In defence of World Cup refereeing, Part 2

Yes, that’s Koman Coulibaly, “the only Malian of whom American sports fans have ever heard.” They’ve heard of him because, of course, he’s the one whose phantom call negated a late goal by Maurice Edu against Slovenia.

Amidst all the hate — and even the somewhat-supportive pieces, such as the one linked above — directed at Coulibaly in the aftermath of that game, one piece of biographical info always seemed to come up: his country of origin. “Where’s Mali?” seemed to be the overwhelming sentiment, implying that the familiarity of the referee’s homeland to the geographically disinclined is somehow directly proportional to that referee’s competence.

In fairness, Coulibaly wasn’t alone in having his country of origin constantly associated with his name — that happens to nearly all refs, whether they’re from Mali, Uruguay or France. The ref’s homeland is brought up, ostensibly, to provide context. Oh, that ref is from so-and-so a place, so they must have made that decision because of insert-spurious-reasoning-here.

There are many who’d love to see the World Cup officiated only by a small handful of refs, the most trusted and “experienced” refs there are. Which is to say, the white guys from the big European leagues. This, of course, is completely asinine.

You know who the ref will be in tomorrow’s World Cup semi-final between Uruguay and the Netherlands? Ravshan Irmatov. Previously, he was called upon to officiate the Germany-Argentina quarter-final, and the tournament’s opening match. He’s only 32 years old. Oh, and he’s from Uzbekistan, whose national team is at #94 in the latest FIFA rankings. (For what it’s worth, Mali is at #54).

Another Asian middle-man has also shone at the tournament: Japanese ref Yuichi Nishimura, who was in charge of the high-profile Netherlands-Brazil quarter-final. If you recall, things got heated in the first few minutes of the game. But Nishimura asserted his control over the match and, by the time he flashed a red card for Felipe Melo’s idiotic stomp in the second half, none of the players thought to question his judgment.

As for some of the high-profile European fellows? Roberto Rosetti of Italy has, rightly or wrongly, been sent home. Massimo Busacca of Switzerland was my early pick to ref the final (which he still could do, I suppose), but I haven’t seen him in a single game (though I may have just missed him) since his performance in the South Africa-Uruguay match earned him the designation of “worst referee in the tournament” from Bafana Bafana’s coach. There was even speculation (later denied by FIFA) that England’s Howard Webb had been removed from an assignment to the Uruguay-Ghana quarter-final because the Uruguayans worried of potential bias.

Now, we can debate the individual judgment calls until the cows come home — Coulibaly’s phantom foul on the USA, Busacca’s sending-off of South Africa’s goalkeeper, the offside Tevez goal allowed by Rosetti’s team, etc. — but it seems to me (and this, really, is based on nothing more than personal anecdotal observation) that the referee’s homeland or pedigree is given a disproportionate amount of attention only when they screw up.

My mind is instantly drawn, of course, to the Champions League semi-final between Chelsea and Barcelona last year, in which the performance of referee Tom Henning Ovrebo was infamously referred to by Didier Drogba as a “fucking disgrace“. The fact that Ovrebo hails from Norway was pointed to by many as the reason why the game got so out of control. How can refs who aren’t used to this level of play be expected to perform?

A fair question. But how did Webb, Rosetti, Busacca, et. al. reach their current level of prominence? They weren’t just born to be fully-qualified Champions League/World Cup-level officials. They — like everyone in every field — worked their way up. They started somewhere and, by showing their aptitude, gradually made their way up to the highest level available to them. But that success was never guaranteed. There was always a chance that those men could have spectacularly flamed out in the same fashion than Ovrebo did. And plenty of others have.

But the only way you know is by giving them a chance.

Now, don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying that the level of play in the J-league or in Mali’s domestic league are of the same caliber as the Premiership, Serie A and so on. The big European and South American leagues are, surely, of the highest quality worldwide and, logically, would employ the officials best suited to deal with such high-pressure situations. But FIFA is right to also consider as valuable the reffing experience of those in other parts of the world, and to give them a chance to perform at the World Cup.

“But,” you may say, “the World Cup is the be-all and end-all of soccer. It’s no time to experiment, no time to ‘take a chance’ on someone.”

“Plus,” you may also say, “different parts of the world play the game in different ways, and when referees are unaccustomed to certain types of play, it’s a recipe for trouble.”

Maybe. And maybe. But I can’t recall a game in this tournament, with the possible exception of Chile-Switzerland, where the players had completely lost faith in the referee by the end of the game. (Khalil Al Ghamdi of Saudi Arabia was in charge, so to speak, of that one.)

And, ultimately, it’s only in overall match control where the “is he accustomed to this sort of game?” argument holds any water… and, statistically speaking, the referees’ performance in this tournament hasn’t been any worse than in any other major tournament. Remember, when you remove all of the external circumstances, and focus simply on the Laws, they’re the exact same whether you’re officiating in England, Saudi Arabia or Uzbekistan.

That means that referees, being human, can make errors in judgment. Coulibaly’s call against the States may have occurred because he had a momentary lapse in sanity. Or because he was making up for a previous call or non-call that he’d made. Or because, from his angle, he perceived a foul that none of us could discern. Or because he was bought off by match-fixers.

But it wasn’t because he’s from Mali.


2 Responses to “In defence of World Cup refereeing, Part 2”

  1. … oh the author of this article? He’s from Lichtenstein, you know…

  2. Still wondering what the heck he was calling on that goal? He blew the whistle as the ball left Donavon’s boot.

    And Im not even a US supporter!

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