Recently the refereeing selections for the World Cup were announced.
There is some controversy over the FIFA committee’s picks, which were partially based on the countries that have implemented VAR in their domestic leagues (4 of 8 included Germany, Poland, Italy, and the US, excluding Australia, South Korea, Portugal, and Belgium). The selections included nations with teams involved this summer, those without teams and some teams involved have no referees invited (even despite the use of VAR in elements of their domestic competitions).
Notable inclusions were US-MLS based referees Mark Geiger and Jair Marrufo, this raised some eyebrows so to speak. One reason is due to the lack of the US or Canadian teams’ status in regards to the World Cup.
The highly debatable reputation of Geiger in recent years after a promising performances leading to being the first American referee to officiate a knockout match in the 2014 World Cup. Then with questionable calls in the MLS, Gold Cup (specifically in a Mexico v Panama semi-final), then only being in charge of somewhat meaningless matches as part of the Copa America Centenario.
As far as Jair Marrufo, he hasn’t had quite as many high profile mistakes, though he has been prone to the occasional game-changing missed call, and one may remember the chippy 2014 MLS Allstar game. This biggest mark on him has been his penchant for letting play go, with a lower than average foul number total average in the last handful of years.
That all being said the numbers on the refs seem to be fairly average for the PRO ref organization. The consistency of their performances seems to have won them several accolades and the trust to take the helm in the many of the premier matches in the region (internationals/MLS). If you are interested in more information on these 2, reference PROreferees.com, worldfootball.net, or the semi-recent analysis provided by pftcollective.com.
Another of the shock factors involved in the appointments was the exclusion of any/all British based referees for the first time in 80 years (1938). Of course, when I mention British, that includes England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, but Ireland will also not contribute as part of the British Isles. This may come as a surprise due to the soaring nature of the popularity of the Premier League and the inclusion of VAR in the cup competitions under the supervision of the English FA. The only recent inclusion of British referees in the last 2 World Cups was Howard Webb, who had a horror show in the 2010 final, and an un-notable 2014 tourney.
As well as Mark Clattenburg was in the preliminary selections for a spot to officiate at the tourney but his defection to the Saudi Arabian League cost him his spot. Clattenburg had risen to a world renown status for taking charge of the Champions League final and Euro final in recent years. He also had won a lot of rapport with Pierluigi Collina who is the FIFA chairman of the referees, as revealed in the Men in Blazers pod special episode interview with Clattenburg.
The FIFA committee has also stated that VAR training will continue in the lead up to the competition. Leaving many to question the inclusions and exclusions of referees previously mentioned by said committee. (It is important to note that VAR will only be used in instances of goals, identity, penalties, and red cards). The VAR issue will continue to be one that could potentially cast a shadow over the beautiful game, even on its biggest stage.
So let’s look at a few of the perspectives on the concept.
Proponents of VAR will argue the use of replay will, for once, guaranty the correct calls will be made. The countless minute, blatant, and game-changing decisions of the human referees, who have so long been under the scrutiny of the fans with access to replay, will have an opportunity to correct mistakes. Overall leading to a fair sporting atmosphere in which no one can deny the final call. There is also the relative success in the leagues that have been implementing VAR on a regular basis with a smooth consistency that has in many regards provided the needed clarity for referees.
Opponents of VAR have argued that the visceral nature of the sheer jubilation or demoralization of the events of the game that make it so unlike any other are essentially robbed from the fans’ experience. One example being the joyous celebrations of players may be wiped out due to the nature of having to wait for confirmation of VAR or risking massive embarrassment. Another similar perspective is the element of the refereeing being just another context in which to add to the experience of the game. The unpredictably from the viewpoint of the referee adding to the depth or complexity of navigating a match. This has been experienced in part by fans watching or debating the calls and time used to deliberate by English referees in cup competitions using VAR. One simply has to search online “controversial VAR England” to see the numerous instances and circumstances in which it has caused a stir.
Ultimately, football enthusiasts and casuals alike can take heart knowing that the learning curve for something like this should be relatively short-lived. Folks only need reference the use of replay assistants in rugby to see that it can eventually be a normal part of the game. That at the end of it all a compromise between the momentary visceral reactions and calls that protect the integrity of the game will provide a net positive effect.
Regardless of your perspective or experience so far, the refereeing decisions made by the FIFA committee and selected individuals in charge of the matches will be under intense scrutiny for the duration of the foreseeable future. The introduction of controversial figures and VAR to the global edition of the game so abruptly this summer (and going forward) will just continue to add to the emotionally charged debate surrounding each decision. My hope is that despite all the potential for calamitous error that everyone will still be able to celebrate this momentous event.