Referees in the spotlight after a day of questionable decisions | Sports| German football and major international sports news | DW | 19.06.2010
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Referees in the spotlight after a day of questionable decisions

Fans of Germany and the United States feel bad refereeing cost their teams points on Friday in the World Cup. DW Sports Editor Matt Hermann takes a closer look at their cases, and what's to be done.

Alberto Undiano brandishes a red card

Germany wasn't the same after going down to ten men

We was robbed.

They're three of the bitterest, yet oddly satisfying words in the sports fan's arsenal. Passing off the blame for a loss lightens one's own load of sorrow, and besides provides a straw man to take pokes at. After a day like Friday at the World Cup, German and US fans alike are united in rage at the men FIFA assigned to take charge of their second group stage games.

Both have good reason to be upset. Germany's Miroslav Klose was sent off by Spanish referee Alberto Undiano just 37 minutes into his team's match against Serbia, having collected two yellow cards for two fouls, neither of which seemed particularly caution-worthy. After Klose's dismissal, the game turned. Serbia scored within a minute, and Germany's fight-back, initially spirited, eventually descended into rushed, sloppy desperation. Serbia could, and probably should, have won by more.

The United States were put at an even greater disadvantage by the refereeing decisions of Koman Coulibaly of Mali. The Americans had completed a stirring rally from two goals down at the half to tie the match in the 82nd minute and, it appeared to most viewers, had taken the lead four minutes later on Maurice Edu's stabbing shot off of a Landon Donovan free kick. But Coulibaly called the goal back on a phantom foul, and the US took one point from the match instead of three.

US players question Koman Coulibaly's decision to disallow a goal

Michael Bradley, right, was not the only one furious by the disallowed US goal

Calls like these are upsetting in the extreme - especially when they influence or even decide the results of games in the high-profile setting of the World Cup. But decisively bad calls are part of the game, and have happened before - ask an Irishman, for starters. What the refereeing problems in these two Friday games share, however, is that they both bear the hallmark of systemic problems in FIFA's handling of referee selection at the World Cup.

Top-down, or race to the bottom?

Football fans the world over will tell you that they go to the stadium or switch on their TV set to see skillful, positive offensive play - and wish to see the stars that can produce that play protected from the cynical fouls of less talented players.

With that in mind, FIFA goes into each World Cup issuing directives to its referees to take a hard line on many of the negative tactics favored by defenders.

"Absolutely no shirt pulling!"

"Dissent will be punished in every instance!"

"Tackling from behind results in a yellow card, without exception!" (Miro Klose fell foul of this one on his second yellow.)

It's a noble effort, this attempt to unleash the game's offensive firepower by punishing its destroyers. But it doesn't work, for two reasons.

Alberto Undiano brandishes a yellow card

On Friday, Undiano couldn't stop at just one

First, it puts the referees themselves at the center of the game - not the attacking maestros they are meant to be protecting. The Germany-Serbia match was not a rough encounter, even by the relatively soft standard of the World Cup, but Undiano still managed to hand out a whopping nine yellow cards, including the two which added up to Klose's red.

Instead of witnessing a free-flowing offensive spectacle of red and white shirts going end to end for goals, viewers were treated to a fitful, stop-start affair which hung on the whistle of the man in black.

FIFA, with the help of its individual Football Associations, scours the globe for refereeing talent for four years leading up to the World Cup. The men who are chosen to call World Cup games have certainly done much right in that time, and are known as one of the best in their respective countries - as is Undiano in Spain's Primera Division. Why not just let them call games as they like?

Second, refereeing is as much art as science, requiring a firm but flexible hand - not just a list of hard-and-fast directives. A good ref has many more arrows in his quiver than the two colored cards he carries in his breast pockets, and the way the best ones earn their reputation over the years is for mastering this craft.

A stern lecture here, a quick reminder of how-many-times-he's-seen-you-fouling there, and the game is brought under control without yellow and red bombs bursting in air. Tell a referee that he must issue a yellow card for every challenge from behind, and his hands are tied. Sometimes he must dismiss a striker in the first half for two soft tackles. And fans are the worse off for it.

Regional differences

FIFA's hardliner act that it puts on before each World Cup also has something to do with the disparate origins of the pool of referees at the tournament. (30 of them from 28 different countries this time out, to be exact.) The world body believes it has to set a universal standard, so that Germany's Wolfgang Stark calls his games precisely the same way as Eddy Maillet of the Seychelles.

If the appearance of "the Seychelles" in that last sentence didn't give you pause, it should have. Not to single out Maillet for criticism (by most accounts he turned in a poor, but far from scandalous, performance in the Chile-Honduras game) but nobody from the Seychelles should be anywhere nearer a World Cup pitch than the first few rows of the stands.

FIFA Referee Koman Coulibaly

Coulibaly can smile and smile and still be a villain

This goes for Mali's Koman Coulibaly as well. The financial auditor from Bamako is, by African standards, a vastly experienced referee. He's been at it for 16 years, rising through the ranks of the Malian league and beginning as a referee at international tournaments at the Africa Cup of Nations 2002.

But that is still not enough. Lacking the day-in-day-out challenge of calling games and feeling the consequent pressure at the highest level - and by that I mean Europe or the top leagues in the Americas (Brazil, Argentina, Mexico) - the likes of Coulibaly are simply not to be trusted at the World Cup. That they often fail is not their fault - it's the biggest game they've ever called, and they are overwhelmed by the situation.

FIFA appoints these referees before they are ready for prime time out of a high-minded impulse. It hopes to improve the standard of world refereeing by offering officials from small countries more top-level experience, and it wishes to give countries with slim hope of their teams' qualifying for the competition (El Salvador, Malaysia, etc.) a stake in the tournament.

Moreover, FIFA takes just one referee from each country, and thus countries like Germany or France - both of which could probably offer 15 or more referees of a very high standard - send one, so as to make way for minnows.

Development aid

German referee Wolfgang Stark

Wolfgang Stark is the only German ref at the World Cup

The best way to ensure a decent standard of refereeing across the board is a radical re-think - to begin viewing the grooming of refereeing talent much in the way players are brought along.

If you look at the rosters of most African or smaller Latin American countries at the World Cup, you will find relatively few players who are plying their trade at home. Check out those sides' starting line-ups from the first two games, and you will see still fewer. Players know that if they wish to improve, they must go to the big leagues - referees must do the same.

It's true that referees at present are not full-time paid professionals who can be expected to leave their homes and jobs in Guatemala City or Tashkent to pursue their dreams of refereeing in a World Cup by apprenticing in the Bundesliga or the Mexican Football League. But perhaps we should start asking them to.

Maybe a referee from an outlier country should have to apprentice in a top league for at least a year, or call some minimum number of games there, before he is eligible for the World Cup. At the very least there needs to be a radical expansion of existing referee exchange programs that bring officials from football's smaller federations to the big leagues to shadow referees. And those Bangladeshi and Namibian referees need to be put into league games too, once they're ready.

It could be a tough pill to swallow for fans of the English Premier League or the Bundesliga, to look in their match program to see "Referee: Coffi Codjia (Benin)" on a Saturday afternoon. But it would certainly help the world game, and might just keep their national side from getting shafted at the next World Cup.

Author: Matt Hermann
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar

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