After an opening weekend of curious calls and blown decisions, fans are rightly wondering just how these referees got to the World Cup.
Controversial verdicts marred each of the first three matches; Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura marred the opening game between Brazil and Croatia by awarding a suspect penalty to the home side in the second half and wiping away a potential Croatian equalizer with minimal reason to do so; Giovani dos Santos saw two valid goals scrapped by incorrect offside decisions in the first half of Mexico’s 1-0 victory over Cameroon; and Diego Costa won a penalty in the 2010 World Cup final rematch between Spain and the Netherlands by stepping on the back of Stefan de Vrij’s leg and tumbling to the ground.
Each of those decisions drew wide disapproval from viewers at home and prompted the usual laments about the standard of refereeing. But if FIFA assembled many of the top referees in the world for this tournament, then why are they are they struggling so mightily to make the correct choices?
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And let’s make this clear: FIFA did carefully evaluate referees from across the world and selected the very best of those candidates to comprise its pool for the World Cup. The officials boast top-level experience in their native confederations and countries and pass rigorous fitness tests in order to confirm their physical suitability for the grandest stage. They are — by and large — some of most qualified people on the planet to make decisions in World Cup matches. They get most of them right, but they also often get some of the major decisions wrong. It happens in every World Cup.
In short, the task is supremely difficult even for the most qualified observers. The margins between right and wrong appear evident and vast on replay, but they are miniscule in live time. One misstep or one late glance can mean the difference between the correct decision and the wrong verdict. And a major issue now is that referees don’t have the benefit of replay — a fixture now in just about every home in the world, but banished from the field by FIFA.
Take Friday’s second offside decision against dos Santos for example. The assistant referee is firmly fixed in line with the second-to-last defender. He is watching to see if a Mexican player will drift behind the line. Players are jostling constantly in a bid to latch onto the corner kick. The ball takes a touch off a Cameroonian player — and the flick, if it had come from a Mexican player, would have rendered dos Santos offside — and falls to dos Santos at the far post.
In the split-second allotted to raise the flag or keep it by his side, the assistant referee leaned on what he saw and chose incorrectly. He did so without any sort of backing. There is no monitor to consult. There is no review. There is no one else to make the decision. It is down to one man in one instant to get it right or wrong.
That lack of a safety net creates ample room for error. The latitude is increased for the men in the middle — because they can receive input via radio from the assistant referees and the fourth official — but they face a more rigorous test to match the speed of play and position themselves appropriately.
And people do forget the physical demands. They run the entire game, and tires just like any other human. Yet referees must still maintain their composure and ward off the internal and external pressures. Their decisions hinge on their ability to cut through the crowd — one stray player can block the sight line to a vital incident and one stray stride can reduce the viewing angle considerably — and render the right decision based on the proper evidence. They must also manage the personalities on the field and in the dugout in order to retain control over the proceedings for the duration of the 90 minutes.
All of those responsibilities are amplified and increased given the exacting nature of the World Cup. The pressure is immense, particularly when the host nation plays. The scrutiny is unrelenting as the past few days have shown. And some of these officials — particularly the ones without broad international experience — crack under the pressure.
The explanations will not excuse the errors or satiate the spurned teams frustrated by the failings. There are no easy solutions to eradicate the mistakes, though FIFA president Sepp Blatter made noises about a potential challenge system earlier this week. FIFA could tweak its selection system to ensure only the most battle-tested referees feature in the tournament regardless of the confederation, but that measure wouldn’t eliminate the issues, either.
As frustrating as it is for people to process and watch, the top referees are as prone to variation as the top players. They excel in some matches. They muddle through others. And they slip up sometimes, too. The overall standard will improve from these opening couple of matches, but the creation of further referee-related talking points is inevitable because the referees involved — like the players they manage — are fallible.
No amount of evaluation and no particular selection process can remove the human element from the game. It is why the Hand of God is still discussed and why many American fans recoil when someone utters the name Komen Coulibaly. But the hope is that the people charged with making those decisions can reduce the errors made over the past few days and shift the focus back onto the players sooner rather than later.