Toughest World Cup job: opening game ref

By Paul Gardner

A week to go for World Cup kickoff. A time of mounting excitement -- and a time of mounting anxiety and nervousness. Nowhere can those last two qualities be more pronounced than among the World Cup referees, the 30 officials selected to take charge of the 64 games.

For the moment, 63 of those games look like dim and distant prospects. The one that looms larger than reality is the opening game. Friday June 11 in Johannesburg’s Soccer City, kickoff 4 pm local time.

The host nation, South Africa, against Mexico. The referees are waiting to find out who will be the designated referee for that one. The big question being: does anyone actually want that game?

Because this is a very special opening game, an opening game like no other in the history of the World Cup. Of course these games have always been high-pressure games. For two reasons. There is pressure from FIFA because it wants a tone to be set in the tournament’s first game. The referee has the responsibility not only for a thoroughly professional performance, but also for stamping the game -- and hence the subsequent tournament -- with the style of refereeing required by FIFA.

The particulars of World Cup refereeing are spelled out to referees before each World Cup. They are likely to emphasize two or three aspects of the rules for especially strict application.

Those are things that a referee can be expected to cope with, they are part of his modus operandi.

So too is the pressure of the big occasion. Performing well in huge, crowded, noisy stadiums on big occasions should also be well within the capability of any referee selected for World Cup duty.

A look at the referees for the tournament openers since 1970, shows that FIFA has often felt comfortable going with referees from smaller countries such as the United Arab Emirates (2002), Switzerland (1974) and Czechoslovakia (1982).

But the format was different then. The Germans, organizers of the 1974 tournament, decided to break the tradition under which the host nation always played in the opening game. Instead, they decided to give that honor to the World Cup holders -- in this case the 1970 winners, Brazil. The Brazilians were not delighted, and called it “the poisoned gift.”

It was a change that took some of the heat out of the occasions, and certainly took some of the pressure off the referee. That arrangement continued for the next eight World Cups -- until it was again the Germans, in 2006, who decided that, as host nation, they would take part in the opening game.

The South Africans will continue that revived tradition next Friday. The problem for the referee, whoever he may be, is that this World Cup brings with it cultural and emotional and organizational pressures at a level never before seen.

This is the first-ever World Cup to be staged in Africa. A daring -- and certainly risky -- experiment by FIFA and particularly by its president Sepp Blatter. It is not too strong a statement to say that it is an experiment that dare not fail.

And it is no secret that one of the basic requirements for a successful tournament is that the host team does well. In fact the host team has always managed to get out of the first round. No host team has ever failed to do that. Can South Africa maintain that record? Is its team good enough? In short, can it beat -- or at least, avoid defeat by --- Mexico? Losing the first game in group play makes early elimination almost certain. (In the three 32-team World Cups -- 1998, 2002 and 2006 -- 36 teams have lost their opening game; 33 of those teams failed to make it to the second round).

So the chosen referee will have to operate under the enormous weight of all that pressure, pressure that really requires at least a tie for South Africa.

The referee cannot come from either Africa or Concacaf, the interested confederations. Nor is it possible to imagine a selection from South America, who could be considered to have a Latin -- i.e. Mexican -- affinity. The choice then, is whittled down to a referee from Europe, or from Asia, or one of the two New Zealanders.

The most experienced referees are, of course, the Europeans. But there is another factor to be considered. More pressure. Much more, more of a type of pressure that has not been seen before. This is pressure linked to South Africa’s painful colonial and racial history. The Bafana Bafana carry the hopes of South Africa, but more deeply, they carry the hopes of black South Africa -- indeed, of black Africa. This is a factor that makes the choice of referee particularly difficult. Passion is running high.

When Danny Jordaan, head of the World Cup organizing committee, says that this “will unify us in this country, it carries a lot of hope for the future of this country,” it comes as a shock to realize that he is not even talking about the month-long tournament, but simply about the official ball.

Ideally, with the appointment of an impartial European referee, who ever he is, this factor could be ignored. But can it be? Can FIFA appoint Howard Webb from England, the original colonizers of South Africa? Other strong European candidates are from countries that also have shameful colonial records in Africa -- Roberto Rosetti (Italy), Frank De Bleeckere (Belgium), Stephane Lannoy (France), Wolfgang Stark (Germany). If it is to be an experienced European, it seems to me that the choice narrows down to just one guy, Switzerland’s Massimo Busacca.

As it happens, Busacca is probably everyone’s favorite for the final (not least because no one believes that his country, Switzerland, can reach the final, hence no conflict of interest).

Until four years ago, Busacca would have been given one or the other assignment, but not both. No referee had ever been assigned to both games (though it had happened, by chance, in 1950). But that tradition was broken in 2006 by the Argentine Horacio Elizondo who refereed the opener and the final.

Be it Busacca or whoever, this is a highly important and very tricky appointment. The referee will be required to take charge of a game in a packed stadium raised to a fever pitch of nationalistic passion.

From that atmosphere, from the very air itself, comes a heavy, ominous, pervasive pressure. On the referee, on the Bafana Bafana, and on the Mexicans. Just how that pressure will show itself, that we have to wait to find out. It seems to me that it is just as likely to overwhelm the South Africans as it is to smother the Mexicans.

The purely soccer pressures come with the territory. But the rest -- the prestige-driven organizational issues, the profit-driven financial considerations, the whipped-up fervor of patriotism and nationalism -- are to be deplored.

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