Commentary

Officiating at World Cup 2022, a first look

Forty-eight games were played at the group stage. I watched a good number of them but not all the games. I wanted to share my observations for the officiating. After the World Cup, I will share my thoughts on the complete process.

Referee and VAR Assignments.
FIFA invited 36 referees from 32 countries, three of whom were women referees. FIFA also invited 69 assistant referees and 24 VARs. There are a total of 64 games in the World Cup, so 36 referees seems like a reasonable number.

Seven (two women and five men) referees did not get a single assignment as a referee. Unless they could not pass the physical fitness test or are injured, there is not a good explanation why they did not get a single assignment in the first round. I doubt that they will get an assignment as a referee in the knockout stage. I would not like to be in their shoes getting invited to the World Cup and returning home without a single refereeing assignment.

Nineteen referees had two refereeing assignments in the group stage and 10 referees received a single first-round assignment.

There are 24 VARs from 18 countries, 11 of whom are from UEFA. What is interesting is that there is not as single VAR from England, which I believe shows FIFA’s discontent with the VAR application by PGMOL, the English equivalent of PRO. The other 13 VARs come from four confederations (Conmebol 5, Concacaf 3, AFC 2 and CAF 2, both from Morocco). In 2018, there were only 13 VAR officials from three confederations (UEFA 9, Conmebol 3 and AFC 1).
 
Referee Performances.
Since referee performance is a subjective issue, before giving my personal subjective assessment, I would like to share some objective criteria. Out of the nine referees who had a single assignment – except Pole Szymon Marciniak, who had a second in the knockout round – the distribution based on the confederations seemed even. Unless they get another assignment in the knockout stage – which seems unlikely – we can say that these nine referees did not meet the standards of FIFA.

There were 164 yellow cards in 48 games an average of 3.41 cards per game and only two red cards (one for a second yellow card and one for straight red card) if you exclude the red card shown to the South Korean head coach Paulo Bento after the game was over. The red card per game average is 0.042.  I do not remember a game that I watched that warranted a red card that was missed by the referee or the VAR. Although those averages might change toward the end of the World Cup 2022, the World Cup 2018 yellow card per game average was 3.42 and it was 0.06 for red cards. The numbers are pretty much very similar in the last two World Cups. Based on CIES analysis in 2020  in the world “on average, referees handed out 4.42 yellow and 0.25 red cards per match for the 101,491 fixtures analyzed in the 87 leagues taken into account.” So, in the World Cup 2018 and 2022 averages are lower in both yellow cards and red cards — but especially in red cards compared to the numbers around the globe.

In the 2006 World Cup, there were 345 yellow cards (5.53) and 28 (0.44) red cards. There seems to be a drop for the yellow cards and red cards over the years. One of the reasons is the use of VAR, which discourages players, especially for off the ball violent conduct fouls. The other one is the change in the philosophy of officiating at this highest level. FIFA wants to keep the players on the field as much as possible. Their new philosophy “minimum cards, maximum game control” is in a way like the VAR motto of “minimum interference, maximum benefit.” If you observe the games carefully and the ensuing assignments, you can understand the importance FIFA gives to body language and proper communication with players along with the use of cards when necessary.

I will support this conjecture with two anecdotal examples. Let me point out that I realize some of the political aspects of referee assignments in the World Cup.

Ismail Elfath (photo), the American referee, had three key match incident (KMI) decisions in the game between Ghana and Portugal. All three were supportable but very questionable decisions. Still he had no issue with his game control and great respect from the players due to his excellent communication skills, correct use of body language and exceptional demeanor. Needless to say, his posture helps him also. After this game, he got more assignments and managed both extremely well with very few cards. Especially watch how he shows the second yellow card to Vincent Abubakar of Cameroon after he scores a goal against Brazil in the dying minutes of the game to understand my point.

On the other hand, the Qatari referee Abdulrahman Al-Jassim had no questionable KMIs in the game between USA and Wales. But he had no respect from players and the players dissented constantly. The only reason was the fact that he had inadequate communication skills as well as very frantic and panicky body language. He did not receive any other assignments even although he is from the host nation.

There were 14 penalty kicks awarded in the group stage an average of 0.29 per game, that is a sharp drop from World Cup 2018 when the average was 0.45 per game. (I am comparing the World Cups where the VAR was utilized for comparison. It is clear the message from Euro 2020 not to award “soft penalty kicks” permeated into WC 2022.)

There were few referee mobbing incidents — except the awful scenes at the end of Uruguay-Ghana game — or manifestations of gross dissent to referee decisions during the first 48 games. I am sure FIFA will deal with the culprits on the most appropriate manner.

Let me say a few things that are subjective in nature.

During the first game of the tournament, Daniele Orsato, the Italian referee, issued early and rather easy yellow cards. He issued six yellow cards in the game between the host nation Qatar and Ecuador. I initially thought that FIFA wants a very strict application of the yellow cards, which is move away from the lenient application of the past WC 2018 and Euro 2020.

Pierluigi Collina, the FIFA referee chief, said before the WC started “it would be a shame if some of these players wouldn’t be able to play due to an injury caused by an opponent. So, the first message to our referees is to protect the players’ safety. Whenever there is something that may endanger the safety of players, coaches should expect the strongest disciplinary sanction, which is a red card.”

The referees did protect Neymar, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo but yellow cards and red cards did not increase as expected. Orsato’s handling of the first game was a message to the teams and it was strategic in nature.

There were a number of questionable penalty kicks awarded as well as a number as well a number of yellow cards that should have been issued. But overall so far the general standard of refereeing is a bit lower than World Cup 2018 but still very good.

The only incident that is not excusable was a blatant misapplication of the "Laws of the Game" during the match between Tunisia and France. Tunisia was leading the game 1-0. At 90+ minutes, Antoine Griezmann scored an equalizing goal for France. The referee from New Zealand, Matthew Conger, awarded the goal and the game was restarted with a kickoff. Right after whistle for the kickoff, he ended the game. Then VAR intervened, telling him that Griezmann was in an offside position and interfered with the opponents. Conger disallowed the call.

The FIFA rulebook is very clear:

”Reviews after play has restarted: If play has stopped and restarted, the referee may only undertake a ‘review,’ and take the appropriate disciplinary sanction, for mistaken identity or for a potential sending-off offense relating to violent conduct, spitting, biting or extremely offensive, insulting and/or abusive action(s)” and “ The referee may not change a restart decision on realizing that it is incorrect or on the advice of another match official if play has restarted.” After the kickoff whistle, a referee cannot reverse his decision because the game has restarted.

Clearly, this was a misapplication of the rulebook, but since a tie by France or a loss does not change the group ordering, FIFA rejected the appeal by France. Otherwise, hell would have broken loose.

I will continue this week with the following areas related to first phase of the World Cup 2022

• VAR performances.
• Areas that improved compared to the last World Cup.
• Areas that still need development.

See you soon….

Ahmet Guvener (ahmet.g@thegameplanners.com) is a Partner with The Game Planners, LLC and the former Secretary General and Chief Soccer Officer of the Turkish FA. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as a Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in Georgetown, TX.

Photo: Florencia Tan Jun/PxImages/Icon Sportswire

4 comments about "Officiating at World Cup 2022, a first look".
  1. Kent James, December 6, 2022 at 1:18 p.m.

    I have generally been impressed with both the clean play from most of the teams, and generally good refereeing (the US-Wales game was the only exception that I saw, though I certainly didn't watch all of the games).  If VAR is reducing the number of off the ball incidents (which seems like a reasonable theory), that's certainly a plus.


    As for the French game, I'd rather them violate the protocol and get the call right than live with a bad decision because that's what the book says about procedures (since the mistake was corrected immediately, if I understand it correcly).  If the goal had been awarded at the beginning of the game and they nullified it at the end, that would be different, since there would be on fair way to correct that decision. 

  2. Randy Vogt, December 6, 2022 at 5:56 p.m.

    Ahmet, I think that what also hurt the Qatari referee is the players probably thought he was the token ref from the host nation who did not earn his stripes to be there as much as the refs from the other countries. That could have been another reason for the dissent and lack of respect as you wrote above. Good article!

  3. R2 Dad, December 6, 2022 at 6:23 p.m.

    There is no match official that has earned more respect in the game than Collina. His match control was phenomenal, remaining inconspicuous yet commanding as the match required. However, there is a doubleedged sword with a management directive (I presume if I read between the lines) that assumes every other FIFA ref could do what he did. Collina was amazing because he was so unique in the sport—I don’t think his style is scalable but FIFA is trying.


     


    I don’t believe the 2022 officials have been as effective as the 2018 ones were, and the numbers seem to reflect that to a small extent. I see a lot of talking, of trying to talk down players from a card they are approaching or have already earned but not shown. Very reminiscent  of EPL  and now MLS talky-talk vs cardy-card.

    (cont.)

  4. R2 Dad replied, December 6, 2022 at 6:23 p.m.

    “FIFA wants to keep the players on the field as much as possible”. This is not a FIFA duty; it sounds like a Collina approach that he was able to implement but few others can by dint of personality and body language (as the Qatari ref demonstrated). The goal is to implement the LOTG as uniformly and transparently as possible, with the 22 on the field performing with those laws as guidelines to their behavior. It should not be the duty of the center ref to talk these players out of getting cards, but that’s what appears to be transpiring.


     


    “it would be a shame if some of these players wouldn’t be able to play due to an injury caused by an opponent.” Persistent Infringement is codified in the LOTG for specifically this reason, yet professional match officials NEVER apply it. I watched Neymar get kicked throughout his matches, a situation that was the reason Persistent Infringement was created. 


     


    If Persistent Infringement is useless, why hasn’t FIFA/IFAB deleted it from the LOTG? I know the arguments against PI, but is that really the best way to handle it? I would much prefer the rules around card accumulation change rather than the referees change their bar for fouls. Orato’s spasm of cards on the first day isn’t enough to deter players from behaving badly. 

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