Well, the World Cup was supposed to be the pinnacle of international football, wasn’t it? We were supposed to see the best players in the world as well as the best officials. As far as the football goes we had some good games and some horrible ones. I guess that’s expected and understandable. But when it comes to officiating I doubt if there were any games that can be classified as excellent.
Some of the earlier games in the group phase were good from a refereeing point of view. I’m of the opinion that teams were cautious and played safe. As a result there were fewer contentious moments, less diving and play acting, and hardly any malicious tackles.
Once things heated up, high profile blunders started increasing. The errors were not limited to officials from a particular region or teams. Even the tournament winners had a lot to complain about and I’m sure all the other teams have similar issues.
It’s a real shame that FIFA cannot find 30 good referees for the most popular sport in the world. Surely, when there are billions of passionate fans, there must be a few thousand who have the potential to be top notch referees! So why can’t this world produce a handful of brilliant officials?
The way I see it, it’s a very complex issue and one that demands fundamental changes. Before I proceed further I’d like to mention that technology can certainly make the game better. I’ve covered that in this article and will not be discussing the issue of technology in this piece.
Let’s take the case of Howard Webb. To be charitable to him, I’d say he was quite poor in the Final. But I also have to say that I completely understand his situation and he was in a no-win position once the Dutch decided to the play the way they did.
There were at least 25 bookable offences in the game and there could easily have been 5-6 sending offs if the official had gone by the letter of the law. Imagine the furore if a couple of players had been sent off in the first half itself. Almost everyone in the media would have jumped on the ref and said that he spoiled the game. Managers would have used that excuse and the whole situation would have been farcical.
If we acknowledge the facts; one side was playing rugby, the other was giving a lesson in theatrics, and the ref couldn’t punish each and every offence simply because there were too many! He was forced to use common sense in such a rough game and it was never going to be easy for him to keep everyone in check. Webb was constantly under pressure and his performance degraded as time went on. As I said earlier, I can completely understand the problems he was facing.
In theory it’s easy for us to say that he should punish the offenders and go by the rules. But in practice it never works that way; it’s a sad but undeniable reality.
This brings me to the real issues we are facing in the game today, problems that make good officiating humanly impossible.
Rough, Uncontrolled, Physical Football
These days, players know that in big games refs will be scared of sending them off, especially early on. There is just too much pressure on the ref and players take advantage of this.
Many have mastered the art of repeated fouling, often involving some horror challenges. What can a ref do when the players know they will get way with 5-6 fouls and some bone crunching tackles that are nowhere near the ball? Case in point, Van Bommel 5 fouls one booking, Busquets 5 fouls no booking and the De Jong Karate Kick.
Just like the physical players know they can get away with fouls, the technical ones know that they will have to suffer unless the ref is forced into taking action. It results in exaggerated displays of pain, unnecessary rolling on the ground, and so on.
We also see players diving with minimal to no contact as they know the ref is rarely going to book someone twice for diving in a big game.
Imagine a big player (someone like Xavi or Sneijder) picking up a yellow card for demanding that an opponent be booked. If that player eventually gets sent off will the ref get any support from the media or the past stars with an opinion on everything?
We saw Webb being surrounded by three or more players so often. Technically he could have booked them all. That is the only power he has and unfortunately he can’t really wield it!
There is too much hypocrisy in the media. Those who appreciate the thugs in the Premiership can’t stand the thugs in the World Cup. Those who criticize the ref fail to see the issues with the players. In most cases personal biases are imposed upon us in the guise of insight and analysis.
The saddest aspect of this is that the referee is an easy target. No one is passionate about the referee. If there are some in the media who find faults with Holland because of their personal issues, there will be others who will find flaws with Spain. It’s ugly but there is some balance to it. Eventually, those who want to discover will find that all aspects are covered.
The same cannot be said for the ref. Almost everyone looks to expose his flaws and very few try to understand the impossible nature of the job.
FIFA/ UEFA/ Other Federations
I really don’t know how the top officials are trained and how much money is spent on them. European football is financially much stronger than the rest of the world but are European referees any better? If not, then why not? Shouldn’t a part of the billions being earned go into training the refs?
I also feel that FIFA and other bodies need to improve the profile of the referees. There must be some glamour associated with the role and there should be at least a few hundred professionals around the world who can do a good job at the big tournaments and can work on constantly improving others at various levels.
Right now the refs are under fire and what intelligent person would want to take up such a thankless, demanding job that doesn’t really pay in financial or social status terms.
Obviously, there can be no quick fix solution to such an intricate issue. Technology will help but we also need to work on the fundamentals.
Many of these issues are interconnected. For instance, if the media and ex-players show more respect to the ref, they will have the courage to take strong decisions. They might get a few wrong but it will certainly have an impact on the behaviour of the players on the pitch.
Once the player behaviour improves the game will get easier for the refs and in turn their decision making will be better as pressure is reduced. In effect, the current negative cycle will turn into a positive one.
I also think we need retrospective punishments for players who intimidate or surround the referee, dive or pretend to be hurt, and those who get away with dangerous fouls. It won’t have a big impact on the games that have already ended but once this system is in place the players will have to control their behaviour on the pitch. Once again this is a fundamental change that can lead to a positive cycle over a period of time.
Lastly, there has to be a transparent system for developing and training good referees. In the present state hardly any fan or football supporter knows what really goes on in the world of refs. This must change and the profile of the refs has to get better. The refs don’t have to be the most important person on the pitch but they shouldn’t be scapegoats either.
No matter what technology we use bulk of the decisions will always be made by the refs, and unless there is a radical improvement we will always end up with shambolic and farcical events on the biggest of stages.