In the era of professional referees, there seem to be more opportunities than ever to build on a career in the middle by taking up a management position in one of the professional boards of various organisations and leagues. Refereeing standards are always a hot topic, so it seems worth taking a closer look at who some of these people are, and how they shape what happens on the pitch.
Arguably the biggest of job in what you might call ‘refereeing management’ is that of Head of Refereeing Development at FIFA, effectively giving control over how referees officiate at the World Cup, and who gets the Final. In 2011, Massimo Busacca was the man given that responsibility. Arguably most famous among internet content-sharers as the official who allegedly relieved his own vanishing spray during a game in Qatar, he was apparently named Switzerland’s non-smoker of the year in 2006 (which I’m choosing to believe despite the limited nature of available sources).
Busacca had a very respectable career, spending 12 years on the FIFA list and taking charge of the 2009 Champions League Final and 2007 UEFA Cup Final. He also went to two World Cups himself, a Confederations Cup, and a European Championship, where he took charge of a semi-final. His last World Cup did however end somewhat ignominiously after Carlos Alberto Parreira, manager of hosts South Africa, labelled his performance in their group game against Uruguay as the worst “in this competition so far”. That proved to be his last match as he was sent home after the Second Round.
The World Cup in Brazil, as we know, saw a focus on sensible game-management and allowing games to flow, rather than following the letter of the law. Perhaps what let this down on occasion, as Busacca has admitted himself, is that some refs were unable to manage games effectively. I certainly hope he was referring to Carlos Velasco Carballo’s officiating of the Quarter Final between Brazil and Colombia, but equally the failure to penalise dangerous challenges by Mark Geiger during France v Nigeria in the Second Round could have been in his mind.
As many have pointed out, the World Cup clearly benefited from the overall approach to refereeing, and it shouldn’t be underestimated as a contributing factor to probably the most entertaining World Cup of modern times (though clearly not the main reason). It did perhaps though lead to the loss of one of the tournament’s most prominent players in Neymar, so the right balance has not yet been found.
Refereeing in international tournaments is very different, and the power held by the man in charge is phenomenal. There is no bigger appointment, and there are some referees who would probably dismiss their own grannies for denial of an obvious goal-scoring opportunity to get it. We don’t know what instructions Busacca gave in briefings, but if he made clear he wanted a more lenient approach, we shouldn’t be surprised that some officials failed to show the yellow and red cards that they really should have at some point. That’s not Busacca’s fault, and it mirrors the over-eagerness of some to show red in the 90s when a strict interpretation of the rules was de rigeur.
What next for Busacca? A tournament that produced general praise for referees means he will surely get another go in Russia, and with an increased emphasis towards individual rather than group briefings, there still seems to be an opportunity for even better. However, one note of caution would be his tendency to pick UEFA officials in the key games, which might not endear him to Sepp Blatter and future presidential candidates. It’s probably to his credit that he went for Nicola Rizzoli in the final, presumably because he felt he was the best man for the job, rather than the equally impressive Uzbek Ravshan Irmatov, who would have been the safer choice politically.
What we can safely say is that for now the days when European and International football meant harsher punishment for forceful tackling are over, and the Swiss non-smoker is an influential part of the new consensus of leniency.