Pierluigi Collina was named FIFA's "Best Referee of the Year" six consecutive times and is widely considered to be the greatest soccer referee of all time. Since he retired from refereeing in 2005, he proved that he is a great soccer referee administrator as well as a referee. He took the helm of UEFA refereeing as Head of Refereeing and since then the refereeing in UEFA has improved a lot. The refereeing in Euro 2016 is considered to be best in all Euros by many experts. FIFA has appointed Collina as the Chairman of the Referees Committee at the beginning of 2017. Now you can see the footprints of Collina in this World Cup.
I watched the first 16 games of the tournament. Although it might be a bit premature to say it but the refereeing so far has been very impressive. Except for four games -- which I consider as below par -- the refereeing has been either very good or excellent.
In the first 16 games:
There was one red card – for DOGSO – (0.06 per game) and the average number of cautions per game was 3.13 (One game with zero cautions and one game with eight cautions). There were 29.25 fouls per game. At the 2014 World Cup, the average number of cautions and sending offs per game were 2.8 and 0.2 respectively.
There was only one game where there was a controversy with a goal and that was the last game of the first 16 games. In the game between Senegal and Poland referee Nawaf Shukrulla allowed a player from Senegal to enter the field of play after an on the field assessment/treatment without checking the potential consequences. As a result, the player in question followed a back pass by a Polish player who did not notice him coming on the field and scored the decisive goal.
This is not neither a violation /misinterpretation of the LOTG nor can the Senegalese player be accused of non-Fair Play. It was just a bad timing by the referee. Maybe this will trigger a change in the LOTG by IFAB. The LOTG state that any player who is treated/assessed on the field must leave the field of play. Following a restart that caused the stoppage for the treatment of the injury on the field, the player can enter the field of play any time the referee permits the player to do so.
Maybe the new change can state that for players who move out of the field of play due to an injury they can only enter the field of play after a stoppage. This change will not only make sure that what happened in the above-mentioned game will not happen again but it will also facilitate a mechanism through which teams who are trying to stall through “fake” injuries to reconsider their tactics. Because if players go out for an on the field assessment/treatment of a “fake” injury they can leave their teams one player short for a considerable amount of time until the next stoppage.
Let us now go back the officiating in the World Cup 2018 and Collina’s footprints:
The referees have been told that there are three concepts they should reflect onto the field: Uniformity, consistency and Fair Play.
All the participating World Cup teams were briefed by members of the FIFA Referee Committee about what the referees have been instructed. All teams were told that the referees have been instructed to “protect the image of the game” through their refereeing. They were also told that the referees wanted good relations with players/teams. The teams were also reminded that games were being videoed by 35+ cameras and any acts of off the ball violent conduct (like spitting, biting, striking etc.) will be caught by the VAR system and the players will be sent off even if the game has restarted.
During the first 16 games, we did not see any serious dissent by players or coaches to the decisions of the referees. There was no serious foul play or violent conduct. I did not see a single black and white serious foul play missed by the officiating team, including the VAR officials. Although there were a number of injuries caused by contact that required the players to be substituted, none of them were caused by either reckless play (caution) or use of excessive force (sending off).
The best example of not reverting to just to your cards for controlling a game was given by Alireza Faghani (Iran) during the Mexico vs. Germany game. He used an incredible correct body language to control the game as well as his cards. Even though the previous world champions lost the game, there was nothing but praise from both sides for the officiating crew.
There are two criticisms to the officiating in the first 16 games. One of them is a major one: Giving lectures or preaching does not solve the problem of holding in the penalty area during set plays. There was one courageous decision by Sandro Ricci (Brazil) that resulted in a penalty kick where the attacking player was wrestled down during a set play (Nigeria vs. Croatia). In a similar position in the England-Tunisia game, Harry Kane was taken down, but the officials did not intervene. I am sure this topic will be at the top Collina’s agenda for the next rounds.
The minor one: Find a Velcro that keeps the FIFA badge on the shirt!
What is encouraging is that there was no evidence of favoritism towards “big” soccer nations as we have seen in the past.
The second instruction was to ask the VAR crew not to interfere for gray calls when the referee on the field had the correct angle and saw the incident. This boosts the self-confidence of the referees on the field. The VAR only intervened when convinced that the referee did not see the incident. This is the reason why the VAR did not intervene on gray calls that led to goals in the Spain-Portugal and Brazil-Switzerland games. In both cases, the referees had excellent angles/sight and decided not to call a foul
All three VAR-triggered decisions for penalty kicks were regarding incidents where the VAR team correctly decided that the referee did not see the offense. It also helped the tournament to reach a record-high number of penalty kicks awarded. The only other time that an on-the-field replay was used when the referee (Malang Diedhiou of Senegal during the Costa Rica vs. Serbia game) asked for an incident to be reviewed for a possible disciplinary action (yellow card vs. red card). So there were only four on-the-field reviews in 16 games. Three of them took minimal time even though time lost for video review is added as additional time.
So far, the VAR system in this tournament brought in a number of benefits all favoring more goals and potential goals not the other way around, as speculated.
It deterred the teams from off the ball violent conduct fouls. It also helps the referees and deters the players form simulating in the penalty area. The players know that or will learn soon if they take a dive and get a penalty kick, the VAR system will reverse the decision and they might get a caution.
In summary, the footprints of Collina is very detectable in this tournament. I hope I can write similar comments and will not be embarrassed about refereeing at the end of the tournament as the games will get more and more difficult to officiate. But I am very hopeful for a happy ending with Collina at the helm.
Ahmet Guvener (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former Secretary General and the Technical Director of Turkish FA. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in Austin, TX.