to the World Cup.
Henry later admitted the hand ball, and was subsequently penalized by FIFA. But the game decision stood. If it makes you feel better, France was awful in that World Cup and quickly exited after the group stage.
9. New England Patriots vs. Oakland Raiders – 2002 AFC Divisional Round
The beginning of the Tom Brady mythology was this AFC playoff game against the Oakland Raiders. With heavy snowfall, the Raiders held a 3-point lead with less than two minutes remaining in the game. As the Patriots drove the ball down the field, Brady dropped back to pass and was hit by cornerback Charles Woodson. The ball dropped out of Brady’s hands and was picked up by the Raiders’ defense.
The call was originally called a fumble, but after reviews, it was changed to an incomplete pass due to the recently created tuck rule. The tuck rule states that if a quarterback is moving his arm forward, and the ball comes loose, it is an incomplete pass. Replays seemed to show that Brady’s arm was in fact moving forward, but when the ball was dropped he had both hands on it, which should have been called a fumble.
The Patriots later kicked a field goal on the drive to tie the game and force overtime, and would go on to win their first Super Bowl of the Brady-Belichick era.
8. South Korea vs. Italy – 2002 World Cup, Round of 16
The home team in a World Cup tournament tends to get some favourable treatment from the officials. It’s natural, when officials might be influenced by raucous home crowds and other factors.
But this game between South Korea and Italy had many blatantly bad calls, which heavily influenced the outcome. Firstly, Italian star forward Francesco Totti was sent off for a second yellow card for diving, when replays appeared to show contact between him and the South Korean defender. Later, a potential golden goal for Italy was disallowed, wrongly, for offside.
The Koreans won on a golden goal of their own, and even advanced past Spain to the semi-finals before being stopped. But their biggest helping hand came from Ecuadorian referee Byron Moreno, who refereed that Italy game and later oversaw a club game that had 13 minutes of extra time and allowed a team to score 2 goals, turning a 3-2 deficit into a 4-3 win.
7. Phoenix Suns vs San Antonio Spurs – 2007 Western Conference Final, Game 3
It came as no surprise that disgraced former NBA referee Tim Donaghy was at the helm of the referee crew in this game. Donaghy, it would later be discovered, was heavily involved in fixing games to the benefit of gamblers.
Many calls throughout that game seemed to heavily favour the Spurs, and the referees seemed to be trying to get as many foul calls as possible – specifically against the Suns and to the benefit of the Spurs.
The Spurs would go on to win the game and the series, but this series was a huge wake up call to NBA fans and executives that referees needed to be made more accountable for their calls.
6. Calgary Flames vs. Tampa Bay Lightning – 2004 Stanley Cup Final, Game 6
Hockey moves at such a fast pace that sometimes events go unnoticed by the players, referees, and fans alike. This possible goal was one of those events.
The Flames held a 3-2 lead over the Lightning in Game 6, and with the score tied 2-2 in the third, had a chance to close out the series and capture the Stanley Cup.
With Calgary’s Oleg Saprykin rushing down the wing, Martin Gelinas went to the front of the net. Saprykin’s pass hit off Gelinas’ skate and appeared to just cross the line before being kicked out by Lightning goalie Nikolai Khabibulin. The play was not reviewed, and called a non-goal, both because it hit Gelinas’ skate and because it could not be proven to have gone over the line entirely.
Later replays seemed to suggest that it could have, in fact, been called a goal, but it was not reviewed at all, and the Lightning went on to win the game and the series.
5. Derek Jeter’s “Home Run” vs. Baltimore Orioles – 1996 ALCS Game 1
Fan interference can sometimes be a tricky thing to prove. But sometimes, it’s as clear as a baseball glove sticking out over a wall.
In the bottom of the eighth inning of this ALCS game, 12-year-old Yankees fan Jeffrey Maier reached over the right field wall at Yankee Stadium to turn a long fly ball into a home run. After some discussion, the umpires decided that it was a home run, tying the game 4-4 and allowing the Yankees to go on to win the game, and eventually, the World Series.
Clearly, the play had an effect on the league, as a rail was later added to the right field bleachers to prevent future similar plays.
4. Sacramento Kings vs. Los Angeles Lakers – 2002 Western Conference Final, Game 6
Tim Donaghy has suggested that NBA executives wanted this series to extend to seven games, and therefore kept the whistle ready. In the fourth quarter, the Lakers attempted 27 free throws, compared to 9 for the Kings, and Sacramento’s centers Vlade Divac and Scot Pollard both fouled on some questionable calls.
The referees involved in the game claim they called it as they saw it, pointing out that the Lakers were the more assertive team on offense, and many teams employed a “hack-a-Shaq” strategy in an attempt to slow down the famous Lakers center, leading to more free throw attempts than the average.
Game 6 of this series will perhaps be remembered as the low point of for NBA refereeing, and the suggestion of involvement from above has slightly tempered the Lakers 2002 Championship.
3. Diego Maradona’s Hand of God Goal – 1986 World Cup Final
No one is really sure how Tunisian referee Ali Bin Nasser missed this one, but Diego Maradona clearly jumped and used his hand to steer the ball into the England net for his first goal of the game.
Maradona himself has said that he encouraged his teammates to celebrate with him so as not to arouse suspicion, and despite England’s legitimate complaints, the goal stood. A few minutes later, Maradona would score a second goal, this one completely legal and completely sensational, and Argentina would win the final 2-1.
In 2015, in a classic Maradona move, the legend travelled to Tunisia to give the retired referee a signed jersey.
2. Brett Hull’s Foot in the Crease – 1999 Stanley Cup Final, Game 6
Sometimes, leagues like to experiment with new rules in an effort to deal with new developments. In the case of the NHL in 1999, there was an increased effort to protect the goalies from fast-skating, powerful forwards driving the net looking for rebounds.
The solution was to institute rule 78-b, which stated that an attacking player cannot be inside the goalie’s crease unless the puck is also there. Many goals were disallowed that season as referees were attempting to enforce that new rule.
So in game 6 of the 1999 Stanley Cup Finals between the Dallas Stars and Buffalo Sabres, which went to triple overtime, Stars forward Brett Hull slid home a rebound past Buffalo goalie Dominik Hasek. On review, Hull’s foot appeared to be in the crease, while the puck was not, a reason that should have disallowed the goal. However, the referees allowed the goal to stand, and the Stars were celebrating their Stanley Cup win within minutes.
1. Jim Joyce ruins Armando Galarraga’s Perfect Game – 2010
Armando Galarraga was a little-known young pitcher for the Detroit Tigers sent out on June 2, 2010. He was pitching a perfect game against the Cleveland Indians, and had only one out to go to reach that unlikely dream.
Jason Donald hit a slow ground ball and Tigers’ first baseman Miguel Cabrera fielded it and tossed it to Galarraga, who was covering first. Galarraga began celebrating his achievement, when he heard first base umpire Jim Joyce’s call: safe.
Replays showed Joyce got it wrong. Donald should have been called out, and Galarraga lost the perfect game and no-hitter bid on one call. After seeing the replays, a tearful Joyce apologized to Galarraga and admitted his mistake. The next day, the two met at home plate before the game and exchanged a hug, where Galarraga showed his forgiveness, and ended the entire episode on a classy note. When asked about the missed call, Galarraga smiled and said “Nobody’s perfect.”
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