For World Cup referees, it's better to go unnoticed

Referees are human and can't get every call right. But for many American soccer fans that explanation won't cut it after a controversial disallowed goal prevented Team USA from beating Slovenia. The AP's John Mone reports from South Africa.
By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 22, 2010

PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA -- The tools of instruction were arrayed on the practice fields: Cases of Powerade, nylon sacks of soccer balls, a crate of yoga mats and, most importantly, dozens of yellow-and-orange flags.

At 10 a.m. sharp, the loudspeakers were turned on and the tape-recorded blare of vuvuzelas flooded the grounds of Odendaal High, where school was in session for most of the 90-odd referees and assistant referees charged with enforcing fair play at the 2010 World Cup.

FIFA invited reporters from around the globe to attend the practice session on Monday, a rare opportunity to see the work involved in an occupation that has been thrust into the spotlight, especially after a referee's call denied the United States a go-ahead goal against Slovenia on Friday.

The session also presented a rare chance to ask questions of the most scrutinized and second-guessed figures (next to goalkeepers) on the field -- the FIFA referees who, by rule and tradition, are as silent as Buckingham Palace guards during play, making split-second calls amid a lightning-fast game without explaining to fans or, often, participants.

Soccer referees don't specify infractions with elaborate hand signals. They don't announce calls over a microphone. And they certainly don't interrupt the game to consult a replay monitor before making a ruling.

For a World Cup referee, a good day is an unremarkable day. His calls are so swift and unassailable that no superstar throws a tantrum, no TV broadcaster shrieks and no video replay on the stadium scoreboard exposes him as a fool and incites the crowd in the process.

"We go into every game hoping that nobody talks about us at the end of the game," says Howard Webb, 38, of England, a FIFA referee since 2005. "We really want people to be speaking about the players and the quality of the football."

Koman Coulibaly, who made the controversial call that denied the U.S. team a potential game-winning goal against Slovenia last Friday, was not present at Monday's session. Assigned as the fourth official for a far-flung match the previous night, he was granted a reprieve.

Later Monday, his name was missing from a list of referees assigned to the next round of matches, raising the possibility that Coulibaly's services may no longer be required at this World Cup.

Jose Maria Garcia-Aranda, the FIFA official in charge of referees, wouldn't comment on such speculation. Nor did he comment on Coulibaly's performance Friday or on any specific call. But he assured reporters that the World Cup referees have been well trained and insisted that the officiating deserved high marks even though, he conceded, there have been some calls "that we consider not good enough."

Monday's session, then, was about keeping the best referees sharp and raising the game of everyone else.

At first blush, the scene at the high school resembled a sports fantasy camp. The athletes -- in this case, FIFA referees -- skewed older than professional footballers. (By rule, they retire at 45.) Many were balding; a few had a slight paunch. But they're uncommonly fit, with sturdy legs, strong lungs and self-assured body language honed by years of physical preparation.

On one field, a group of referees jogged and did toe-touches and knee-kicks, then spread out yoga mats for a series of push-ups, sit-ups and Pilates-style poses.

On the opposite field, a group of boys from the nearby Tuks Football Club played a pretend match, acting out foul-worthy infractions as directed, while pairs of FIFA referees officiated and were evaluated on their accuracy.

"They give us scenarios to work on," explained Oupa Sathekge, 16, "like offsides, handballs, tugging on shirts" and faking injuries.

Afterward, the referees fielded reporters' questions, eager to explain the effort and angst that goes into their work.

Asked what decisions weigh most heavily, Webb said: "The match-changing decision, mainly. The decisions to award goals or disallow goals; the decisions to award penalty kicks or not to award penalty kicks. And red cards. And yellow cards. They're the crucial ones -- the ones that ultimately FIFA wants us to get right. Our performances are defined by those type of decisions."

Massimo Busacca of Switzerland broke the heart of the host nation when he issued a red card to South Africa goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune. Khune wept as he trudged off in shame, and Bafana Bafana fell to Uruguay, 3-0.

In such cases, Busacca makes a point of explaining his calls to players. "We are in the same family, he said, "so it's very important sometimes to explain what happened."

He was less sure about the merits of explaining calls to fans or reporters. "I would say we are not ready for that," Busacca said. "They would complain too much."

Webb has even greater reservations about the use of instant replay.

"Anything that would make us more accurate, I keep an open mind to," he said. "But I'm a little bit torn because the game of football is an attractive product to me, and to millions of people, because of the high-tempo nature. It's not, 'Stop, stop, stop,' like so many other sports. So I think that we need to be careful that we don't change the nature of the game."

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