For referees, an unwelcome spotlight (News Feature)
By Andy Goldberg and Ulrike Jon Jun 21, 2010, 14:16 GMT
Pretoria/Port Elizabeth, South Africa - On a pair of playing fields at a Pretoria high school, FIFA is putting its refs through their paces. Under the watchful eye of the refereeing administrators, some of the officials are subjected to rigorous fitness exercises, while others test their offside judgments as a team of university amateurs simulate the world's best players.
This being South Africa, the FIFA open day for referee training would not count for much without the mandatory vuvuzelas. But instead of having thousands of fans hooting at the referees' decisions, the sounds come from a soundtrack blasted over some loudspeakers.
It's a nice touch, but doesn't come close to the buzz that has greeted some of the more controversial decisions made by the refs in the tournament so far.
Criticising referees can sometimes seem as much a part of football as scoring a goal, and there already have been a fair amount of controversies. But with the stakes growing ever-higher, the arguments about players, fouls, red and yellow cards, offsides and every other aspect of the game are sure to escalate.
FIFA has a simple approach to dealing with these troubles - a stonewall of silence about any particular incident. And never, ever to admit they made a mistake.
Officially it denies such a policy. 'It's more a guideline that they do not speak about their performances and they do not speak about the performances of others,' says Nicolas Maingot, FIFA spokesman.
But in effect it means that the refs almost always stay silent about any questionable decision. One notable exception came Monday after Spanish ref Alberto Undiano was blasted from all sides for dismissing Germany's Miroslav Klose for two soft yellow cards against Serbia. Even Serbian player Neven Subotic disagreed with the decision.
But at the referee's open day Undiano said that after viewing the incidents on TV, he would have done the same thing again. 'No regrets, I saw everything on TV afterwards and I was right,' he said.
Other controversies are left to die a natural death as they are overtaken by other news. That meant no satisfaction for the Ivory Coast over the second goal against them by Brazil's Luis Fabiano, in which he clearly handled the ball twice on his way to score.
'We have not received any complaint, and I'm not aware of any specific examination of this case,' the FIFA flack said.
FIFA's policy of no comment was particularly painful for the US team after the ref in their game against Slovenia appeared to deny them a legitimate winner following some fairly standard shoving in the area.
'It was a good goal,' US coach Bob Bradley told reporters. 'The only things that could be called are penalty kicks for us. You can speculate about which guy and everything. I think it's a waste of time. There was nothing there. It was a good goal.'
For US fans, used to officials in American football explaining their decisions, FIFA's inscrutability was inexplicable. 'FIFA operates differently,' Bradley explained 'Soccer's a different game.'
Bradley was far from the only coach to complain about the quality of referees' decisions. Naturally, the criticism is overwhelmingly self-serving. Thus New Zealand coach Ricki Herbert complained that the penalty from which Italy equalized was unjust. He conveniently forgot to mention that his team's goal should have been ruled out for offside.
Many will argue that all these controversies are irrefutable proof of the need for video technology. But often the problem is more a matter of interpretation than a simple video replay. In the controversial US goal, both sides were pushing - so as a ref do you ignore it all, award a penalty, or blow for a free kick to the defending team?
In a similar situation in the Nigeria-Argentina game German ref Wolfgang Stark chose to let things go - and was reprimanded in an official directive by FIFA for his troubles. Ironically, that directive may have caused the refs in the New Zealand and US games to take the decisions they did - stirring the pot of controversies even further.