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Top 10 Controversial Referee Calls in Sports History

by Patrick Welsh
fact checked by Rachel Jones

Sports embody the world of passion, excitement, and unpredictability. Athletes battle it out on the field, leaving no stone unturned in their pursuit of victory. But what happens when the decisions of the men and women in black and white stripes influence the outcome of a game?

Referee calls have been the subject of debate, frustration, and sometimes outrage in sports. Let’s look at the top ten controversial referee calls in sports history.

Related: Top 10 Shocking Magazine Controversies

10 1986 World Cup Hand Goal

Maradona ‘Hand of God’ Goal 1986 World Cup

The 1986 World Cup left a mark in football history, primarily due to Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal. This call came during a match against England, forever etching Maradona’s name in the annals of football lore.

With incredible cunning, Maradona used his hand to punch the ball into the net discreetly, and the referee never saw it. To compound England’s misery, Maradona followed up with the “Goal of the Century,” a display of his extraordinary talent.

This fateful event remains a sore point for English football fans. It continues to be a hotly debated topic among football enthusiasts, underscoring the enduring impact of Maradona’s deceptive and brilliant maneuver in the 1986 World Cup.

9 Roy Jones Jr. vs. Park Si-Hun (Seoul Olympics in 1988)

Roy Jones Jr vs. Park Si-Hun Olympic Scandal-Shame on Korea

In a sport where the outcome often hinges on judges’ scorecards, the 1988 Seoul Olympics witnessed a notorious fight between Roy Jones Jr. and Park Si-Hun. Jones, the rising star in American boxing, squared off against South Korea’s Si-Hun in the light middleweight gold medal match.

The match appeared lopsided, with Jones demonstrating clear dominance in every round. However, the judges’ verdict surprised everyone, as they declared Park Si-Hun the winner. This decision sent shockwaves through the boxing community.

The controversy surrounding the fight was so blatant that even Park Si-Hun admitted he did not deserve the victory. This call has gone down in history as one of the most questionable decisions in the sport. It’s irritating how subjective the scoring is in boxing.

8 Tuck Rule Game (2001 AFC Divisional Playoff)

How One STUPID Rule Changed the Course Of NFL History Forever

The “Tuck Rule Game” of the 2001 AFC Divisional Playoff is etched in NFL lore due to its perplexing turn of events. In a snowy clash, the New England Patriots, led by Tom Brady, squared off against the Oakland Raiders.

In the game’s dying moments, with the Patriots trailing, Brady appeared to fumble the ball after dropping back to pass. The Raiders seized the apparent game-deciding recovery. However, the game’s twist lay in a referee-initiated review that invoked the “tuck rule.”

This ruling deemed Brady’s motion an incomplete pass, handing the Patriots back the ball. With a newfound chance, they successfully kicked a game-tying field goal, securing a victory. This pivotal moment led to the infamous “tuck rule,” which remains a subject of debate and discussion among NFL fans and experts.

7 Thierry Henry Handball (2009)

Thierry Henry Handball Ireland V France 1-1 (agg 1-2) Hand Of Frog /God 18/11/09 Best/Good Quality

In football (soccer to those in the U.S.), where skill and honor often go hand in hand, the infamous Thierry Henry Handball incident of 2009 is a glaring example of how controversy can overshadow the game. The world of football witnessed an unforgettable moment during a crucial World Cup qualification playoff between France and Ireland.

As the clock ticked into extra time, Thierry Henry, one of the sport’s legendary figures, blatantly handled the ball to set up William Gallas for a game-deciding goal. This underhanded play secured France’s ticket to the World Cup while shattering Ireland’s dreams.

What made this play even more remarkable was the fact that the entire world, save for the referee, recognized how messed up it was. Henry eventually admitted to using his hand, but he contended that it was not his responsibility to inform the match official. This episode reignited the debate over the implementation of video technology in football, highlighting the need for fair play and ethical conduct in the sport.

6 Seahawks Stun Packers (2012)

Green Bay Packers Hit By Refs’ Hail Mary Call Against Seattle Seahawks on ‘Monday Night Football’

In the unforgettable 2012 NFL season opener, chaos reigned as replacement referees took the field. However, the most iconic moment unfolded during the Monday Night Football clash between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers.

The game culminated in a dramatic Hail Mary pass by the Seahawks in the dying seconds. To everyone’s amazement, it appeared that Packers player M.D. Jennings had intercepted the ball. Nevertheless, one of the replacement officials signaled a touchdown for the Seahawks, igniting some serious tension between fans.

What made this situation genuinely astonishing was the subsequent video review that unequivocally revealed the incorrect call. Yet the replacement referees upheld it. This controversy highlighted the necessity for experienced and competent officials in professional sports. It triggered a wave of outrage across the entire NFL. The Seahawks’ stunning victory amid this officiating fiasco is forever etched in NFL history.

5 Yellow Cards Galore (2006 FIFA World Cup )

Soccer Player Booked Three Times Before Being Sent Off

Graham Poll, an English referee, became a household name in the football world due to a peculiar incident at the 2006 FIFA World Cup. In a match between Croatia and Australia, he mistakenly issued three yellow cards to Croatia’s Josip Šimunić before finally sending him off.

This bewildering error led to accusations of incompetence, resulting in Poll being sent home from the World Cup. The call highlighted referees’ immense responsibility in football and underscored how their mistakes can significantly influence match outcomes.

Poll’s case is exactly why the sport needs referees to maintain a high level of concentration and accuracy. Their decisions can profoundly impact the course of the game and the future of the teams involved.

4 Spain vs. Morocco (2018 World Cup)

“VAR IS BULLS***” | Morocco’s referee nightmare in 2018 World Cup ᴴᴰ

Ali Bin Nasser, a prominent figure in the world of sports officiating, found himself in the spotlight during the 2018 World Cup match between Spain and Morocco. His big moment came in the match’s closing minutes when he made a highly controversial penalty call in favor of Spain. The decision triggered allegations of bias towards the Spanish team and sparked intense debate. Replays only added to the controversy, as they showcased how subjective the call really was.

This incident reminds us all of the immense pressure and scrutiny that referees deal with constantly, especially in high-stakes games like the World Cup. Their decisions can directly influence a team’s fate, and the line can be razor-thin.

3 Super Bowl XL

Super Bowl XL Controversial Calls HD

Super Bowl XL featured a highly anticipated clash between the Seattle Seahawks and the Pittsburgh Steelers. What was meant to showcase NFL excellence became marred by calls that frustrated fans.

The Seahawks claimed they were disadvantaged by several overlooked and erroneous calls favoring the Steelers. The pivotal point in the game was a disputed touchdown by Hines Ward of the Steelers. Post-game, referee Bill Leavy acknowledged that he had definitely missed some crucial calls, but the damage was already done.

The questionable officiating left a sour taste for many Seahawks fans, with some believing it ultimately cost them the Super Bowl. That probably wasn’t the best time for Leavy to be playing the nonchalance card about a game people pay tens of thousands to watch.

2 The Immaculate Reception (1972)

Immaculate Reception Original Broadcast – BEST QUALITY

The Immaculate Reception is a legendary NFL play, forever linked to the Pittsburgh Steelers and their penchant for contentious calls. This unforgettable moment occurred during the 1972 AFC Divisional Playoff game between the Steelers and the Oakland Raiders.

Franco Harris became an instant hero when he miraculously caught a pass deflected off something or someone—nobody really knows. But the lingering debate centers on whether the ball hit Steelers’ running back John Fuqua or Raiders’ safety Jack Tatum.

The catch would have been illegal if it touched Fuqua, and the Raiders would have won. However, if the ball deflected off Tatum, it was a legitimate catch, granting the Steelers their victory. This unresolved mystery makes The Immaculate Reception one of the most discussed and iconic plays in NFL playoff history.

1 No Pass Interference?

2002 NFC Wild Card NYG vs SF

Now, let’s dive into the ultimate jaw-dropper. The Wild Card Round matchup in the 2002-2003 NFL playoffs between the New York Giants and the San Francisco 49ers had fans on the edge of their seats.

The Giants had held a commanding 38-14 lead late in the third quarter. Still, an incredible rally by the 49ers brought them back into contention. The 49ers took a 39-38 lead with just one minute remaining, and it seemed all but over for the Giants.

In a last-ditch effort, Giants’ quarterback Kerry Collins led his team down the field, setting up a potential game-winning field goal. But here comes the twist – the snap was botched, and the holder, Matt Allen, threw the ball downfield toward offensive guard Rich Seubert, who was tackled.

To everyone else, it looked like a textbook case of pass interference. It should have given the Giants a chance to kick a game-winning field goal. However, the referees deemed Seubert an ineligible receiver. That call resulted in the incomplete pass being named the last play of the game. This decision remains one of the most baffling and debated calls in the NFL, leaving Giants fans shaking their heads in disbelief.

fact checked by Rachel Jones