When the World Cup Calls Refereeing Offside
By Michel Vautrot
The nameplate on my door has not changed in recognition of sorcery or the well-known clairvoyant, Madame Irma, as a result of predictions even riskier than the decisions taken by some of my young fellow referees. Without wanting to play the Mr Knowall of refereeing, I remember writing last February: “Once the competition has kicked off, they will not be able to produce their visiting card as an excuse for any mistake they make and they should keep in mind that the climax for them will have been their appointment. If everything goes well, the outside world will treat it all as perfectly normal and quickly banish them to oblivion but woe betide them if they err with the whistle because their name will be engraved in the collective (negative) memory for ever …”
A prediction borne of experience and not of supernatural gifts since there was nothing new under the (rising) sun in Japan, whereas the referees based in Korea were keen to rise early to take advantage of the proverbial morning calm before the afternoon storm…
I am neither moving with the masses nor am I playing the devil’s advocate but I would be failing in my duty if I howled with the wolves who found easy prey in anything that was carrying a whistle or a flag. Although I was far removed from the competition and had nothing to do with the refereeing, I was upset, to say the least, by the manner in which the referees were relentlessly and fatuously mauled by all and sundry, who were craving like bloodthirsty vampires for excuses to play down results that were incompatible with their ambitions. I still honestly think that a refereeing mistake is one mistake too many and intolerable for the purists in our sport. But should we continue to ignore the blabber and let the more gullible among us fall prey to polemics and swallow just about everything? It is difficult enough to justify the unthinkable mistake resulting from an unforgivable lapse of concentration or courage… (has the rule forbidding necklaces changed, by the way? And the one about taking penalties?).
Regardless of whether there is anything at stake or not, neither my fellow referees nor I shall ever accept destructive distortion of the facts from the general public and, above all, from the millions playing in their free time who risk heaping the hatred churned out by television and newspapers over their weekend referees:
- claiming, without the slightest evidence – and for very good reason! – that referees act as the long arm of sporting magnates is redolent of debased demagogy whose proponents merely spread havoc
- blethering about a disallowed goal after the referee’s whistle has already pulled the opponents up, unfortunately after a hastily raised flag, does not point to much intellectual honesty that could raise the level of a debate replete with prejudice
- calling it a scandal when the referee does not whistle for a penalty after accidental handling by an arm flailing about in the foray, even though the Laws unequivocally stipulate “handles the ball deliberately” without any reference to the position of the limbs, thus giving the referee enormous powers to rely on his own opinion and make the video superfluous, if the heated and heady discussions among the experts around me the day this controversial act happened was anything to go by
- entertaining the fools in our midst by hinting at lodging a complaint with a court of law (possibly to cover up for other deficiencies) is grotesque, as evidenced - not surprisingly - by a legal decision recently passed upon appeal four years after a complaint from a group of supporters in my country, in response to the refereeing in the Chile-Cameroon match at France 98: “it is established legal practice for the decision taken by a referee appointed to follow and officiate at a match, whether to allow or disallow a goal, to be regarded as absolute and it cannot degenerate into an offence that calls the author’s or principal’s responsibility into question as though it were a serious offence, i.e. committed intentionally, maliciously or in bad faith so as to cause harm or an offence amounting to fraud”
In other words, everyone is crying out for human but infallible refereeing even though there are – and always will be – conflicting views about various incidents because this is the essence of football and in fact the very reason for its popularity. The ambiguity stems from the fact that everyone demands divine justice for a ball game that is as capricious as the wind although there is no divine justice in daily life, if we consider illness or death that is equally appalling and unjust. Does society need to be so sick, decadent and disorientated to be content with mere bread and entertainment and fail to attach true value to things and events?
Of course, I do not advocate that referees, who are outstanding public figures with indisputably extraordinary powers, should enjoy absolute immunity simply because of their role, but I categorically reject the hypocrisy of pronouncing a death sentence that is completely disproportionate to a mistake, especially when compared to those committed by the other performers, who are worshipped as Greek (stadium) gods. Whereas the role of a judge commands universal respect for any decision he passes, football has dramatically pursued a diametrically opposed path by placing its guardians of the temple in the hot spot at any and every opportunity. Talking of unwitting mistakes, it is for this very reason that I am happy to see a great goalkeeper receive the title of best player at this World Cup despite a handling mistake in the very match in which it should not have happened. It astounds me when a player who enjoys the status of an idol for his skills in the big business of football is naively caught thieving whereas a referee is publicly pilloried as a thief for having, at the most, taken a split-second decision in the heat of the moment. And what can be said about the discrepancy in reporting on a decision taken by a referee and an assault on a referee by an international player as though he were taking part in a street scrum between rival gangs?
Our late friend, Saïd Belqola, the first African to oversee a prestigious World Cup final (Brazil v. France) and now eternally laid to rest, would turn in the warmth of his Moroccan grave if he heard, within earshot of the heavenly referee, any of the nonsense contained in the simplistic babble about match officials from « small » countries (ignoring those from the great nations who managed to escape criticism) which have, however, produced such splendid officials as the experienced Ali Bujsaim (United Arab Emirates), who serenely presided over the important quarter-final, Brazil v. Denmark, in 1998 and the opening match, France v. Senegal, in 2002, or former referee Abraham Klein (Israel).
In fact, it is impossible for me to outline the rudiments for true reform to these recurring themes in such limited space in an area so sensitive that subjective opinion will always give way to Cartesian reasoning. But if I had any say in the world governing body, I would support the notion of refereeing trios from the same country and make it clear that compulsory knowledge of English would iron out any difficulty in communication among them - contrary to what I heard in June - a solution, however, with the inherent risk of unjustly sidelining highly qualified people for want of a leader in the middle, for example. And despite failing eyesight, I would, from past experience, envisage:
- a reduction in the number of referees appointed to major competitions so that only the very best from ALL of the confederations officiated, thereby obviating the frustration that leads to demotivation
- a reduction too in the number of international referees per country on the annual FIFA list so that the veritable elite can be appointed more frequently and thus gain more experience, something that is impossible with the current smattering of appearances
- sound preparation for the future by nurturing up-and-coming talent in international youth competitions
- transformation of the Referees Committee into a board of international technical managers without any active member from a federation, strengthened by genuine former referees with coaching experience from the most important – and most hotly debated – team in all of the major competitions
- the translation of economic globalisation to refereeing with true coaching schemes and not superficial exercises to appease the conscience
- the use of a laser beam between the posts to determine whether a ball has entered the goal or not.
We could also make a case for putting five referees on the pitch, or one referee behind each player, but I think it would be timelier to change the players’ mentality by imposing more punitive – and therefore corrective – sanctions than was the case after the event in one proven act of simulation. Similarly, it would prove worthwhile to forbid a player from touching the ball after a free kick awarded against his team, or to send a player off immediately if he is caught pulling an opponent’s shirt.
There is no time left for chitchat or empty promises. This World Cup demands dispassionate and honest reflection but it would be irresponsible to throw the baby (referee) out with the bath water.
The king of competitions does no service to the galaxy of guardians of the Laws by calling refereeing offside despite illustrious performances by such officials as Pierluigi Collina and many of his fellow referees – whatever the inveterate moaners may mutter.
Ay, there’s the rub…
Courtesy of www.fifa.com.