SALVADOR, BRAZIL — On the eve of the USA’s winner-take-all World Cup game with Belgium in the round of 16 of the World Cup, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann said that he worries that the nationality of the Algerian referee appointed to the game could play a stake in its outcome.
Djamel Haimoudi is the assigned referee, a veteran of both the last two African Cups of Nations and of a pair of group-stage matches at this year’s World Cup. Haimoudi, like the Belgian team, speaks French.
“We hope it’s not a concern,” Klinsmann said in his pre-game press conference. “We know that he did already two games so far and he did them very well. We wish that he continues his refereeing the perfect way he’s done so far.”
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Klinsmann didn’t leave it at that though. “Is it a good feeling? No,” he said of the appointment.
“Because he’s coming from the same group with Belgium and Algeria. He’s able to speak French with their players on the field, not with us. And it’s the country that we beat in the last second of the last World Cup.”
Landon Donovan’s late goal saved the USA’s 2010 World Cup campaign in its final group stage game, sending them to the round of 16 and bouncing Algeria from the tournament.
“Sometimes I know, I understand for FIFA it’s difficult to always choose the right referee for the right games and it’s always kind of tricky,” Klinsmann continued. “It is what it is. We give it the benefit of the doubt. We respect the decision.”
US Soccer president Sunil Gulati wouldn’t elaborate on Klinsmann’s comments specifically but, as a member of FIFA’s Executive Committee, provided some context on how referee appointments have been complicated in recent years.
“It’s hard because there are more European referees here than from other countries,” he said. “FIFA abandoned the rule about having only people from a different confederation [referee a game] because so many of the top referees are from Europe.” Simply put: there aren’t a lot of referees who are devoid of even the most marginal conflicts of interest.
Haimoudi, 43, worked at the Africa Cup of Nations in 2008 and 2012 and refereed Italy’s third-place win over Uruguay at last year’s Confederations Cup. At this World Cup, he officiated the Netherlands’ 3-2 win over Australia and Costa Rica’s 0-0 draw with England.
There is another twist here as well: two years ago, the Court of Arbitration for Sport said ref Haimoudi ‘”claimed to have been assaulted” by Al-Hilal team president Mohammed Al-Birair during an African Champions League semifinal.
The CAS upheld Al-Birair’s appeal and overturned a four-year suspension imposed by the Confederation of African Football in January 2012, ruling “it is not convinced to the standard of `comfortable satisfaction’ that the appellant was the assailant responsible for the incident.”
Belgium coach Marc Wilmots had no interest in this debate at all and didn’t see any advantage from speaking the same language as the referee. “I rarely speak to referees,” he said. “The three referees I’ve had at the start [of this tournament] I never even spoke to. The referee isn’t there for talking to, he’s there to referee.”
There’s some interesting context here. At the 2002 World Cup, Belgium lost to Brazil in the round of 16 after one of their goals was wrongly disallowed. Wilmots had scored that goal. Still, he says he remains detached from it.
“I don’t play those games,” said Wilmots. “I could complain that we’ve beaten Algeria and now we have an Algerian referee. But if you’re going to talk about that sort of thing, you’re already looking for excuses ahead of time.”
Wilmots and Klinsmann are friends from their days playing in Germany. And they have played each other with the national teams they manage in friendlies in 2011 and 2013. A scrimmage between the two on June 12 in Sao Paulo, just days before the World Cup, was called off by Wilmots because he didn’t want to brave the extra-snarled traffic on a day of subway strikes.
Now, regardless of how the game unfolds, the referee will surely be a part of the narrative of their crucial World Cup standoff.