By Paul Gardner
Who's the ref? It's a question that needs to be asked about every important game. We know that ManU's Alex Ferguson pays close attention, because he's had his say about how referees can influence the result (and he’s been fined and told to shut up as a result of his pronouncements).
One thing we should be able to rely on is that when a big game comes around, the referee will be chosen from a pretty small group of guys considered to be at the top of their profession.
But that’s not quite the way things work. For the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, FIFA chose 29 referees and a glance at the list makes it obvious that one of the key considerations was geographical spread.
We are surely not expected to believe that it was by accident, or on merit, that each of FIFA’s confederations was represented -- as follows: Asia (4), Africa (3), Concacaf (4), South America (6), Oceania (2) and Europe (10).
Breaking down those 10 from Europe, we find that no country supplied more than one referee -- just one each from England, from Italy, from Germany, from France etc. Whereas both of Oceania's entrants were from New Zealand. So England has only one top referee, while New Zealand has two?
That is not impossible, of course, just highly unlikely. The point to be made is that -- allowing for FIFA’s necessity (for such it seems) to play the geographical, or more accurately, the political, card -- each of the 29 referees could claim, at his own domestic level, to be among “the best.”
And that may be “the best” that we can hope for. Predicting the performance of a referee is hardly an exact science, after all. The two New Zealanders, as it happens, performed creditably, whereas the two biggest gaffes of the World Cup -- England's disallowed goal against Germany, and Argentina’s offside goal against Mexico -- were pulled off by two of the most experienced referees, a Uruguayan and an Italian.
When I turn to the Under-17 World Cup, however, I find a very different situation. Here, it seems to me, no attempt is made to use referees who can be classified as “the best.” Rather, the idea is to use younger referees who can be seen as “the most promising.”
In other words, the U-17 World Cup -- the championship of the world for these young players -- is being used as a training exercise for referees. Training them for, presumably, future major assignments at the senior pro level. And, yes, I do have a problem with that.
To begin with, there is a substantial difference between refereeing 17-year-old boys and older, frequently much older, pros. The idea that the refereeing acumen needed to take charge of wily pros can be judged by watching performances against comparatively naive boys strikes me as being a dodgy proposition.
I have attended many U-17 World Cup games, and I do not recall seeing one that featured sustained rough play. The boys are almost always “on their best behavior,” making the referee’s job a pretty straightforward one.
But the bigger objection I have to using the under-17 tournament as a guinea-pig competition for trying out referees is that it disparages the event, and shows a lack of respect for the young players.
Why should the boys -- taking part in what might be the most important games of their lives, in a competition that bears the FIFA title of a world championship -- have to be satisfied with something less than the best when it comes to the crucial element of officiating?
The recent UEFA under-17 tournament featured a particularly blatant example of poor refereeing. If one were looking at that tournament solely through the eyes of a referee assessor, I suppose one would say something like, “Well, we found out that this guy is not good enough ...” and that would be considered a positive observation.
And the referee group does have that attitude. Hugh Dallas, a former top referee from Scotland, is now a member of UEFA’s Refereeing Committee. He has recently praised the UEFA under-17 tournament, almost exclusively in terms of how well the referees performed (obviously, I would lodge at least one major objection to that), emphasizing what a good experience it was for them: "It's going very well, I think the referee performances have been very good. The teams have got to take credit for that. I congratulate the players on that, they've followed the instructions we've given them in the meetings.”
Which comes close to suggesting that the main function of the players is to help the referees look good. It is important, concludes Dallas, “for young referees to seize the opportunity and absorb as much information as they can.” The final of the UEFA event was given to Kristo Tohver, an Estonian with virtually no experience at the senior international level. He did well, while admitting that it wasn’t the most difficult of tasks: “It's been very fair. The challenges have been very sporting. The players want to play and enjoy their football and it's easier to referee when they want to have fun.”
Tohver went on to claim that one of “the best parts of being” at the tournament was getting instructions from Dallas and his UEFA Refereeing Committee colleagues: “We all want to learn, we all want to get somewhere in our careers and the only way of doing that is getting proper coaching.”
That really does make things sound like a clinic organized for the benefit of the referees. There is some history here, for FIFA’s attitude to the U-17 World Cup has long given the impression that under-17 events can be used for experimentation. Thus, the boys, at various times, have seen “their” tournament disfigured by experiments with the offside rule, for using kick-ins instead of throw-ins, and for allowing coaches to call timeouts.
None of those experiments ever went anywhere, but they clearly demonstrate that FIFA does not give the tournament the seriousness that it deserves. Using apprentice referees is merely an extension of the same attitude. It is an objectionable attitude, one that if applied more widely, would suggest that inexperienced surgeons are good enough for 17-year-old patients.
In a world championship, the level of the officiating should be the highest available. Not only because that should ensure better games (without, of course, being able to guarantee them!), but also because respect for the young players, and FIFA’s own Fair Play code demands it.