By Paul Gardner
I can now answer a question that has been keeping you awake at night: Which country produces the best referees?
At this moment, the answer is . .. Mexico. Followed by New Zealand. No doubt some of you will be surprised, even shocked, by this news. So, a word of explanation. The information I’m giving you comes straight from the horse’s mouth, from FIFA itself. I’ve made just one assumption here -- one that I think all right-minded and impartial soccer people would make -- namely, that the World Cup, soccer’s premier event, is bound to feature only the world’s best referees.
After that, it’s just a matter of perusing the official list of referees that FIFA has recently issued for the 2010 tournament. There are 30 referees, representing 28 different countries -- Mexico and New Zealand are the only countries that have two names on the list. Brazil, England, Italy, Germany and so on, they only merit one referee each.
I’m rating the Mexicans ahead of the Kiwis because Mexico also had two referees at the 2006 World Cup in Germany -- where it was the only country so honored.
New Zealand didn’t have any referees in Germany -- in fact, so far as I can discover, New Zealand has never had a World Cup referee before this year, so something pretty dramatic must be happening on the referee training front down under.
Of course this is all extremely strange, but that will certainly not shock anyone who keeps even half an eye on the way that referees conduct their affairs. They are frequently shrouded in mystery, often enough for it to look like deliberate obfuscation.
Getting to the heart of this matter -- exactly how are World Cup referees selected? What are the criteria? Surely, the chief one ought to be proficiency? The best tournament, the best teams, the best players, the best referees.
Under that policy one would expect the list to be dominated by referees from the countries with the strongest leagues -- i.e. England, Germany, Italy, Spain, plus Brazil and Argentina. But that does not happen. All we’re getting from them in 2010 is one referee each.
Back in 1992 I was part of a FIFA panel discussing referee matters. At the time, surprise, surprise, there was much dissatisfaction with the standards of World Cup refereeing. During the 1986 World Cup, to quote the official FIFA Technical Report, “for the first time in the history of the World Cup the President of FIFA himself [Joao Havelange] had to intervene to remind the referees of their responsibilities ...” The 1990 tournament had not been any improvement -- indeed, the referees were coming under increasing criticism because of the widespread availability of television replays.
A panel member asked the question: Why is each country limited to only one referee? Sepp Blatter (he was then the FIFA secretary general) offered some desultory explanations about wishing to encourage smaller countries to feel part of the World Cup, and then announced that things would be changed from the 1994 World Cup on. Henceforth, “the best referees must go to the World Cup, there will be no quotas, one country could have six referees, another none ...”
That ought to have improved matters immensely, but in practice things barely changed. In 1994, Italy had two referees, everyone else still had only one. In 1998 and 2002 it was back to one ref per country; in 2006 and in 2010 the Mexicans and the New Zealanders arrived. No country has ever had more than two referees at the World Cup, never mind six.
The FIFA referees committee does the selecting, and it evidently uses geographical distribution as its main guideline. If you look at the 2010 referees according to Confederation, you find 10 from Europe, six from South America, four each from Asia, Africa and Concacaf (North & Central America and the Caribbean), and two from Oceania -- the two New Zealanders.
Is any one likely to believe that this convenient apportioning happened by chance? It is, if you like, a nice democratic procedure. It could also be called a political arrangement, a form of patronage. What it cannot be called is a soccer system. Are we seriously expected to believe that the No. 2 referee in England or Italy is not as good as the appointed man from the Seychelles, or either of the New Zealanders? Or, for that matter, can we accept that the No. 1 referee in the USA is simply not good enough (there will be no American referees or assistants in South Africa)?
I need to be careful here. For sure, I cannot believe that the guys from New Zealand can possibly have the top-level experience that comes from reffing regularly in a first division pro league (New Zealand, to my knowledge does not even have a pro league). But ... they might still be good referees, with a gift for quick, accurate decision-making and excellent man-management skills. Just as some of those super-top guys can make awful decisions.
But the probability is important here. FIFA, in selecting its referees to achieve a uniform global spread, is going against the probabilities, and that should not be the way to run a World Cup. The teams have a right to expect that only the world’s best referees will be in charge of games in South Africa. But that is not likely.