Geopolitics influencing the refereeing at the World Cup in football

Photo: Brazilian Government

Photo: Brazilian Government


Comment by Christer Ahl
It does not help the referees or the image of football if geopolitical considerations cause FIFA to introduce an absurd neutrality concept when nominating referees, Christer Ahl writes in his column looking back at the recently completed World Cup in Brazil.

The refereeing situation at the just completed World Cup highlighted a problem, which to some extent I have also personally experienced in handball. FIFA has shown in so many other ways that political and self-serving considerations are paramount in situations where fair play should be the priority.

But now it is more evident than ever that also the referee nominations, and thus the referees’ performances, are seriously affected, something which in turn influences the quality of the games and their outcome. The following are some interrelated examples of how this happens.

Obsession with the geographical neutrality of the referees
It is obviously fundamental that one always expects neutrality from the referees at this elite level. But as a matter of perception, and to protect the referees from unnecessary pressures and suspicion, one still wants to avoid nominations which could give an obvious appearance of a conflict of interest. This might involve refraining from nominations involving neighboring countries, traditional ‘tensions’ between countries, or games where the team of the referee’s country has a direct interest in the outcome. However, FIFA takes it much further and has now introduced the notion of an almost absolute insistence on ‘continental neutrality’. This means, for instance, that a game between a European team and a South American team could only be refereed by someone from another ‘continent’.

In other words, instead of focusing on demonstrated neutrality in a game, FIFA prefers to hide behind a formal notion of neutrality, which makes little sense. To imply that referees might have some kind of general bias in favor of teams from their entire continent is rather absurd. Clearly, this is nothing more than a political gimmick from FIFA. Moreover, in football, unlike other major team sports such as basketball and handball, football recognizes South America as an entity separate from the rest of the American continent. So a Central American referee, or for that matter a Latin European referee, is perfectly eligible to handle a South American team, or vice versa. By contrast, a Nordic or British referee should not get a team from the Balkans or the Mediterranean.

The impact on nominations and quality
The decision to allow 32 teams in the World Cup makes it reasonable to allow a large number of teams from outside Europe and South America, and the quality is there to justify it. For instance, several African and North/Central American teams were impressive in 2014, and players from all over the world have the opportunity to develop their talents in top-level clubs in the best European leagues. But the situation in refereeing is totally different. A referee from a country without a high-quality league has a major handicap. This applies regardless of continent, but it means that only the referees from many European countries and a few non-European countries have the opportunity to become used to high-level games around the year. By contrast, their colleagues cannot gain experience from intensive top games other than in infrequent continental championships and qualifying games.

However, under FIFA’s special concept of continental neutrality, it becomes necessary to nominate the clear majority of the referees from countries which have the handicap just mentioned. Conversely, quite a few of the best referees from recent years of top league games and Champions League dramas in Europe had to be left out. So the overall experience of the group nominated is less than it really needed to be. And when the time comes to nominate referees for specific games during the World Cup, it means that the flexibility has already been reduced and that in many instances the neutrality concept leads to what one might see as experimentation, with clear risks for the control of the game and to the detriment of the teams. But FIFA probably takes consolation in the fact that their ‘principles’ enable them to use referee nominations on a wide geographical basis as a nice way of currying political favors around the continents.

More concerns about individual mistakes than about controlling the game
Two other factors appear to have contributed to the premature ‘sidelining’ of some of the most highly ranked referees in favor of some who have less experience. First, FIFA seems to have been more inclined to ‘count mistakes’ than to evaluate and appreciate game control. Of course, it should be an objective to keep clear errors to a minimum, but individual mistakes are bound to happen, even for an experienced referee in a well-controlled game. But one senses that FIFA feels more put on the defensive by the individual mistakes in their endeavor to maintain a nice image. By contrast, they seem to have cared less about the image of games where the referee performances contributed to a bad atmosphere with reckless fouls and unsportsmanlike behavior. The impression is that this caused FIFA to retain some less impressive referees for key games towards the end, while more solid options were kept on the sideline.

Similarly, both the aggregate statistics and the observations from individual games strongly suggest that the referees must have been urged to be slow and reticent in giving out punishments in the form of yellow and red cards. While this notion has been angrily dismissed by FIFA’s spokespersons, the evidence is there, in the form of conspicuous fouls and misconduct, which have gone unpunished. This has tended to deprive the most experienced referees of their usual methods in controlling the games, most likely to their frustration, but it has then brought them criticism for not being as strong as usual, even if they were simply following instructions. Again, this whole situation seems to be the result of a misguided notion that it is better for the image of FIFA and football if one tries to give the impression that the games are ‘cleaner’ than they actually are, by refraining from warranted punishment. One might think, and wish, that it would be considered better to take credit for firm and prompt action against those player behaviors which in fact do bring the game into disrepute.

In summary, the referees at a World Cup are enormously exposed and they have a tough and thankless job. Under the circumstances, their overall performance has been quite acceptable, even if one takes into account some dreadful cases of weak performances. But it surely does not help the referees or the image of football if geopolitical considerations cause FIFA to utilize a weaker group than necessary, tying its hands through an absurd neutrality concept, and by using nominations as political favors. And it clearly does not improve the situation if the instructions and performances evaluations are misguided.


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