What it takes to be a world-class referee

2018 has not been a successful year for the U.S. men's national team. A small "miracle" barred it from participating in the 2018 World Cup. Despite its failure at the MNT level, U.S. Soccer has been represented at FIFA’s prestigious tournaments by two gentlemen: Mark Geiger and Jair Marrufo. One thing is clear: soccer refereeing in this country has been well ahead of its men's national team performance in the last few years. 

Two referees from the USA had been invited to the 2018 World Cup and that made the USA the only country that is represented by two referees. Geiger refereed two group stage games (Portugal-Morocco and Germany-South Korea) as well as a round of 16 game (England-Colombia). He had a similar performance at the 2014 World Cup. 

Marrufo was not expected to referee a game at the 2018 WC but he managed to referee Belgium-Tunisia. Later on in 2018, he refereed the FIFA Club World Cup final between Real Madrid and Al-Ain FC. 

Especially on the backdrop of a world where in some parts the USA and soccer are not seen on the same page, their successes are even more meaningful. Some of the problems that Geiger had to face during the Colombia-England game can be easily attributed to this phenomenon. Diego Maradona’s post-game comments were a clear indication of this prejudice. 

I contributed to the development of two world-class referees at different stages of my life: Dr. Ahmet Cakar (in the 90s) and Cuneyt Cakir (in the late 2000’s). I know what it takes to be there. If you believe that by sheer talent, you could be a world-class referee, you are at best naïve. Talent is definitely a necessary condition but not a sufficient one. You need to have lobbying power behind you at the FIFA and confederation level. Both Cakar and Cakir had the support of Senes Erzik, the then first vice president of UEFA and an Ex-Co member of FIFA, when going up to become one of the best in the world. Cakir had also the support of Jaap Uilenberg, a member of the UEFA referee’s committee and the advisor to the Turkish referee committee. Once, you are one of the best then you might not need their support as much anymore. Your performance will determine your destiny.

Although I do not know the details, I am sure both Geiger and Marrufo had and still have the lobbying power and support of FIFA Council member Sunil Gulati, FIFA Referee Committee members Brian Hall and Sandy Hunt and Esse Baharmast, a FIFA referee instructor. 

We -- as the USA soccer community -- should thank these gentlemen and woman for their support of our two referees.

In order to become one of the best, the local professional league’s contribution to the development of the referee cannot be ignored. Although the level of play in MLS cannot be compared favorably to the other top professional leagues, still its existence with competitive play helped the development of both Geiger and Marrufo. Hence the contribution of PRO via Peter Walton and Howard Webb should not be underestimated and both those two gentlemen should be thanked. Needless to say, U.S. Soccer through the National Referees Committees and the New Jersey/South Texas associations contributed to the early development of these two referees.

I listed all these people to show what kind of support a referee needs when developing from a talented referee into one of the best in the world. 

You might ask what else one needs to become one of the best in soccer refereeing?

Let me start telling that there is no one correct style of refereeing. As long as the basics are observed, the referees can and do dictate their own style to refereeing. 

It is obvious that in order to be one of the best you need to know the letter and spirit of the Laws of the Game (LOTG) as well as what ‘football expects’ at the highest level of the game. In the modern game, the referee is expected to be a "man" manager rather than a referee by the book. 

All world-class referees have an ego and should have a strong one.  This ego should never be used for the referee to dominate the game but rather help the referee to diffuse unwanted situations. No one pays to watch the referee; world-class referees should be "invisible" as long as the game does not want their presence. The referees are the enforcers of the LOTG at the same time they should be ‘servant’ of the game and the teams helping them to have a fair and save competition.

The referee should be extremely fit in the modern game. A referee usually runs more than an average player during the game (anywhere between 9 to 12 kilometers) and those players are usually younger than the referee. With Pierluigi Collina at the helm of FIFA refereeing, you have no choice but to be at top notch with your fitness.

The referee should be very diplomatic, political and polite with his/her relation with players, coaches and administrators. He/she should think and plan of every word he/she uses before talking to players, peers, coaches and administrators.

Although the referee has his/her whistle and cards to control the modern game, he/she should never forget that the body language and gestures are as important tools as the whistle and cards. While communicating with players the words chosen and the tone used in using those words are very powerful tools also. I always suggest to top referees that they take courses in acting and use of body language. I cannot stress enough the importance of this concept. I advise upcoming referees to watch the Iranian referee Ali Reza Feghani during the 2018 World Cup because I believe he has an incredible and positive body language.

The referee at that level should control his/her emotions. If you cannot control yourself, you cannot control the players. Even if the referee is angry at players, he/she should keep his/her composure. Otherwise, if the referee is nervous or show signs of anger the players will immediately pick that up and use it against the referee.  On the other hand, even if the referee is not angry with them, through his/her body language he/she can communicate to the players that he/she did not like what has happened. 

Refereeing luck used to be an important factor in defining the referee’s destiny. A few games with a changing critical match incident resulting in the outcome of the game being affected might have ended one’s international career. With the VAR application, this is now less likely; such a critical error will be picked up by the VAR and hopefully corrected. Now with the use of VAR the importance of game control and "man" management has been increased. Foul recognition and the appropriate use of game control tools (whistle, cards and body language) is now of paramount importance for the success of the world-class referees. Except for the mandatory cards (both yellow and red), the referee has now the option of using any one of the game control tools with the understanding that he/she bears the responsibility of the outcome of his/her choice.

A world-class referee should be well prepared for the game prior to the game; I am not talking about the pre-game conference. The crew should analyze the teams -- their style of play, set play techniques etc. -- and the individual players - their attitudes, their weaknesses/strengths etc. -- in detail. They should start the game with all that information registered in their brains but without holding a prejudice to any team or individual. Based on that information, they should have a game plan but they should be flexible to change the game plan when required. 

Any one of those paragraphs above will require many hours of training and years of experience as well as the basic talent for refereeing. The basic talent for refereeing does include the knowledge of the game through playing at a non-recreational level and a character fitting a referee: Assertive, decisive, self-confident, smart, calm and controlled.

If you think that Geigers and Marrufos of this world are just a coincidence, I advise that you think twice. 

Ahmet Guvener ( 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.

7 comments about "What it takes to be a world-class referee".
  1. Wallace Wade, January 4, 2019 at 8:55 a.m.

    We should thank Sunil Gulati? Ok pal. If I remember correctly, Geiger was heavily criticized over losing control of the match. 

  2. frank schoon, January 4, 2019 at 9:29 a.m.

    As far as I'm concerned the top refs ref in the top tier countries, like England, Spain, Germany, Italy, French,etc. for the pressure, and all that goes with it in those countries is sofar beyond the experience of reffing in the MLS.  I would suggest the better MLS refs like him should do a year sabatical in one those top tier countries to really win your spurs... 

  3. beautiful game, January 4, 2019 at 9:38 a.m.

    FIFA has established a "selective" interpretation to the LOTG...Geiger and Marrufo are perfect specimens of inconsistency and whistle choking.

  4. R2 Dad, January 4, 2019 at 2:15 p.m.

    I think it's hard to discuss officiating and FIFA without including more about the confederations and their influences, which are many and varied. CONCACAF administration is not UEFA, and the standards and culture of CONCACAF drives how matches in our region are officiated, officials chosen, etc.
    Nice column, AG.

  5. beautiful game replied, January 4, 2019 at 5:01 p.m.

    Webb has a horrible track reocrd and the writer pontificates him.

  6. R2 Dad replied, January 5, 2019 at 12:03 p.m.

    Probert, Mason, Moss, Friend, Jones--there are plenty of worse PL referees than Webb, and other than missing the Nigel de Jong karate kick in 2010 Webb has not been "horrible". He's not Collina, Brych, or Aytekin but that doesn't invalidate the points of the article.

    What I do think is missing from the article, having spoken to a couple of these FIFA referees, is their preternatural sense of calm that has been drilled into them. And their lives and lifestyles are that of a monk--they're always in the public eye, can't relax, can't say or do anything that might jeopardize their standing. Look at how players, fans and managers in England bring up the team a referee supported as a child as a serious source of prejudice. The job is not for everyone.

  7. Bob Ashpole, January 5, 2019 at 6:18 p.m.

    Great article. We don't see enough articles about officials.

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