World Cup Refereeing – A Non-Topical Look Back

A few weeks ago, we all watched a World Cup commonly described as one of the best ever – certainly the best many of us can remember. I also watched some referees. I’d like to claim the non-topical nature of this blog is the result of some serious reflection, but it’s actually because I’ve only just got round to it.


The first thing to say, and pretty much everyone already has, is that all referees, no matter what their reputation were particularly lenient during the World Cup. I personally have no quibble with letting the game flow, and I think it probably contributed to how open and attacking many games were. That said, and has been noted by others who know much more about this sort of thing, it also led to serious foul play going unpunished, and in the case of Neymar, a tournament-ending injury. Which at the very least robbed us of the sight of Brazil’s star man looking on forlornly as his defensive colleagues rolled out the red carpet for a succession of brutally simple German attacks.

Was the balance wrong? Probably, yes. In a tournament with few game-defining mistakes by referee it was still surprising to see excellent referees like Cüneyt Çakır and Pedro Proença fail to punish particularly bad challenges. Massimo Busacca clearly has to take some of the blame, but what’s interesting is how ready experienced refs were to abandon their natural style in the highly-pressurised atmosphere of a World Cup. While many refs (Mark Halsey comes to mind) have been prepared to trust their natural instincts on how to run league games, against pressure by those in charge, for an ambitious ref that simply wasn’t an option in Brazil. If you didn’t do what Busacca wanted, you went home, or worse, acted as fourth official in the 3rd/4th place playoff. And that’s probably why Carlos Velasco Carballo went against type and delivered one of the worst refereeing performances you will ever see. He thought that’s what they wanted, and maybe it was.

Vanishing Spray

For all of the end-to-end games, last minute winners and crying Brazilian children, by far the most exciting thing was watching referees deposit small amounts of foam on the pitch. It really did open up a whole new opportunity for refs to develop their own signature style. And even better, we now look forward to a Premier League season where almost no free-kick will go by without the commentator feeling obliged to point out that it’s not being used. Roll on August.


FIFA broke the hearts of millions of Uzbeks by giving the final to Italian architect Nicola Rizzoli. Like the buildings he designs (hopefully) he always looked a solid choice. However, like a number of those that went before him, he let a couple of major decisions slide, and left us with the feeling that things could have been different if he’d sent off Aguero or decided to penalise that Manuel Neuer’s challenge. That latter challenge was likened, ludicrously, by some to Harald Schumacher’s infamous maiming of Patrick Battiston in 1982.

Overall, he did a pretty reasonable job, though when Bastian Schweinsteiger finally comes round he may disagree. Whether the same can be said of those setting the parameters for referee performance…well, no it can’t.

Howard Webb

Good old Howard Webb, projecting an air of competence when few English people could claim the same. Despite a shaky season, and for what it’s worth, I think Mark Clattenburg was unlucky to get the English slot, Webb was excellent and no doubt added to his international reputation. Of course he also showed how much is dependent on your assistants. As Graham Poll’s 2002 World Cup was ended by a poor decision from one of his assistants, the Yorkshireman earned his greatest praise for correctly disallowing a goal for a handball he hadn’t seen, but his assistant Mike Mullarkey had spotted. I suppose he would have taken most of the flak/effigy-burning had it been wrong, but nonetheless for those of us who long to see Mike Mullarkey embrace minor celebrity, it was a strangely wistful experience. That could easily just be me, but I felt it pretty deeply.

Those are all of the things I could think of/was mildly interested in. And now for four years without World Cup referees…

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