Dustin George-Miller is a life-long soccer fan, a sports blogger and a Goshen College staffer. His community blog on The Elkhart Truth, The Corner Flag: World Cup 2014, will cover the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
By all accounts, the opening weekend of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil has been a resounding success with exceptional ratings in America and some scintillating, high scoring matches. Unfortunately the opening games of the tournament have been blemished by some dubious officiating decisions.
The first example came in the opening match last Thursday after Brazilian forward Fred fell to ground in Croatia’s box and was awarded a penalty by Japanese official Yuichi Nishimura, which Brazil converted. Replays clearly indicated that Fred’s “foul” was an audacious act of simulation that the official bought as real. In short, he flopped, and it turned out to be the turning point of the match, which Brazil went on to win. Simulation happens in football, and nobody likes it, but to see one so brazen and have it be not only successful but pivotal was an extremely unfortunate way to open the tournament.
The second came on Friday in Mexico’s match with Cameroon, as El Tri were denied not one but two legitimate goals for phantom offsides calls by Colombian referee Wilmar Roldan. Thankfully, Mexico went on to win the match regardless.
Officiating a soccer match is hard. While I have spent more energy than I’d care to admit screaming at the television when calls have gone against my chosen team, I do have the utmost respect for the men and women who dedicate their profession to mediating the beautiful game. At the highest levels of football, match officials have stamina at the level or higher of many of the professional athletes who are playing on the field. They are required to always be in the correct position to see the action on the field and often have to make split second decisions that could have massive impacts on the game.
When they do well, they barely get a mention. When they make a mistake, they are excoriated publicly and their impartiality is questioned, putting it mildly. And referees make their share of mistakes, just like anyone else. It’s a thankless job.
You would think that in a World Cup, the biggest sporting event in the world, FIFA would take great care to select only the brightest and best officials to take the field. And FIFA tries very hard to do this. All of the World Cup officials are highly regarded, good at their jobs, and capable. But curiously, rather than selecting the absolute cream of the crop — wherever they may hail from — FIFA has instituted a quota system whereby a certain number of match officials are selected from each FIFA region, and no more than one from any one country.
This is problematic because while there are numerous players from South America, Africa, and Asia that play their club football at the highest levels of international football in leagues like Spain’s La Liga, England’s Premier League, Italy’s Serie A, and Germany’s Bundesliga, the officials selected by FIFA to referee the World Cup have usually only officiated matches in their home country’s leagues. You can be a fantastic referee in Nigeria, but it’s not the same as officiating a match between Manchester City and Chelsea, or a match in the UEFA Champions League. A foul called in a league match in Paraguay is not necessarily a foul in a league match in Germany. A flop will be called in Spain that is not called in the MLS (OK, just kidding, no flops are actually called in Spain). Context matters, and that can sometimes get lost between cultural boundaries.
Before you accuse me of Eurocentrism, I hasten to point out that these officials are rigorously vetted before the tournament. World Cup referees had to go through a grueling series of fitness tests, as well as comprehensive examinations of the rules of football. And I do laud FIFA’s attempt to make this a global tournament in every sense of the phrase, including the officials calling the matches. Although the opening two matches were unfortunately officiated, there have already been more matches officiated well and with refs from all over the world. Look at American Mark Geiger, recently voted MLS Referee of the Year, who officiated Saturday’s match between Colombia and Greece, and was lauded for his performance. But nationality aside, it seems best that preference should be given to match officials who have already proven themselves at the highest levels of the sport.
I’m not saying World Cups should be officiated only by English, Spanish, Portuguese, or German officials, far from it. I wonder, however, if a strict quota system for allocating match officials may do more harm than good. The referees selected from Oceania are undoubtedly very good. But are they better than the second best referee in Italy? I’m not so sure.
Perhaps the worst part of the uneven officiating in the early stage of this World Cup is the damage that it has already inflicted in America, especially to those who are new to the sport or who are already predisposed to disliking soccer as a “sport of floppers.” (We will, dear readers, gracefully gloss over mentioning Dwayne Wade’s phantom flop in Game 2 of the NBA Finals). When Fred goes down like he’s shot in the box and wins a penalty for Brazil, or when two poor calls rob Mexico two goals, it only adds fuel to the fire of those who wish to dismiss soccer as “a foreigner’s game” with whiny players and bad refs.
When these decisions are made in the first two matches of the tournament, when presumably the most number of new fans are tuning in, the effect is compounded. (It’s also compounded by FIFA’s stubborn refusal to add additional referees to matches, or to incorporate any form of instant replay technology, but that’s a separate discussion.) This is a tournament already troubled by protests, poor planning, unfinished stadiums, and political corruption. Soccer itself is already plagued by allegations worldwide of match fixing that involves players and officials. How many of these potential new fans viewed these games and turned the TV off in disgust?
All refs have bad matches. Even former Italian ref Pierluigi Collina, considered by many to be one of the best ever soccer referees, has admitted that officials make mistakes and should be held accountable for them. I’m certain Wilmar Roldan and Yuichi Nishimura wish that things could have turned out differently. FIFA has already started making noises about implementing an NFL-style referee review system for World Cup officials, and it’s possible that neither Roldan or Nishimura will ref another match in this tournament. I’m sure it’s the right thing to do, just as I’m sure that Croatia probably thinks it’s too little too late.
Matches to Watch
We’ll do a review of the entire first round of the World Cup on Wednesday, but for now here are some matches to look forward two in the next few days.
Germany v. Portugal, Group G, today, noon (Arena Fonte Nova, Salvador)
If you’re like me and think that one of these two teams is going to top Group G, then this is a must-watch match. Portugal is looking strong, and Germany is dinged up. A draw would suit neither and opens up doors for USA and Ghana.
USA v. Ghana, Group G, today, 6 pm (Estádio das Dunas, Natal)
Okay, seriously, who ISN’T going to be watching this one?
Brazil v. Mexico, Group A, Tuesday, 3 pm (Estádio Castelão, Fortaleza)
Brazil looked vulnerable in their match against Croatia, and Mexico looked pretty solid in their opening win. This could be a very, very fun match. Expect Mexico to go for it. Must-see TV.
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