Dutch official Bjorn Kuipers summoned up the refereeing ghost of Welshman Clive Thomas when he blew his whistle for time just seconds before Karim Benzema smashed the ball home for what looked like another French goal against Switzerland on Friday.
Thomas, now 78 and long retired after a controversial career in the 1960s and 1970s, is best remembered for blowing the final whistle during a World Cup match between Sweden and Brazil in Mar del Plata, Argentina in 1978 while the ball was in flight from a corner.
With the score at 1-1, Zico subsequently scored what he thought was the winning goal for Brazil.
But Thomas disallowed it and ever since there has been an unwritten convention – though not a law – that referees only bring play to a halt when the ball is nowhere near a scoring opportunity.
Football matches end differently to rugby union matches, where plays ends when the ball is dead after a period of active play once the full-time of 80 minutes is on the clock.
Kuipers, however, defied football’s convention in the waning seconds of last week’s Group E match in Salvador.
France, already 5-2 ahead, attacked deep in stoppage time and the ball came to Benzema who scored what he thought was France’s sixth goal. It did not count because Kuipers had blown the final whistle.
Unlike Thomas’s ruling, which changed the result, Kuipers’ whistle only caused confusion: the players were confused, FIFA’s television production team was confused and millions watching around the world were confused.
Niclas Ericson, Director of FIFA TV, agreed there had been some confusion because the television images showed the goal being scored before immediately cutting away to a shot of the celebrating France coach Didier Deschamps.
“The production team did hear the referee’s final whistle and cut to the reaction on the French bench. But it did create some confusion because the action happened just at the final whistle,” Ericson told reporters at FIFA’s media briefing on Tuesday.
Jim Boyce, a member of FIFA’s executive committee and the head of FIFA’s refereeing committee, told Reuters he was watching the match at home but had no doubt Kuipers made the right decision.
“I clearly saw he had blown the whistle before the player hit the ball and ‘scored’,” he said. “I thought the referee had a very good game and, if time was up, it was up. It was unfortunate it ended just before that goal.”
Such confusion would be unlikely in rugby union. In that game the clock is stopped routinely during the match, by the referee, and the match clock is displayed on the big screens so everybody in the ground knows how much time is left.
The match ends when the ball goes dead. But football is unlikely to adopt such a law simply because, in the wake of Thomas’s action so many years ago, most referees tend to err on the side of caution and allow play to carry on a moment longer.
Kuipers, one of Europe’s top referees who took the correct yet brave decision, was in charge of the Confederations Cup final when Brazil played Spain last year and is a candidate for the World Cup final – as long as the Netherlands do not make it.