Bonfire of the Referees

The age old question: why would anybody want to be a referee? One cruel theory is that the referee was always the sad kid at school who was either never picked to play in games for a lack of ability, or because he was simply superfluous to the requirements of the more popular. Nevertheless, he was a determined kid who promised to muzzle his way into playground affairs one way or another. When the big kids reined in shots and he ducked for cover, being goalkeeper was crossed off the list. Being referee then, was the final shot at acceptance.
All these years later, how are those referees fairing? The World Cup in many ways has been the tournament of referees. This is their world stage, their Broadway, their Cirque du Soleil. There have been some excellent examples of officiating that deserve more credence, and then some bizarre ones, those that leave you questioning what schools these people went to and how severe the social exclusion was there.
The earliest example that referees were to take a hard line on simulation came in Germany’s opening game against Australia. The skilful German Mesut Ozil knocked the ball too far and sensing his loss of control let his legs go lose, twisted and dropped to the grass looking for an easy free-kick. Marco Rodriguez’s decision to book him for diving was not only astute, but later in the game it prevented Ozil from falling down in the penalty area. He had skipped past Mark Schwarzer in goal, stumbled, but this time thought twice about taking the plunge.
In the 56th minute of the same game Tim Cahill saw red for a strong tackle on Sebastian Schweinsteiger. The Aussies had been persistently fouling and it wouldn’t have surprised me if one their substitutes had been a kangaroo wearing boxing gloves. Cahill’s tackle was sloppy and poorly timed. Somebody like Cahill though isn’t used to chasing the ball as much as he was against the Germans and his red came about because of that irritation. The tackle was miscalculated, but there was no malice, no studs showing, instant repentance and the general agreement was that Cahill’s was unfortunate to go.
Player and official are both imperfect, although we prefer to point the finger at the man with the whistle. Blaming him is the easy way out and more fashionable than dragging down our glamorous football stars, those cool kids once of the playground elite. Not much has changed from the school-yard to South Africa’s World Cup venues: the players have sharp haircuts, stylish tattoos and flash boots, while the referee probably still has the same dull comb-over haircut, pulled-up shorts and unfashionable dated plain black galoshes with screw-in studs.
The difference is the players are the showmen that the world pays to see, not the referee. Nobody comes to see how technically gifted somebody is at knowing when to give a drop-ball. But he still tries to jump on proceedings, like the Goth kid who finds the strength to wear his chains and leather on non-school uniform day. After a while he discovers new confidence in his existence to the point where it just becomes annoying for everybody else.
Referees are the same, yet instead of leather and chains their identity is yellow and red lamented cards. With this power in their pocket the referee can no longer be ignored. Alberto Undiano dismissed Miroslav Klose for two innocuous tackles, Harry Kewell was unlucky to see red after the ball struck his arm on the goal-line, and then on Sunday, Stephane Lannoy showed Kaka the tunnel for apparently striking out. The cameras show Lannoy was looking the other way and that Kaka didn’t even raise an arm.
The Brazil vs. Ivory Coast game had spiralled into one of those paltry affairs where every player is looking to get his opponent sent off, taking hits and wriggling around on the ground at every opportunity to waste time. The plan is to sway the referee in the favour of your team, just on Sunday both teams were equally as good at masquerading. This is when we start adoring those we watch for giving us memorable laughs rather than memorable goals.
We might say the ref is not to blame when the players act is such a fiendish way, as Kader Kieta did, acting like Kaka had poleaxed him with a four-by-four. Still, wasn’t it obvious how the game was being played? Wasn’t the pettiness clear? Wouldn’t it have been better if the referee had smiled a little, seen the lighter side and tried to encourage the players to quit the trivial pantomime? The players might have stopped once they knew Lannoy was aware of their double-dealing, yet alternatively he allowed it to build up and subsequently sent off the wrong man.
Generally, I’d say the refereeing has been of a much better standard than I’m used to watching. At least there seems to be one manuscript the referees are following even if the decisions can be wacky at times. I do get the impression there was a huge adjudicators meeting before the tournament started, something like a Fed Ex morning briefing where everyone was told ‘now get out there and do it’.  And how they have done, with gusto and authority. At the beginning of the tournament I did raise eyebrows noticing the referees had turned up.
The danger now is that the Goths are getting out of hand. Card Happy. Against Slovenia Glenn Johnson ran into an elbow. Still dizzy he turned around and was booked by Wolfgang Stark for an apparent dive. Allow the employee the keys to the safe and he’ll say I’m rich. Allow the children access the cookie jar and they’ll get fat. Allow a referee too much power and he will step closer and closer into the centre of the limelight. So, why would anybody want to be a referee?

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