Let My Games Begin
The games finally started for me. Although the World Cup started the last day of May, I finally was able to wet my whistle.
My first game as a World Cup referee was in the Sapporo Dome. The dome is utilized for soccer, baseball, wrestling, and other events. It is a splendor – a solid black interior and roof that aids in seeing the players and the ball. The roof does not retract, but the field is on rollers and is mechanically rotated and swept outside the dome so that it can see the light of the sun every now and then. The inside temperature is perfect for players and spectators alike.
My World Cup initiation was the Italy vs. Ecuador match. I had anticipated this to be a tough assignment as Italy is full of some of the world's most recognized names, and Ecuador plays a very fluid ball possession game. Additionally, it was Ecuador's first-ever World Cup finals appearance. My hunches were correct. Although Ecuador had much more of the ball possession, Italy's size and speed of play were too much for the valiant Ecuadorians.
Everything in the game was placed on a silver platter for me. The opening caution and each subsequent one was perfectly placed at strategic times throughout the match. It was merely my job to take the appropriate action. I was assigned a great referee team: Phillip Sharp from England (and he was sharp this day), Hector Vergara from Canada (and he had all vectors pointed in the right direction), and my fourth official Terry Hauge from Norway. From our first pre-game meeting, I knew I had a winning team, and they performed as such. When your team is strong, it is just one less potential distraction that could take your focus off the game.
FIFA seemed happy as my cautions were used as examples of correct decisions during the following day's referee debriefing session. Each day, following the matches, the FIFA Referee Committee compiles video footage of the games and distributes them to the Korean and Japanese referee venues for discussion and training.
Since I have yet to see a replay of the entire match, I cannot comment on everything but I can say one thing - I have never run so much in my refereeing career. Even when being chased to my car after a few penalty calls and red cards, my feet have never traveled so far during a game. When I blew the final whistle, my body felt like I had just competed in a marathon.
Throughout the game, I could feel the energy from my family, my friends, the US Soccer family, and from YOU. The emails, faxes, and well wishes received were overwhelming. I felt as though I had never left America. There were so many people on my side. Esse Baharmast did a fantastic job breaking down the match-up for me. He had the road map laid out before my first whistle. Carlo Servino, FIFA Referee Coordinator at the Japan referee headquarters, came to the game and gave me the in-stadium support I needed. It was a relief to see a friendly smile. With this kind of infrastructure, I was set-up to bring home a victory.
It was a tough game, an intense game and a game with much emotion. Until you have refereed, or even attended, a World Cup game, it is difficult to describe the intensity and the electricity. The whole world is watching you. This makes the job that much more difficult. Especially early on, the players tested me. They wanted to know would I protect them? Would I be fair? Would I be consistent? As a consequence, being firm but calm was invaluable.
My victory was small as compared to what the US National team did two days later. The "boys" sent a message to the entire world: "We are a soccer nation." It was the talk of the Japan referee camp. Everyone was impressed with the performance. This was the big VICTORY.
A few days later, I was back in Sapporo for the England vs. Argentina match. This time I was there to serve as fourth official for the most recognizable referee in the world: Pierluigi Collina from Italy. And, when I say "recognizable," I mean RECOGNIZABLE. The trip to Sapporo is a one-hour flight from Tokyo. Our flight was filled with English supporters.
From the time we arrived at Tokyo's Haneda airport until the time we gathered our luggage and were in Sapporo's transportation vehicles, Mr. Collina was the center of attention. He is a media and spectator magnet. Everyone wanted his autograph or a photo - even while he was sleeping. To his credit, Collina is overly accommodating and extremely professional. He smiles and smiles and smiles until someone tries "gamesmanship" while dealing with him. Then, he politely says, "No thanks."
The England vs. Argentina game was great. The benches were intense. My hands were full managing different situations throughout the game: substitutions, bleeding players, celebrating goals. Again, the atmosphere was second to none. There were 8,000 English supporters at the game and 1,500 Argentineans.
Focus on security was of the utmost importance. In fact, the day prior to the game the fourth official attends a match coordination meeting with the referee inspector and representatives from both teams. The meeting for this game consisted of approximately eight English administrators, five of which were security related.
Now, I must refocus as FIFA has handed me a second assignment as referee on June 12 in Osaka: Nigeria vs. England. Once again, I face a new challenge, a new game, and a new opportunity to represent YOU. Keep that energy flowing and I promise to do my best for each of you. I am thrilled that my dream continues, and I am glad I have the opportunity to share it with you.