Commentary

Joe Machnik on watching every World Cup game and assessing the performances of referees such as Mark Geiger

How do you watch every game of the World Cup and play a role on how it is presented to a vast TV audience?
 
You sit in a room at the International Broadcast Center (IBC) in Moscow with a few screens and video operators and when cued by a producer you analyze and explain how the match officials and VAR (video assistant referee) handled a particular situation.

At least you do if you’re Dr. Joe Machnik, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y,. and former USSF referee who is working the Fox game broadcasts as rules analyst. He’s seen every one of the 56 games played through the group phase and round of 16 -– many of which were staged simultaneously -- and while speaking on the phone after a typical workday that lasts about 14 hours couldn’t forgive himself for making a mistake.

Machnik talked with Soccer America by phone after the round-of-16 matches on Monday and Tuesday. By the time he finishes working the games and writing a report on each game for the Fox broadcast crews, the clock is well past midnight local time.




Correcting a mistake a day after the fact.
 
There were several intense moments Monday during the Croatia-Denmark round-of-16 match and Machnik endured a torrent of Twitter criticism when he didn’t correct commentator Mark Followill for stating Mathias Jorgensen must be sent off for committing a foul that produced a Croatian penalty kick in overtime. Luka Modric took the kick and Kasper Schmeichel saved it, and while Machnik -- a former goalkeeper who has conducted camps for the past 40 years -- marveled at the save he was more concerned with his own moment of truth.
 
JOE MACHNIK: “I should have corrected him, saying, ‘No the yellow is sufficient because under the rule-change last year, if it’s DOGSO [denial of an obvious goalscoring opportunity] and a penalty [kick] and a play on the ball and not holding, pushing, pulling or handling, the yellow card is sufficient.’

“That prevents so-called triple jeopardy of the penalty kick, send-off, and suspension. They tried to get me to correct what I said because I agreed with him, but I couldn’t get in. I immediately knew, but that’s how it works sometimes.

“I’m at the IBC [International Broadcast Center], I’m in a big room with a replay operator and a couple of screens. But right now, I’m feeling terrible.”

Coaches always tell players to keep their heads in the game after a bad mistake, because a chance to atone could be forthcoming. So it was for Machnik a day later, when during an explanation of how VAR was used to locate a foul that was eventually punished by a free kick instead of a penalty kick in the Sweden-Switzerland, he managed to also work in the DOGSO interpretation.
 
MACHNIK: “At first, the referee indicated penalty and then looked at the monitor and took it out of the box. I was happy to have the opportunity to speak on that because I was able then to correct the error I made the other day. I got it right. I didn’t say I was correcting the error but I was able to forcefully describe the play accurately.”
 
Mark Geiger gets a passing grade for the testy Colombia-England round-of-16 game.
 
Machnik says he and the Fox production crews have no direct access to the referees, but he does read all the information issued by FIFA regarding the protocol to be utilized by the video assistant referees as well as instructions to the officials working games on the field. This is valuable information for critical moments in a broadcast such as when U.S. referee Mark Geiger’s decided not to send off Wilmar Barrios when he leaned into the chest of Jordan Henderson and then clipped Henderson on the jaw by lifting his head.

English players immediately gestured for a video review by using their hands to “draw” a rectangle in the air. Fans and broadcasters assume a head-butt, since it is a blow to the face, is an automatic red card, but Machnik explains the center referee does have some leeway depending on the nature of the offense.

A deliberate, vicious head-butt such as that delivered by Zinedine Zidane to Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final is a red-card offense, but not every situation falls into this category.
 
MACHNIK: “The first thing we have to look at is the incident that was reviewed -- or at least checked -- by VAR which involved, let’s call it a head-butt. A head-butt is now part of the “striking” rule, which is a direct-kick offense. They can be reviewed as careless, which is hardly ever the case; or reckless; or excessive force, which would be a send-off.

“Mark never went to the monitor, so I’m assuming he took the advice of the VAR, who said it was not excessive force and you can give a caution, which he did. I think at the end of the day it worked out. He finished the game with 22 players which is very difficult to do with so much going on.”
 
The grabbing foul on Harry Kane that yielded an English penalty kick and Colombian players surrounding Geiger.
 
During the Monday conversation, Machnik referred to criticism directed to referees for not calling obvious grabbing and holding fouls committed during set plays, which were the subject of a FIFA initiative published prior to the tournament. Most games featured the same wrestling bouts common in high-level games and orders for the officials to crack down didn’t seem to have taken any real effect.
 
MACHNIK: “That was one of the initiatives FIFA talked about prior to the tournament, that they wanted to put an end to it. However, we’re seeing some terrible situations; Harry Kane pulled down twice. We’ve seen two referees call it and probably a dozen or more that should have been called. The VAR can and should, perhaps, take a bigger role in that.

“If I’m the referee and I know that VAR, big brother, is watching and going to show pushing and holding in the box that I’ve seen and I haven’t done anything about, isn’t that a little embarrassing, don’t you think? I’d like to see VAR advise a penalty kick for holding in the box that the referee hasn’t called himself.”

Geiger did not rely on VAR to make his call when Carlos Sanchez, the same player red-carded during Colombia’s loss to Japan in their group match, hauled down Kane as England prepared to take a corner kick. Minutes of turmoil ensued as Geiger cautioned Sanchez and with help from his assistant referees tried to clear Colombian players out of the penalty area.
 
MACHNIK: “The next major incident is the penalty kick. I went to the media briefing before the tournament and they showed a video clip of holding in the penalty area and they said, ‘This must stop.’ The referees were instructed to stop it. They showed the same clip to the refs and to all of the teams.

“At least two referees prior to Mark followed the rules and have called penalty-kick decisions. On every free kick, Mark warned the players and he spent a great deal of time warning the players prior to the kick being taken. They can’t say they weren’t warned or this decision came from left field some place.

“He warned them. The foul was definitely there. Harry Kane was definitely pulled down. He called a penalty kick. The dissent that happened afterwards come from the fact that too many referees ignored the fouls and they were expecting Mark to ignore it as well. If you know Mark and you scout your referee, he’s going to apply the letter law maybe not 100 percent of the time but very close to it.”
 
How well Geiger managed the rest of the game.
 
MACHNIK: “So after that there lots of decisions to be made, lots of fouls that were reckless. He had a mass confrontation after the penalty kick, which I thought he did well not to have a riot and card multiple players that might be under threat of a second card later.

“What he did was be very selective in which fouls he needed to call and which didn’t need a call, and which fouls to use a card when necessary. I think the players also got the message he would not hesitate to send a player off with a second caution and in essence after a while the bad fouls stopped.

“England began to run out of gas a little bit and Colombia realized they had to push the game to get a goal to tie the game, and that worked in Mark’s behalf. He was able to officiate the game without having to deal with all the nonsense.

“Obviously, Colombia thought they had the edge if the game went to penalties, and England was exhausted, so aside from one or two instances he didn’t have much to deal with. Colombia was furious when he allowed an English player to take a dive and England went on to hit a cross that nearly led to a goal.

“They were furious and they had a legitimate claim, in my opinion. The dive should at least have been whistled if not carded for simulation.”
 
Overall assessment of Geiger.
 
MACHNIK: “I’m happy for Mark and I’m pretty sure FIFA’s happy with his performance. No matter what happens during the 90 and the 30, when it comes to penalty kicks it’s all down to the players.

“He could have given a red card to the Colombian player for that head butt but he didn’t, and he gave a penalty to England that was according to the laws. If he didn’t give that penalty there would have been a lot of criticism. Who knows? He might stay in the pool for another game [Editor's Note: Geiger remained in the pool for the rest of the tournament but was not selected to referee one of the quarterfinal matches].

“You have to be smart in your foul selection and your card selection. You have to know the players and you can’t lose a team. You have game-management issues and player-management issues. He did well in both categories.

“If he has to send someone off, it’s 11-against-10 and the whole game comes down on the referee’s head and everybody says he lost control of the game. Well, sooner or later, they realize it’s the players who have lost control and the referee is doing everything he can to bring them back under control. It wouldn’t surprise me if the FIFA disciplinary committee looks at some of the behavior of the players and issues fines to the teams for lack of control of their players.”

The controversial incident during which Neymar of Brazil was stepped on by Miguel Layun of Mexico and no punishment was forthcoming.

MACHNIK: "In that game, if you’ll remember, he was behaving himself and not doing all the histrionics, because he has a caution and the next caution means he misses a game. He had already been fouled six times, so this stomping incident I’m really surprised the video assistant referee didn’t ask the referee to take a look at it.

"Number one, it was not part of any play on the ball, and two, it’s right there. The player knew what he was doing. He stepped on him. Maybe there wasn’t excessive force but he steps on the ankle. What difference does it make if it’s his good ankle or his bad ankle? It should have been reviewed and if he sees the same replays as we did he’s got to come with at least a caution, regardless of the amount of force.


The use of VAR at the World Cup under the direction of former FIFA referee Pierluigi Collina, head of the referees committee.
 
MACHNIK: “When VAR is used, the result has been correct and very satisfying. What Collina adequately explained is the mystery still is when it’s not used. There’s such a high line of intervention that didn’t exist in the leagues where experiments were taken place: in the Bundesliga and Serie A and to some extent MLS. They were looking at things that weren’t clear and obvious errors, which is one of the things he’s concerned himself with.

“At the meeting he used the word 'dominance. That was to indicate at least one referee during the course of this tournament was being advised by the VAR to take another look because he may have missed a penalty and the dominating referee refused that information or advice.

“My guess is that referee was the referee in the Sweden-Germany game [Szymon Marciniak of Poland] and the incident was a foul [by Jerome Boateng on Marcus Berg] that should have been a penalty kick for Sweden, and wasn’t reviewed.”
[Editor's Note: Marciniak and Felix Brych of Germany were among the referees not retained after the round of 16.]
 
Changes made by FIFA leading up to the tournament regarding the use of VAR.
 
FIFA added extra cameras to those of the host broadcaster to give the match officials and video assistant referees additional assistance in dealing with offside situations, for which assistant referees have been instructed not to raise the flag if the call will be a close one.

If a goal is scored, the flag goes up and the review process begins with a check by the VAR, who notifies the center referee to take a look if warranted.
 
MACHNIK: “FIFA had an original budget for VAR at this tournament but they actually added additional cameras for the offside decisions, they have a separate video operator to handle replays for offside only, and they have an assistant referee in the booth just to watch for offside. For example, you see [Canadian referee] Joe Fletcher in there, he’s concentrating solely on  offside.”
 
Concerns regarding how the system would be used and who would be implementing its use promoted extensive changes to the VAR protocol and the personnel selected. Machnik says the idea of displaying the reason for a review on the stadium video screens is also a rather recent development.
 
MACHNIK: “I think about six months ago they made the decision, because there was already criticism of how could they have referees using video replay at the World Cup who hadn’t done it in their domestic leagues.

“They brought in 13 specialists from Germany and Italy and other places who had experience with VAR. [Editor's Note: Geiger has also worked as VAR during the tournament.]

“If you read the VAR protocol they put when the experiments were going on, all that was said six months ago was that they were working on how to inform the stadium audience and broadcast audience.

“On the Web page we know right away if a play is going to be checked it comes up in a yellow box, if it’s going to be reviewed it comes up in a red box, and then if the check is cleared it comes up in a green box. So we know exactly what’s happening and what the check is about and with the information shown on the stadium’s big screen, those people know, too.”
 
On the future of VAR and whether MLS should use the World Cup system of reviews at a central location rather than sending video assistant referees to each game.
 
MACHNIK: “I think it’s the way to go. You have less people and that way you get consistency and learning takes place. They get education and don’t make the same mistakes twice. Putting it in a central location is the way the other leagues do it.”

7 comments about "Joe Machnik on watching every World Cup game and assessing the performances of referees such as Mark Geiger".
  1. beautiful game, July 5, 2018 at 10:19 p.m.

    Mr. Machnik is a good FIFA ole boy. IMHO, VAR keeps exposing referee derelictions to the laws of the game. Machnik states that Geiger used smart "foul selection". If that means that a foul under LOTG is cautionable, and Geiger "selects" not to caution the player, he is doing a good job. This particular argument is a cancer to the game and players feed off such referee decisions. As for the thuggery on free kicks. It has been "selectively permissible" by FIFA for 4-years before WC 2018 and all of a sudden it's being enforced "selectively". Machnik's comments are a croc-of- pooh, just like the corrupt FIFA. Why have LOTG if they are enforced "selectively.

  2. R2 Dad replied, July 6, 2018 at 1:15 a.m.

    BG, you seem not to appreciate the conflicts inherent in the LOTG as they apply to adults playing the sport at the highest levels. The desire to enable flow to the game without whistling for every infraction makes certain matches more difficult than others. Geiger's match was probably the most difficult so far, given the constant contact, slim margins between teams, and high pressure involved. With Colina running the show and integrating VAR for the first time, so much could go wrong but, so far, has not. I'd give the match officials a B+ so far. For cynics such as yourself, the man management aspect is not heard and therefore discounted. But fans are only seeing and hearing a fraction of what goes on. Maybe you could start by not assuming everyone with a whistle or flag is incompetent? In order to get some perspective, I'd encourage to take a grade 8 course to get a better understanding of how all the gears turn during a match--USSF is desperate for more adult officials who consider spending their weekends officiating.

  3. Kent James, July 5, 2018 at 10:45 p.m.

    Generally, I agree with Machnik. Geiger had one of the most difficult games to ref (everybody was hacking and diving, and it was very ill-tempered), and he got through it without it becoming a disaster.  Eventually the players did calm down.  Geiger was very calm and patient (maybe a bit too patient on the penalty kick, when the Colombian players refused to let it be taken for a really long time; I thought after he let them vent for a bit, he should have motioned for them to get out of the box and if they didn't, made an obvious motion of reaching for his yellow card to encourage them to move outside the area or get carded...).  

  4. Ric Fonseca replied, July 14, 2018 at 4:22 p.m.

    Kent James & Frank Schoon:  To a infitinitesima point I agree with ou re: Geiger's job during that particular game. Now I perhaps can say I doubt you saw the game on the spanish language telecast, however, I can tell you that the "commentators," from Senor Goooool! Cantor, and his other amigos, were incessantly harping on his performance.  And yes, IMHO, he did blow a couple of calls, however, the Spanish language announcers, all I can say, jijole de la chin....da, they were a tad brutal.  And speaking of Maradollar, I haven't read any commentas about him when he double flipped the other folks at the stadium, other than having read somewhere that FIFA is not only paying him for his cameo on-tv appearances, but for his obcsene gesticulations/gestures!

  5. frank schoon, July 6, 2018 at 6:55 a.m.

    I’ll let you guys fight it out for reffing is not my strong point. Just read that Maradona had criticized Geiger. 
    I hope he had also criticized the ref who didn’t call his famous hands ball in the ‘86WC. I thought Geiger did a decent job under the circumstances. 

  6. uffe gustafsson, July 6, 2018 at 6:02 p.m.

    Marodonna have zero legit to say anything about refs.
    and should thx lord that VAR was not implemented when he played. Gieger had hands down the hardest game to ref. Well done.

  7. Right Winger, July 6, 2018 at 8:08 p.m.

    I wonder who Maridona is going to blame for Brazil’s loss today.

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