One theme that is coming through in many of the games is that referees are giving out yellow cards disproportionally towards the end of the match as shown in the table.
It is too late at that time to have an effect on the way the players play, and only serves as punishment. The scientist in me leads to conclude that fact that since many of the referees are operating like this, there must be a reason. Have they been instructed to avoid early yellow cards if at all possible? This would be to avoid the higher risk of a player getting a second yellow with more time remaining in the match. Waiting until close to the end to hand out yellow cards reduces this risk. We feel that this is counterproductive, once the players realize it, (which they will) and they will take advantage of it. But we need to point out that we are not saying do not give yellow cards near the end of a match. Early cautions, when deserved, as many incidents in this tournament have certainly been, can send a message and cut down on future bad fouls and tackles.
Assistant Referees seem to be ignoring the mandate to keep the flag down on close decisions, and are doing the opposite. There have been several such examples in these games, and multiple examples in some games for instance in the Italy-Croatia match. They seem to be operating on the old mantra “better a dodgy offside than a dodgy goal.”
It is worthwhile to point out that there are actually two tournaments going on at EURO-2012! One is between the competing national teams, and the other is between the officiating teams. The goal in both tournaments is to reach the final match, and this is achieved for the players usually by making the fewest mistakes and thus conceding the fewest goals. Likewise for the officials it will be the team with the fewest mistakes or controversial decisions that makes it to the end. Perhaps also the fewest number of cards given is part of the equation. This is why they practice defensive officiating, as exemplified by the ARs tending to flag for close offside decisions rather than possibly allow a goal to be scored that later proves to have been a mistaken call. Likewise for the referees: sending players off can result in being blamed for the result and making a poor game critical decision.
Examples of this type of thing have been seen in previous major tournaments where the referee team was finished after a major error, Some examples are: the failure to allow the “goal” in the England-Germany match, and the missed “offside” in the Argentina-Mexico match in the WC in 2010, as well as the famous three yellow cards for Simunic in the Croatia-Australia match (which is shown as only two on the FIFA Web site!) and the 16-card battle between Portugal and Holland including four red cards in WC-2006. It is no wonder that the referees tend to err on the side of pragmatism.
But in general, the officiating here is much better than seen in the World Cup. I think this is because in this tournament they are all top referees from well-established and major footballing countries, and the referees experience high profile matches with large crowds weekly in their domestic competitions. This is not the case in World Cups where we frequently see referees selected (for political rather than footballing reasons), from small nations who have limited experience and it shows, with a few notable exceptions. Furthermore, many of the players on opposing teams are teammates on their club teams, and therefore tend to show each other more respect. This can make the referee's job much easier, but it only goes so far. This will be tested in the following matches!