On a cold, wet Saturday in early May, Toronto FC lost its fourth game of the season, and third in a row, dropping a 2-1 result to the New England Revolution. TFC head coach Ryan Nelsen attributed the defeat to bad luck and strange officiating decisions.
The man making the puzzling decisions was Mark Geiger, an experienced MLS referee from New Jersey. Geiger is the lone referee from the U.S. to officiate at the World Cup in Brazil.
The winning goal in Toronto came from a penalty awarded after a strange call from Geiger, who ordered the retake of a Revolution corner kick. "It was a retaken corner kick, which I've never seen in my life," Nelsen said at the time.
Imagine that happening at the World Cup – a seemingly nutty decision, something that players and managers claim never to have seen. It's happened before and will happen again. The referees can be the forgotten men at big games, big tournaments. Until they make that one mistake, that single inexplicable call. It always happens. Come the World Cup, there's a feeling, worldwide, that refereeing is not what it should be.
FIFA is aware, but reluctant to admit major problems. For the World Cup, FIFA still insists on appointing referees from all parts of the world. Nice idea, but you don't have to be a psychologist to know that some referees, from countries where soccer isn't as intensely played or watched, will be spooked by the occasion.
With a new eruption of match-fixing allegations, there's even more intense scrutiny of refereeing. The only thing worse than a ref being accused of incompetence is the accusation that the ref is crooked.
A key part of the match-fixing investigation by Declan Hill and Jeré Longman for The New York Times (concentrating on suggestions that international exhibitions held in South Africa were fixed by a referee from Niger) is the charge that referees from small or impoverished countries are vulnerable to financial inducement: "Many national soccer federations with teams competing in Brazil are just as vulnerable to match-fixing as South Africa's was: They are financially shaky, in administrative disarray and politically divided."
The referee situation is the looming fault trend at this World Cup. The players and the fans expect elite referees to take charge of games at the elite level. FIFA says they choose the best, but by sticking to its program of garnering its team of World Cup referees from every soccer region, it can't achieve that.
In contrast, UEFA, Europe's soccer body, has made stringent efforts to raise standards, to ensure that the one thing talked about at a match in a Euro tournament is not the referee. They put retired, legendary Italian ref Pierluigi Collina in charge of prepping refs for Euro 2012 in Poland/Ukraine and there were very few issues.
Well, there was one, and it underlines the increasing pressure and focus on refs. Some refs are stars, some make money as pundits when they retire. Graham Poll, the retired English ref, wrote about the refereeing at Euro 2012 for the Daily Mail and was harsh about one man, Nicola Rizzoli, of Italy. He handled the England-France match and according to Poll was lax in organizing players in free-kick situations. Poll also wrote this: "Another aspect of Rizzoli's display I was not impressed with was his flamboyant gestures and dramatic posture." Rizzoli will referee at this World Cup, flamboyant gestures and all.
In fairness, some great refs do emerge from small nations. One is Ravshan Irmatov of Uzbekistan, considered the best in the Asia region. He handled five games at the World Cup in 2010 without controversy. However, at the Confederations Cup in Brazil last year he took charge of the Brazil-Italy match and stunned everyone with a grave mistake. Italy's Mario Balotelli was fouled by a Brazilian defender, Irmatov pointed to the penalty spot and blew his whistle. But the ball kept moving and two seconds later the Italian Chiellini poked it into the Brazil goal. Irmatov changed his mind, and awarded the goal, to the amazement of Brazil. He'd played the advantage rule, forgetting that on blowing the whistle he could no longer allow that.
Afterward, Irmatov promptly admitted his mistake and apologized. That probably saved his status with FIFA. He will officiate in Brazil again at this World Cup. Hopefully, he's reread the rule book in preparation.
Given the allegations about a referee from Niger being complicit in fixing an exhibition match in South Africa, there will be a lot of attention paid to the referees from the Africa region at this World Cup. They are Alioum Alioum of Cameroon, Daniel Frazer Bennett of South Africa, Noumandiez Desire Doue of Côte d'Ivoire, Bakary Gassama of Gambia and Djamel Haimoudi of Algeria. All will undoubtedly and rightly feel the scrutiny is unfair, racist even. All are experienced, but it's worth noting that none has been a referee at World Cup before this one.
We never know who will be the referee until just before a World Cup match. And we never know when the mistake is coming, when it's time for that decision which you've never seen in your life before. If it happens in Toronto, it can happen in Brazil.
Two very famous refs at the World Cup
From Turkey, Cakir, who toils as an insurance agent in his day job, has been called a "card-happy" ref by followers of some English clubs. He showed a red card to Mario Balotelli, then with Manchester City, during a Europa League match between City and Dynamo Kyiv in 2011, sent off Steven Gerrard during an England World Cup qualifier against Ukraine and red-carded Gary Cahill during Chelsea's World Cup final defeat to Corinthians of Brazil. He also sent off John Terry of Chelsea early in a Champions League semi-final match against Barcelona, and in 2013 red-carded Nani of Manchester United during United's defeat to Real Madrid during a Champions League game. For that, he received death threats. In one twelve-month period he showed the red card 11 times. Mind you, three of those were in the tense derby game between Istanbul clubs Fenerbahce and Galatasaray, one of the most bitter rivalries in soccer.
Considered England's best, he's the country's only referee at this World Cup. He handled the World Cup final in 2010 with aplomb, some say, but showed the yellow card 14 times, in a game in which the Netherlands sought to disrupt Spain with flying tackles and constant aggression. In England, however, Webb is notorious for being, allegedly, anti-Liverpool. In 2011 then Liverpool winger Ryan Babel was fined by the Football Association for posting a fake picture of Webb in a Manchester United shirt on Twitter. This past season his officiating at a Liverpool/Arsenal FA Cup game was called both "disastrous" and "calamitous" by national newspapers in England. His failure to award a penalty when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain clearly fouled Luis Suarez, was deemed particularly inexplicable. For several weeks after, he handled much less high-profile EPL games.