June 30, 2014

Busacca's Nonsense Positioning Instructions Provoke Wrong Penalty Area Decisions

After the opener game and the immensely debated penalty kick given to the Brazilians by Yuichi Nishimura, I posted an analysis that tried to explain why exactly the Japanese professional referee failed to properly identify Fred's simulation.

FIFA's Referee Department Head: Massimo Busacca © n24.de

A deficient positioning and movement strategy were outlined as the basic root for the wrong decision. Nishimura followed the respective instructions the match officials had received from the referee department headed by Massimo Busacca before the tournament and abandoned the diagonal movement too much, made use of the diagonal channel instead and was thus positioned too far on the right lacking a sidewise visual insight into the duel.

It is normal that human mistakes will always happen at a World Cup. The number of crucial mistakes is however extremely high this time. And I don't want to accept that all this has perceptual roots only. The following analysis therefore tries to understand these mistakes in order to learn from them.

Nishimura's blunder should not stay the only wrong or missed penalty whose responsibility nobody else than Massimo Busacca should assume. FIFA gave two mandatory instructions:

1. As soon as players are entering the penalty area and moving towards the goalline, mostly in dangerous goal attempts, referees should leave the diagonal movement and use the diagonal channel instead (as explained in the post on Nishimura).

2. Referees were requested to be positioned in front of play instead of following it. 

Both sounds partly logical and advantageous. In theory, you are closer to possible tackles inside and around the penalty area as soon as play moves towards it. In praxis, this led to unacceptable situations. 
First, Busacca and co. neglected that most duels inside the penalty area follow a vertical movement pattern, i.e. both players are mostly moving towards the goalline (in sprints, e.g.) or towards the goal. In sprints or general goal attempts, the movement angle towards the goal is therefore mostly between 60° and 90°. You take the best decisions if you savour a sidewise insight into a challenge, requiring a sidewise visual angle. That's why referees should be positioned in the diagonal, as they maintain a good visual angle in the majority of occasions, instead of being positioned behind the potential offender, failing to identify whether there was a punishable contact caused by the defender or what exactly caused the attacker's descend, or even whether they deliberately handled the ball:

Benjamin Williams started to run diagonally. But after 3 seconds in the video, you can clearly see him moving too far to the right side of the field of play and penalty area = into the diagonal channel. For this reason, he did not adhere to the optimum distance and did not have play between him and his assistant referee. He was about 25-30 metres away from the clearly deliberate handball by Torosidis. Williams would have surely seen this infringement if he had been positioned on the centre / centre-left side close to the penalty area line.
Second, FIFA's referee managers have obviously lacked in understanding the game. It is naive - and I would go so far to call that even imbecile - to believe that you have the best position if you are close to the last defensive row. When play is moving close to the penalty area, you easily hinder it (check this video). When play is building up around the midfield circle, you are susceptible to technical mistakes of the attacking players. What if a ball gets lost quickly in the midfield and the defensive team starts a quick counterattack? Check the following videos to see what happens then.

In yesterday's match between the Netherlands and Mexico, Pedro Proença missed a clear penalty kick after a double foul on Dutch attacker Arjen Robben. Notice his positioning play: when play was slowly building up close to the midfield line, the referee was positioned very closely to the last defensive line (almost level with AR2). When the ball got lost by a bad pass and a quick counterattack was started by the Dutch team, the referee was positioned 30 metres away from the ball. Given the high speed of the attackers and the circumstance that they already were in movement, while Proença still had to accelerate, it is likely that he took the subsequent NO penalty decision from a distance of approximately 25 metres. How on earth do you want to take an accurate penalty area decision from such a distance, please?

Same here. Osses was prepared for everything but a bad pass that could result in a quick counterattack, on the one hand due to a lack of anticipation and concentration, but on the other hand also because he was in front of play instead of following it from a more central position. Similar to Proença, he was too far, probably even farther, away from the tackle and missed this stonewall penalty - he was almost inside the midfield circle when taking the decision! AR1 was unfortunately no help either.

Last example of another negative result of being positioned in front of play instead of following it: you need more time to turn around your body, head and visual control to new scenarios in the match. Néstor Pitana was positioned as instructed and was in front of play, i.e. where the ball originally was. 
He could not see what was happening in his back and had to turn around his body to adapt himself to the new situation (= the high pass towards the penalty area), having been quite busy with pulling down his sleeve before. For this reason, he was unable to accurately decide whether there was an offensive foul going on in his back or not. Considering that the assistant referee had to focus on the offside line at the moment of the pass, he was no real help in taking a profound decision either. Interestingly, Pitana suddenly stopped to move and did not follow play anymore. He was probably puzzled and had doubts whether there was a foul and lost concentration for the ongoing play. As a result, he neither had the optimum distance (he was 25 metres away!), nor the optimum position (in the diagonal, somewhere between the red and white players on the 16,5m line) to take the correct decision: penalty and red card for denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity. In this case, it was a mixture of individual mistakes (also AR2 had to assist him there), but also misplaced positioning instructions.


Being positioned in the diagonal channel can have advantages - you might be closer to some duels. But it has an immense disadvantage: distance is not everything. You lack the needed sidewise insight and visual angle into these challenges.

Being positioned in front of play instead of following it has negative impacts for different reasons:

1. You easily hinder play when it comes to tight situations close to the penalty area line.

2. In case of lost balls in the midfield and quick counterattacks, you are too far away from the ball. I wish you good luck to take a good penalty area decision being 30 metres away.

3. In case of lost balls in the midfield, you need some extra (and too much) acceleration because this positioning strategy mostly implies a rather static positioning when play is building up.

4. If you visually follow play that is moving around the midfield line, you will have to turn around by 180° if there is a (high) pass towards the penalty area in scenarios like in HON-SUI. This means you are not using your visual resources in an efficient way - referees are humans and no birds (even if people sometimes think so), so we don't savour a 360° visual angle when looking forward. Things that are going on in your back can easily get missed. And: you need more time to accelerate when sprinting towards the penalty area in order to enter it when needed, as you first have to turn around your body. Instead, play should move between your assistant referee (to whom you have visual contact if positioned as it should be) and yourself.

5. You cannot instruct referees to apply something completely new (and irrational) what goes completely against what they have learnt to internalize and apply as an automatism on the pitch in their long careers. It takes (too) many cognitive resources to focus on positioning too much during such high-profile matches. The human mind's space is limited and we need as many cognitive resources as possible in order to take accurate decisions instead of actively thinking about things like positioning. 

On a physical (acceleration), psychological (visual perception and cognition) and play-practical (hindering play) level, these instructions are complete nonsense and provided the world of football with minimum 5 evitable wrong or missed penalty kicks during this World Cup. Massimo Busacca and his team have to assume responsibility for that and hopefully will do so after the tournament. These instructions allow no other conclusion except that there is everything but technical competence inside the FIFA Referee Department - a phenomenon that can be transferred to matters like referee appointments, disciplinary instructions etc. with apparent ease, to say the least. In place of unspooling the always same audiotape "We want to understand the different mentalities of the players", Busacca and his colleagues should have focused on understanding football as a start.

As for UEFA Refereeing, I strongly hope and expect that the Referee Committee managed by Collina, Dallas and Batta will knock these instructions out of their referees' minds as soon as they have come back from the World Cup to return onto Champions League turf.


  1. Excellent post. I can only add to this by referring to Milorad Mazic's performance in GER-POR. In that game, as my report mentions, Mazic had to turn his back on play in the penalty area, being too close to play, crossed repeatedly the centre of the field too early (intercepting two passes), and was at a huge distance from play on the Pepe violent conduct.

    It is inconceivable how these instructions are applied. One of the first principles of referee positioning is that the referee should not be directly in line with the attackers (ie see the back of the attacking player) and, as you mention, have a good angle on play. World Cup referees fail to do this, and it leads to a disastrous tournament for referees.

  2. Very good analyses Niclas & co. If you would change the emotionally written parts into more polite ones, then it would be excellent!

    Do not turn into a Rafal Wlazlo ( http://soccerrefereeusa.com/index.php/forum/match-incidents ), be tolerant and understanding.

    About the analyses itself. The channel theory i agree with - it is wrong and it was tested in a wrong place. The new FIFA theory of positioning depending on "high-pressure" and "no pressure" is correct, but just used wrongly - also being tested in a wrong place. They are going to far with it.

    World Cup is not a place to test things, i agree with you.

    Bussacas methods have had clear impact on the level of refereeing in the world cup. You can see a lot of lost souls with whistles and flags. They were put under too much pressure to use new methods and to perform flawlessly. The best ones (Webb, Cakir, Copiers) have filtered the recommendations and stayed calm.

    To be quite honest, then Bussaca is clearly cutting the branch he is sitting on. We might not see him in that position for that long anymore. When Blatter would lose the re-election he would lose the biggest support he has. Even when Blatter stays then Bussaca and his methods have found a lot of negative reactions and the seat would not be safe.

    1. Thanks for the feedback and I agree with all your points.

  3. While I disagree with some of the calls you say are stonewall penalties, I agree that the referees' positioning in this tournament has been odd. A good explanation and I think you're right on the money about the extra mental resources to go against their lifelong training for one tournament. I think that extra mental strain explains many of the odd decisions in this tournament. Why anyone would introduce such a drastic change during the biggest tournament is beyond me.

  4. I would also add that even if the calls are penalties, better positioning allows a referee to sell the call either way. Something which has been severely lacking this tournament.

  5. According to research undertaken by a Brazilian university, the most accurate distance from play from which to take a decision is between 20 and 25 yards. That is about the only area where I generally disagree with this article. Otherwise it is well-thought out and useful for referees. Here is a link to the article from which the research is taken: http://digitalcommons.wku.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1259&context=ijes

    1. 2 problems I have with this study on a scientific level:

      1. There were no significant correlations found between the distance and the call's accuracy and the latter is what the article is about.

      2. The scientists - correct me if I am wrong - did not use the type of foul as an independent variable. This means they did not distinguish between a normal challenge in the midfield where the referee is e.g. almost stationary and no players are obstructing his view and a high pace foul in the penalty area where players potentially block his line of sight requiring a perfect viewing angle from the side which you can only guarantee if you are not too far away. I am not stating that you should be 5m away (enough in-game examples have shown that the calls' quality can even decrease if referees are too close), but in such cases being in the midfield circle like Osses cannot lead to a profound decision.


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