London - Millions of soccer fans will be able to enjoy every detail of this year’s Soccer World Cup using the most up-to-date technology. The referees who make the decisions will be relying on their eyesight and good judgment alone.
SWC refs: We're not Gods
“I’m not God,” Swiss referee Massimo Busacca said to players during a European Championship game in 2008. “I make mistakes.”
Busacca and Belgian referee Frank de Bleeckere are among the favourites to be awarded the task of officiating the final on July 11 - if they can steer clear of controversy.
The referees at the World Cup will be on their own, unlike the millions of critics on the sidelines and in front of television screens who will savage their performances after viewing replays and slow motion from dozens of TV cameras. At previous tournaments, fans have issued death threats toward referees who make calls against their teams. Some refs have even quit the game.
The World Cup is the biggest test a referee will ever face, both professionally and personally.
The 30 referees taking charge of the 64 games in South Africa have been selected already. Ten come from Europe, six from South America, four each from the Asian, African and Concacaf regions, and two from New Zealand. Each official has his team of two assistants who have worked with him consistently over the last two years.
Notable omissions from the list of referees appointed to South Africa include Australia’s Matthew Breeze, who also failed to make the final cut at the 2008 World Cup. While El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico, with two, will all be sending referees, FIFA did not select any from the United States.
US Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati didn’t want to comment on FIFA’s decision.
While most of the European and Latin American referees are accustomed to officiating in the most stressful circumstances, players are hoping they avoid some of the referees who take charge of games in such countries as Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia or the Seychelles, where the speed of play is far more leisurely.
Once they are at the tournament, referees and their assistants will be swathed in a protective blanket of security. They will be locked away from the world’s prying eyes at a luxury hotel and provided with sports psychologists to boost fragile confidence, and with technological tools that allow them to study the strengths, weaknesses and favourite tricks of the teams they will be officiating.
At home, viewers will benefit from multiple replays of contentious decisions that expose refereeing errors. FIFA has decided not to introduce any form of replay or goal-line technology that would enable decisions to be corrected, if necessary. Hostile at first to technology, most referees now agree they would prefer it to be introduced to spare them the vitriol poured on them in the media and in the stands.
Paul Tamberino, the USSF’s director of referee development, said the United States looks to FIFA and the International Football Association Board - soccer’s rules-making body - for decisions on replay and does not explore technology on its own.
“We don’t look at replay to overturn anything,” he said. “The only thing we do is in the case of mistaken identity, then we’ll overturn a red card. But we don’t use replay for anything else.”
Referees in South Africa also won’t benefit from the experiment currently employed in the Europa League, Europe’s second-tier club tournament, of extra assistants at each end of the field used as an extra pair of eyes in the penalty area. That experiment has received only a tepid response and may be dropped next season.
“I’ve seen it where it worked and I’ve seen it where it hasn’t worked,” Tamberino said. “I’m interested in finding what the overall result is.”
The most surprising area of change, or a lack of it, is in goal-line technology, where FIFA has shelved all plans to allow video equipment to decide when the ball has completely crossed the line.
Cheating has become widespread in modern soccer and players are essentially too good at it to be spotted with the naked eye. Players are shown a yellow card for simulation, but often they get away with it, winning penalties and earning a red card for the alleged fouler. Ironically, players tend to escape mass condemnation for their cheating behavior while the referees are pilloried.
Swedish referee Martin Hansson has survived to travel to South Africa despite missing a handball by striker Thierry Henry to set up a goal that qualified France for South Africa and eliminated Ireland.
Brazil’s Carlos Simon and Italy’s Roberto Rosetti are seen as referees at the peak of their job, but they may not be able to officiate the final because of a rule that bars referees from taking charge of matches involving their own country.