Refereeing Changes for Brazil 2014: Good or Bad?

Since former super ref Massimo Busacca of Switzerland became head of everything referee-related at FIFA, there have been a lot of changes. The World Cup has been no exception.

Some of these things (extra training and support, the requirement that referees be professional, etc.) have been super positive. He’s helped develop some fantastic referees.

But some of the specific changes around the World Cup have had a greater impact, which may or may not be positive. I wanted to look at a couple of these.

Less referees
In 2010, the tournament started with 30 referees, not counting support teams. From the quarterfinals on, the list was further whittled to the 19 best.

This allowed for flexibility in terms of who was chosen. Referees from a country playing could obviously not be chosen, but FIFA would often not even assign referees from the same continent. It also allowed them more leeway in eliminating referees who were not at their best.

In Brazil 2014, by contrast, Busacca started with 25 center referees. On day one, that number was immediately cut to 24, when Japan’s Yuichi Nishimura had a disastrous first day, missing a dive by Fred and giving a penalty kick that decided the game for Brazil.

Even though Nishimura didn’t have a horrible game otherwise, the sheer amount of press coverage and cries from the public of match fixing would make it difficult to assign him again. He did not take another match in the group or knockout stages.

One by one, the referees had difficult matches, but they were not able to be eliminated because there just weren’t enough referees.

Wilmar Roldan of Colombia is a good example; his team disallowed two goals for Mexico in the group stages. Instead of sending him home as they would have in past tournaments, they replaced his AR with one from Ecuador. (Which I think is a good thing, actually; Roldan is a solid referee.)

The issues are being seen in the late stage appointments, as well. If the “old rules” apply, then referees like Bjorn Kuipers of the Netherlands and Sandro Ricci of Brazil are not able to take anything in the quarterfinal or past, since their teams are still in. But Kuipers and Ricci are some of the most talented and experienced referees available. Likewise, Howard Webb is refereeing well, but was the referee for the 2010 final, making it difficult to choose him.

Problem is, after those guys, the pickings get a bit thin.

It leaves the most important games to inexperienced referees from less robust leagues (like Serbia’s Milorad Mazic, who only became a FIFA referee in 2011), or referees who’ve had shaky games in this tournament (Uzbekistan’s Ravshan Irmatov, given a quarterfinal even after a poor USA v Germany game – running into a player and screwing up an advantage by not calling it back for the foul).

The thought is good – less referees but better ones – but I’m not sure it’s working the way they’d hoped.

Accumulation of Yellow Cards
Accumulating two yellow cards gets a player suspended for one game. There will only be an amnesty after the quarterfinals.

This can be pretty harsh, but the goal is to ensure fair play, and avoid having players miss the final, because they get cards in the semifinals.

Okay, fine. Harsher sanctions should prevent players from acting like jerks. Right?

But we’ve now heard from numerous sources – and seen enough games to believe it true – that referees were given a directive by FIFA to go easy on the yellow cards, at least early, because the price is so high.

This has totally hamstrung the referees. You can see the reluctance with which they pull cards, even for offenses that absolutely earn them. I don’t have the statistics yet, but I’d say first half cards are way lower than second half.

And guess what? It hasn’t stopped the players at all. The diving, the bad tackles, the elbows to the face … it’s not only gone on, it’s gotten worse, to the point that a player literally had his leg broken on a horror tackle, while the leg breaker stayed on the pitch to help his team win.

Because guess what else? Players have ears, and have heard the same things we have: They know the referees won’t card them.

For guys with experience and strong personalities – Kuipers, Webb, Italy’s Nicola Rizzoli – they can still manage the game without reaching for their pocket.

Less experienced referees get eaten alive. Either they let things go in the first half and then throw a ton of cards in the second to try and regain control, or they ineffectually try to force the players to be nice. (See Cuneyt Cakir of Turkey somewhat lamely pointing to the ‘RESPECT’ badge on his arm over and over.)

Or, in the case of New Zealand’s Peter O’Leary or USA’s Mark Geiger, they never regain control and it affects the game negatively.

Or someone gets hurt.

This is just stupid. If you’re going to put in draconian rules about accumulation that you think are too harsh, don’t tell the referees not to follow them. You’re just setting your referees up to fail. Just change the damn rule.

It’ll be interesting, after the dust settles on this World Cup, to go back and compare these changes to 2010. Did they really improve the standard of refereeing in Brazil, or did they just cause a whole new set of refereeing problems?

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  • FIFA only has DIRECT control of the officiating every four years. They should pay more attention to the methodologies of the league administrators, F.A., Serie A, Bundesliga, UEFA, that function all season every season and consequently have worked through “unintentional consequences” of certain changes.

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  • I found your commentary on Referees interesting. I’ve officiated a few hundred games myself, up to men’s competitive leagues.

    Here’s what I think, about two issues — intentional serious fouling and diving:

    Intentional fouling: at the highest competitive level, the players are exceptional, world class athletes and have developed very nuanced “accidentally on purpose” techniques of fouling and injuring opponents in ways that are difficult for referees to detect. Everyone in competitive football knows the best way to injure the opponent’s superstar is to make a legitimate challenge for the ball in a shoulder to shoulder challenge, and when making shoulder contact, at the same time swiping your outside foot cross-body to the ball — which also results statistically quite often in “accidentally” slashing sideways across your opponents knee and blowing out his knee ligaments. We’ve also seen a number of slow motion replays in WC14 Brazil showing players late to tackles intentionally raising their studs briefly mid slide tackle, smashing some players ankle, then pointing their toe again on the way out of the slide tackle with the patented arms-wide-open “I didn’t do anything” gesticulation to the referees. Since the last world cup we’ve also seen the arrival of the foot stomp (since it’s also very difficult to detect) where you simply mash your opponents foot from the top, whenever the opportunity for “plausible deniability” presents itself — i.e., ball somewhere near your victim (which is why we now see players going down with their feet rolling up in the air (to avoid getting stomped).

    Given the obvious level of viscousness now being employed, and referees’s inability to detect it, it seems clear that some method needs to be found to penalize teams real-time (during the game) for excessive fouling. One possibility would be to introduce a rules change such that “x number of fouls by the team means one your players leaves the pitch for a few minutes”. Currently, there no reason for a team *not* to foul other than the risk of receiving yellow cards — which refs don’t always give uniformly. And FIFA should put some teeth into this rule, so that on the “Xth” foul, the team has 10 seconds to get a player off the field, and if the player fails to leave within 10 seconds (counted by the AR), they are penalized another minute. This is how basketball does it — the other team gets into the “bonus” for free throws after their opponent commits so many fouls.

    On the diving issue, an option here seems very simple — and surprising FIFA hasn’t implemented it yet: the creation of a so-called “dual foul”, so that two fouls can occur at the same time (such as each player grabbing the other’s shirt, both making reckless challenges simultaneously) — these fouls add to the “x number of fouls” above. Sometimes fouls would be offsetting, so possession after would alternate on offsetting fouls. The real beauty though, is how this applies to so called “flopping/diving.”

    A player that flops is appropriately yellow carded. But what happens when a player is fouled, and also flops? Currently, he gets his free kick, but no punishment for flopping, unless so blatant referee has sees it, and players are becoming quite sophisticated at disguising flops. The beauty of dual foul is that he would get his free kick, but also a yellow card. Rules change would be needed since yellow card always free kick to other team, but in case of this dual foul (real foul + flop), foulee still gets free kick, but really here, huge disincentive to flop / embellish.

    And finally, a comment — it’s really up to players, coaches and fans how much brutality we really want in the sport. We get what we want, so at some level, we have to decide what we want.


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