Linesmen, Referees’ Assistants or simply ‘Linos’, the guys running up and down the sidelines of half of the playing area are often considered the least significant characters in the passion play that is a football match. These are the ‘extras’ that make up the lower listings in the dramatis personae.’ They’re the ‘non-speaking’ participants, who have to wave a flag – or perhaps press a buzzer as well these days – to remind the rest of us that they’re there.
Now, this isn’t an article intended to decry the importance of these sidelined officials, more it is to emphasise how important their role is, and how significant it can be when they get it wrong, either in isolation, or in consultation with the man holding the whistle. Not on the minutiae of offside calls, decided literally on measures of less than twelve inches. No, what’s afoot here are the big decisions, in the big games. It’s the calls and mistakes that decide the major tournaments, for good or ill.
Back in 1966, England hosted the World Cup finals, and had progressed through to the final denouement at Wembley against West Germany. A Wolfgang Weber goal, following a late melee in the England penalty area had forced extra time. As the break in the added period drew near, Alan Ball pivoted and crossed to Geoff Hurst, who instantly smacked the ball against the underside of the German crossbar after the faintest of touches by ‘keeper Hans Tilkowski. The ball thudded down onto/behind (delete as applicable, demanded by opinion or national tendencies) the line and then out and away. Hurst appealed for the goal, and fellow striker, Roger Hunt, who probably had the best view of the incident in the entire stadium, wheeled away, contrary to the striker’s instinct that would normally demand a follow up if there was any doubt, arm aloft.
Was it a goal? Red said ‘yes’. White said ‘nein’. But black would decide. Encouraged by the German defenders who clearly feared a ‘home town’ decision, the referee, Gottfried Dienst of Switzerland, decided to consult his linesman. Whether it was to confirm his opinion or to canvas that of his colleague is unknown. Ubiquitously known as the ‘Russian Linesman’ from that point, the man with the flamboyant moustache and flag, running the line on the left flank of the German defence was in fact an Azerbaijani named Tofik Bakhramov. As was often the way in those days, Bakhramov was an experienced referee, but perhaps less well-attuned to the particular demands of running the line. Had he been in line with the goal when the ball struck the ground? Probably not.
This particular controversy is deepened a little by reports suggesting that the two officials had no common language, and any consultations were conducted merely by gesticulations. A few seconds passed, before the referee turned from his colleague and pointed towards the halfway line. Had Bakhramov been the deciding influence in the decision? It’s widely thought that his consistent nodding convinced the referee to award the goal, but only he and Dienst know for sure. As the two officials parted, and the German protests were renewed, Bakhramov gave the sort of emphatic nod that brooked no argument. The goal stood, and although Hurst later rapped in a fourth just as “some people are on the pitch” the Germans would still have felt ill-served.
Although, hand on heart, I personally remain unconvinced of the veracity of the decision – the fourth goal does provide a balm to soothe the doubts inspired by the traditional British tenet for fair play though – the controversy certainly did not seem to impair Bakhramov’s career. As well as officiating in some of the Soviet Union’s most important domestic games, he also refereed the 1972 Uefa Cup final between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur. Few, if any, fans at the somewhat appropriately all-English final were aware of the debt that the English game owed to the man in the middle, and he was probably treated with the same disdain usually meted out to officials. He also went on to head up the Azerbaijan Football Federation and had the country’s national stadium named in his honour.
Some twenty years later, another decision between referee and linesman contrived to paint a similarly controversial scenario, when an impish manoeuvre probably attempted without much hope of success, ended up as a goal. That the sleight of hand apparently fooled both referee and linesman however brought sorrow and anguish to English fans, but in Germany, it would have been understandable had there been a mass feeling of schaudenfreide.
On a hot Mexican mid-June day in 1986, England faced Argentina in a World Cup quarter-final. Tensions between the two countries had been ratcheted up a notch or three by the Falklands War and for both teams there was an increased measure of honour at stake pending in the result. After a goalless first half, a seemingly innocuous ball was hoisted into the England penalty area. Peter Shilton, England’s goalkeeper, advanced and jumped to punch it as Argentina’s talisman Diego Maradona offered a seemingly token challenge. A second later, the ball was in England’s net. Immediately, it just looked wrong. How could Shilton’s six foot odd frame, given additional height by the extending arm held aloft, be beaten by the much shorter Argentine. An offending left-hand, not really hidden by the player’s mop of black hair, quickly answered the query.
Whilst Maradona cavorted away jumping with joy – and perhaps delighted surprise, that a school-ground con had succeeded at such exalted level – England’s players surrounded the referee Ali Bin Nasser from Tunisia, pointing at their own hands. The referee appeared to have seen nothing wrong however.
In 2001, on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the game, Bin Nasser gave an interview to an Argentinian newspaper. In it, he related that, “After Maradona scored I hesitated for a moment, but then I saw Dotchev (the Bulgarian linesman) running towards the centre of the pitch. And because he was better placed than me I decided to trust his judgment.” Now, that may well be true, but the second linesman in the match, a Costa Rican named Berny Ulloa, stationed on the halfway line when the ‘goal’ was scored has said that later, whilst watching TV replays of the game at the hotel, Bin Nasser was “really sad.”
In a more recent interview the Tunisian was consistent in saying that the decision had been hugely swayed by the Bulgarian and his reaction after the ball crossed the line. “My assistant did not raise his flag. Moreover, for three years, at the end of every year, he would write me a little note that always said the same thing: ‘My brother, my colleague, there was only the hand of Shilton.’ After that he stopped writing. He had to revise his view of the goal.”
There’ll be little surprise however in hearing that Dotchev saw the whole situation differently. Bin Nasser was nine years his junior, had less experience and, unlike the Bulgarian, had never played at a high professional level. Add onto this that, much as with Bakhramov in 1966, Dotchev was a referee by trade rather than a linesman, and would have carried in his mind the the convention that the linesman was to advise, the referee was to decide. “Bin Nasser was just not prepared well enough to referee such an important game,” he has been quoted as saying. “And how could he be? After all he used to be in charge of some games between camels in the desert.” Leaving aside the unsavoury tone, it’s clear where the Bulgarian sees the responsibility for the error as lying. For England ‘keeper Peter Shilton, such parcelling up of responsibility is mere detail. “The referee and linesman were entirely at fault and as far as I know the Tunisian ref, Ali Bin Nasser, never refereed again at such a high level.”
‘To err is human, but to forgive is divine’ as the saying goes. In 1966, in all probability – at least to the mind of the writer – an error had a major impact on the destiny of the World Cup, notwithstanding Hurst’s hat-trick goal. In 1986, Maradona handed Argentina a lead he was to double later with a goal so much in contrast to the opener that comparing base metal to gold falls far short of the required measure. But is time a great healer?
As mentioned above, when England fell foul of a decision that never arrived, it would have been eminently understandable if the German reaction was one of seeing things being ‘equalled out’ but in the press at least, that was not the case. Although in Argentina, the ‘handball goal’ is celebrated as highly as the slaloming elegance of the second, as it’s seen as the ‘street kid’ artfully picking the pocket of the wealthy but slow-witted aristocrat, the DPA, the German press agency described it as “the scandal of the century.” Perhaps the anger had subsided.
But have England forgiven Maradona?In 2006, Gary Lineker, who had given England hope of a comeback when he scored to cut the arrears to 2-1 in that quarter-final encounter, flew out to Buenos Aires to interview Maradona. Patting his right-hand, the crisp front-man enquired, “How’s the hand?” The Argentine smiled broadly and corrected Lineker by instead waving his left-hand above his head. Together with remainder of the television crew, both men laughed.
(This All blue Daze article was originally produced for ‘theaspirer’ website).