Getting cuffed by the ref!

The World Cup is never kind to referees, simply for the level of scrutiny that exists, but this edition has seen a slew of errors just a week in. By Shreedutta Chidananda.

As a referee, Yuichi Nishimura is no novice. The last time he was at a World Cup was in 2010, when he made it all the way to the final, albeit as the fourth official. The Japanese has been on the FIFA panel as an international for 10 years and when he landed a gig as big as the opening game of the 2014 World Cup, it caused no great alarm.

Until kick-off that is.

In awarding Brazil a penalty for a laughable dive from Fred, chalking off a seemingly good goal by Croatia for a non-existent foul, and failing to send off Neymar for a sinister elbow on Luka Modric, Nishimura drew universal derision and criticism. At best it was ineptitude; at worst it was bias in favour of the home team, an idea not entirely alien to the World Cup (Argentina 1978 and South Korea 2002 are glowing examples).

“This is fantasy. I am sorry to say this, but this is fantasy,” the FIFA referees’ chief Massimo Busacca said, dismissing any conspiracy theories. “We have to believe the referees are honest, and respect them. Maybe there will be mistakes, but we must respect them. In refereeing, we have black and white but we also have cases that can be on the borderline. You think about the decision, you don’t have time to think ‘Ah, but I am in Brazil.’ A human cannot think four times in one second.”

The World Cup is never kind to referees, simply for the level of scrutiny that exists, but this edition has seen a slew of errors just a week in. Nishimura’s pathetic display on the opening day was followed by more: Wilmar Roldan and his assistants wrongly disallowed two goals by Mexico against Cameroon; Ravshan Irmatov’s team incorrectly ruled out a Switzerland strike over Ecuador; Carlos Vera harshly denied Nigeria a goal over Iran; and Enrique Osses ignored Costa Rica’s appeals for a stonewall penalty in its clash with Italy.

The guilty hail from Japan, Colombia, Uzbekistan, Ecuador and Chile, countries which do not happen to be in Europe. This has predictably opened up an old and understandable debate: should referees from football’s backwaters, with inadequate top-level experience, be allowed to ruin the World Cup through their incompetence? After all, European referees deal with the world’s best players on a weekly basis and know their way around high-profile matches. It is not for no reason that a World Cup final has been handled only once by a referee from Africa and never one from Asia. Of the 19 finals, only five times has the whistle been held by an official from outside Europe (the first instance took till 1982).

It points to a belief that without sufficient experience of being in the spotlight on the big stage, referees are inadequately prepared.

But this is a World Cup and like we wish for the game to strike roots across the globe, so too we must seek the development of officials from all regions. A lack of exposure cannot be used as a reason to deny them exposure.

True, the evidence seems damning: Spain was robbed of a perfectly good goal against South Korea in 2002 by an Egyptian referee, Gamal Al-Ghandour, and his Ugandan and Trinidadian assistants; Diego Maradona’s graceless ‘Hand of God’ goal in 1986 went unpunished by a Tunisian, Ali Bin Nasser.

But it is not as if European referees are spotless. Howard Webb, who was in charge of the 2010 final in Johannesburg, failed to dismiss Nigel de Jong for his outrageous assault on Xabi Alonso; Graham Poll infamously gave Josip Simunic three yellow cards; and in the 1982 World Cup semifinal, Charles Corver, who had refereed the 1978 European Cup final, did not even consider Harald Schumacher’s staggering attack on Patrick Battiston a foul. Webb and Poll are English and Corver is Dutch.

This year, Africa (five referees and eight assistants), Asia (five and nine), CONCACAF (five and eight), and South America (six and 11) are well represented but Europe, in proportion to its teams, still boasts the most number of officials (10 and 19).

FIFA’s Referee Assistance Programme (RAP) runs a lengthy selection process for World Cup referees lasting three years. For this edition, 52 teams were shortlisted with 25 chosen in the end. After his blunder, Nichimura was promptly demoted by FIFA to fourth official for his next engagement, a slightly unglamorous tie between Ecuador and Honduras. Humberto Clavijo, the linesman who denied Giovanni dos Santos, was pulled out of his next scheduled game by FIFA.

So it is not as if there is no system in place. But the standard of decisions will rise only with technology and perhaps opportunities for referees from outside the continent to officiate in the European leagues. Human error, however, is inevitable.