After the action in London, Brussels and Johannesburg, most tongues are wagging about the fascinating results produced by teams such as the Italian women, or the Belgian and Indian men (all for different reasons). However, real hockey nerds are talking about
As is appropriate for the third team, we'll review three major stories coming out of the 132 matches and what they mean for the conductors of the game at both the top levels and your leagues at home.
Most all the umpires at these Semi-Finals are on the #RoadToTokoyo list, the four-year development program working towards the next Olympics. That said, there was a significant range in experience, with multiple Olympians and World Cup umpires like Roel Van Eeert (NED) and John Wright (RSA) announcing their retirements in Johannesburg, and up-and-comers like Aleisha Neuman (AUS) and Maggie Giddens (USA) taking on important games. Despite the contrast, the umpiring teams were well-briefed and were consistent on the pitch, but just maybe not in the way the fans at home would have expected.
Aerial Balls and That Middleton Goal
If there was one single call that mystified the hockey world, it was the 5m reception space an opponent must give the initial receiver of the ball. England's Barry Middleton scored a phenomenal and highly controversial goal against Canada in their quarter-final bout by poaching a falling deflection from just above goalkeeper David Carter's head. As I wrote in a blog post (https://fhumpires.com/that-goal), to apply the protection of that 5m space to every ball that falls from being raised in any form of 3D skill perverts the spirit of the rule, which is to protect the skill of the intentional aerial pass. Raised shots on goal don't trigger the 5m rule, nor do jinks over a flat stick or a bobbled reception, so why should this deflection?
What we're seeing is a tension between the top-level game wanting to move past the artificial protection provided by rule 9.10. Other top FIH umpires took to social media to defend the decision because at the heart of it, there was no danger in the play whatsoever and it would have been a ticky-tack call to deny that goal. In many other instances throughout the Semi-Finals, the play was allowed to continue under the guise of advantage as opponents safely and skillfully contested balls in the air.
It won't happen in the next couple of years but watch for the FIH rules committee to look at reshaping this rule in some way that accommodates the skill at the top by doing away with the strict 5m requirement in a way that still protects the weekend warriors.
Despite that video referrals are still confined to the upper echelon of international competitions, they're still wildly entertaining and illustrate many of the rules problems that we work through regularly, just with the benefit of multiple camera angles and slow-to-stop motion video.
When first introduced, the regulations attempted to confine the teams to a specific question. With the potential for so many discrete events inside the 23m area and the circle contributing to the outcome, no one wanted to hear the equivalent of “did anything happen in the last five minutes that the umpires should have called differently?”
However, that approach had two distinct problems. First, teams from non-English speaking countries were put at a profound disadvantage if their grasp of the language didn't allow them to get their point across–compounded if their audience also isn't a native English speaker. Moreover, the potential for injustice was realised on several occasions when a referral regarding one foul might have been technically correct, but the video umpire would have to ignore another foul that should have been the basis of the decision.
Fortunately, we've seen the briefings to the umpires and teams embrace a more common-sense approach. For example, even if a team asks for a referral for a foot but the replay shows that there was an obstruction, the video umpire can advise that the outcome should still be the same and the team keeps their right of referral. This focus on the right result has made video reviews far fairer.
There was also a marked increase in self-referrals. Umpires can initiate a review to their video colleague in regards to decisions they've taken on penalty strokes and goals, and in the Semi-Finals, we saw several examples of umpires taking the wise road of confirming these pivotal calls. It's no small matter to ignore years of conditioning to “stick to your guns” and instead call upon your teammates who will have the technology to help you get it right.
Cards vs Upgrades
There's been a meaningful battle brewing for years on the use of cards along with upgraded team penalties. As the 2-minute suspension attached to the green card came into the game a few years ago, the nature of how umpires awarded personal penalties changed. Umpires now had a more powerful recourse than a mere wrist slap, but not so severe that penalty outstripped the foul.
At the same time, penalty corners have continued to constitute the majority of international goals scored, and umpires are well aware of the consequences of throwing in an upgrade for an indelicate foul perhaps just inside the 23m line but close to the sideline, which stopped nothing dangerous. The dilemma is that a free hit in that situation doesn't send a message about that rash challenge, but a corner grants a terrific goal-scoring opportunity where the foul itself didn't take one away.
What we saw in the Semi-Finals were are many instances where umpires gave cards (usually green) for these fouls, but not with the accompanying team penalty upgrade. In a few cases, we even saw green cards given inside the circle with a penalty corner. For the weekend umpire and player, this seems like heresy, but it has a net positive effect. Instead of the umpire “putting away their whistle” to avoid donating unearned goal-scoring opportunities, they can still manage the individuals and give the fouled team an advantage that genuinely balances out what the foul took away.
None of these developments makes things easier for the hockey family back home. A common complaint is how difficult it is to reconcile what we see on globally-streamed competitions like the Hockey World League and how the game is called and therefore played in domestic leagues. However, unless you see 60-metre aerial passes regularly, you can't develop the hockey sense as a player to deal with them safely and skillfully. Cell phones are no way to conduct video referrals. And unless Gonzalo Peillat is drag-flicking for your Saturday side, penalty corners don't always result in the ball landing in the back of your net. Everything is different, so it requires the subjective framework all 14 of our rules to be applied differently.
The umpires are in the middle of the mix and can feel the emotions of the players, the fine points of their skills and understand how their interventions can shape the flow of the game more than the result. It isn't easy, but nothing worthwhile is!