Another World Cup is over. This is the 13th World Cup I watched in my life. I cannot recall all of them in detail but definitely the World Cup 2018 will stand as one of the better World Cups in my personal history. This World Cup buried the systems dominated by stars. This World Cup ended brutal play via the use of the VAR system. This World Cup introduced new stars like Kylian Mbappe (19) and polished an old star Luka Modric (33) by placing him under the under the limelight. This World Cup proved that nations who take development seriously will excel over nations who just produce raw talent. This World Cup enhanced the dominance of European teams over the others. This World Cup showed the importance of compact defense and the transition play. This World Cup was a eulogy to Tiki Taka. This World Cup had some incredible goalkeeping as well as some howlers by some of the best goalkeepers of the world. This World Cup underlined again the importance of set-plays in national competitions. This World Cup crowned the midfielders as the new kings. Last but not the least this was the only World Cup in my personal history that was officiated to near perfection.
Let us look at the officiating with some numbers. 35 referees were invited from 34 countries (USA had two) covering all six confederations. Only 28 of them refereed at least one match. Seven of them returned home without refereeing a single game. Although it is an honor for a referee to be invited to the World Cup, FIFA should have also considered the possible humiliation these seven referees might face when they go back home. Nestor Pitana (Argentina) had five games under his belt including the opening game and the final. Alireza Faghani (Iran) and Bjorn Kuipers (Netherlands) had four games each. The rest of them had three to one game each. The appointments were heavily around UEFA and Conmebol referees at the knockout stage. Concacaf had two, AFC had two and CAF had one game at the knockout stage. So 11 games went for UEFA and CONMEBOL referees. What was interesting was that unlike the 12 World Cups I watched earlier, the quality gap between UEFA/Conmebol referees and referees from other Confederations has decreased considerably in this World Cup.
The tournament ended with an average of 3.5 yellow cards per game and 0.06 red cards per game. There were 2.6 goals per game also. There were four red cards in the 64 games played; this is far lower than the averages in national leagues, earlier World Cups and UEFA Champions League etc. Out of four red cards, two of them were for DOGSO and two for a second yellow card. There were no red cards for serious foul play (SFP) or violent conduct (VC). I watched nearly all 64 games, missing a couple; I did not see a single incident that I can say was not reviewed or clearly worthy of a red card for SFP or VC. I agree that there were a number of “orange” cards that went for yellow. Let us not forget that soccer is passion, show business and a sport. The World Cup is a pinnacle of the soccer show and FIFA wants to keep the actors of this show on the field as much as possible. One reason for the nonexistence of red cards for SFP and VC was the existence of 36 cameras in each stadium and the use of the VAR system. The VAR system acted as an important deterrent factor especially for off the ball foul play.
Although there were 3.5 yellow cards per game, the average was lower at the beginning of the tournament. It is obvious that the referees were “fine-tuned” as Pierluigi Collina said in the press conference after the group stage games. When I watched the games, there were few yellow cards that I thought could have been avoided or not shown. On the other hand, there were quite a number of yellow cards that were not issued according to my judgment. Naturally, my judgments are personal but since I followed some refereeing blogs, my judgment were shared by other persons who have serious refereeing backgrounds. What is interesting is that these misses happened mostly in the first half of the games. Since I do not have access to a statistics to tell us what percentage of the yellow cards were shown in the first half, I cannot make a definitive objective judgment. In those games, that yellow cards were missed in the first half the referees had to use the yellow cards in the second halves to control the game. Since two yellow cards in two different games result in a suspension, I believe FIFA have asked referees to sparingly use the yellow cards just for obvious ones. The problem is that once the players realize that the referees are reluctant to use the cards, they might and they did exploit this “leniency”. So in a few games there was disrespect for the referees and a few referee mobbings have occurred. These scenes will be remembered as the only negative aspect of an otherwise excellent tournament in terms of officiating. Those few scenes tarnished the image of our “jugo bonito”. These were the unfortunate outcome of leniency by the referees trying to keep the game under control using management techniques without issuing cards I suppose following the advice of FIFA.
Most of the fouls which were “stopping a promising attack” were disciplined with a yellow card. The yellow cards that were missed were usually for fouls which were deemed by the referee as careless instead of reckless. There were very few cards for dissent and persistent infringement. Even though some yellow cards were missed, the games were always under control with no serious prolonged mass confrontations or injuries except for the few games I mentioned above.
There were 26.9 fouls per game in this World Cup. This average is very much in line with rest of the Leagues and Championships in the World except the English Premier League. Overall foul recognition was extremely good. One problem was the holding and pushing during the set plays at the beginning of the tournament. Although referees preached the players before nearly on every set play, two courageous penalty decisions were required to end this frenzy. Towards the end of the tournament, there were very few pushing and holding during set plays. So action is always better than just talking; action is the only message that is effective with players.
One serious type of foul that usually went unnoticed was the use of arms/ elbows when heading the ball. Lots of elbowing or the use of the upper arm on the opponent when heading ball went without a yellow card and even in some cases without a foul called. This is the only major area of improvement needed in terms of foul recognition.
One other topic that needs to be addressed by FIFA/IFAB is the concussion protocol. A player with a suspected concussion should not be allowed to play. They can use the guidelines of U.S. Soccer as a starting point. Maybe such a decision should be made by a neutral medical staff on the field of play.
For those readers who referee at different levels one should realize that grassroots, amateur and professional games have the same LOTG. But the approach to these different levels of games by the referees and even the interpretations of the LOTG are different; in each level “football” expects something different. So in a few weeks when you watch a professional league game or a youth game and see different applications compared to the refereeing in this World Cup please look at it from the perspective of each competition and what “football” expects at that level.
The gem of this tournament in terms of officiating was the use of VAR. VAR has been used extremely effectively in this tournament. Especially asking the assistant referees not to raise their flags prematurely for an offside suspicion during promising attacks helped the VAR system a lot. In case a goal was scored the VAR was able to check the goal for offside, otherwise once the whistle is blown there is now way to award a goal if there was no offside infraction.
Although the final figures have not been released yet in the group stages 335 incidents in 48 games were checked by the VAR and AVARs. (At the end of the tournament there were 455 checks and 20 reviews. This is an average of 7.11 checks per game. Since all goals are checked we are actually talking about 4.5 checks per game for non-goal incidents) In those 48 matches 17 decisions have been found to be a clear and obvious error by the refereeing team on the field of play. 14 of them required an on the field review (OFR) with either a change or approval of a decision and three were decided by the VAR (objective/factual decisions like offside/mistaken identity). There were 14 penalty kicks awarded in the first 48 games and seven of them were the result of intervention by the VAR system. There were no reviews initiated by the referee. On the average an OFR took about 80 seconds.
The knockout stage had fewer OFRs compared to the group stage. Basically the VAR system had been utilized effectively without losing the fluency of the game. I agree that there were cases when an OFR should have been used and there were a few cases when the use of the OFR seemed unnecessary. According to FIFA, during the group stages of the 335 incidents checked only two had an error even with the intervention of the VAR resulting in 99.3% perfection. Let us not forget that in order to be an error, the decision reviewed must be an obvious and clear error in terms of the VAR protocol and not been corrected by the referee on the field. Let us not forget also that most of the obvious and clear errors are based on humanly subjective interpretations by the VAR team. Since decisions like corner kicks, free kicks, yellow cards are not in the context of the VAR protocol, they are not in the domain of the 335 checks. So our praises should go to Collina and company for such a good implementation of the VAR concept in this tournament. Bottom line: there were no controversial or scandalous decisions in this World Cup thanks to the effective use of VAR.
Although I said that actually there were no controversial decisions leading to scandals –- like the goal scored by the hand of god in 1986 -- there were two critical decisions in the final that still created some controversy.
The free kick that France has scored the first goal from was not actually a foul. Replays showed that Antoine Griezmann dived and the referee awarded the free kick that resulted with a goal. If the game has ended 1-0 with that goal there would have been quite a bit of controversy. Unfortunately, free kicks are not in the domain of the VAR protocol and cannot be reviewed. So we should never forget that wherever there is a human there will be mistakes and errors regardless how much technology we use.
The penalty-kick that was awarded for France after an OFR review had a lot of objections from various people including the coach of Croatia. What was discussed was whether that contact between the hand and the ball was a clear and obvious error that required an OFR. Or in other words “was that a deliberate handball?” As Collina also admits, “deliberate handling” is a very difficult decision to make and it is subjective. During the 14 penalty kicks awarded in the group stage, six of them (43%) were for deliberate handling. One should ask: Are 43 percent of the free kicks outside the penalty are awarded for deliberate handling? One of the criteria to decide the contact between the ball and the hand is the “natural position of the hand/arm.” Can anyone define the “natural position” of the hand/arm in every different action of players? Hands and arms are used to balance oneself and do not necessarily be close to the body.As long as “deliberate” is used in the LOTG for handling and as long as IFAB cannot come up with a better definition of “deliberate handling," these types of arguments will continue.
Although we had 99.3% accuracy in the game changing situations during the group stage of this World Cup according to FIFA, we still have 0.7% to worry about. Nothing is perfect but the officiating in this World Cup was the best ever and was close to perfection. One can definitely see the footsteps of Collina and company in this success story.
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.