A day out with the referees

Seconds after Frank Lampard’s now infamous shot ricocheted down from the crossbar and bounced well behind the German goal-line, there was an almost audible sense of disbelief in the Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein when Jorge Larrionda failed to signal for a goal.

“Oh my god” was the referee’s reported reaction on seeing a replay of the incident during half-time, while fans spent the break raging about whether goal-line technology should be introduced to football.

After the game, England keeper David James was not among those calling for video replays or technological advances. “I think in this circumstance there were possibly only two people on the pitch who didn’t see that ball go over the line, one being the referee and one being the linesman,” he said. “You don’t need technology to tell that the ball is a yard over the line.

“Unfortunately the incident definitely changed the outcome of the game because it would have made it 2-2,” he continued. “It would have been a different game by virtue of the scoreline and a different game psychologically because they would have been under a lot of pressure and we would have been in the ascendancy. As for technology, it would be nice but in this instance I don’t think it was something that was needed.”

On the night James was in the minority. Even the British sports minister, Hugh Robertson, joined the clamour for goal-line technology. “Once the dust has settled, I hope FIFA reassess their opposition to using goal-line technology,” he announced with the smack of political opportunism.

However, Lampard’s overlooked goal was not the first and only decision to cause such outrage during the 2010 World Cup. In the USA’s earlier group game against Slovenia a dubious call by Malian referee Koman Coulibaly robbed the Americans of what looked to have been a winning goal, while just a couple of hours after the conclusion of the England v Germany game, Roberto Rosetti’s failure to rule out a clearly offside strike by Argentina’s Carlos Tevez against Mexico also prompted fierce debate.

Against a backdrop of heated discussion about the standard of World Cup refereeing, and calls for the introduction of technological assistance, it may have been seen as slightly bizarre that FIFA should choose to open the doors of its refereeing training camp to the press, with the promise of an “opportunity to meet referees and assistant referees”.

Faced with this invite the world’s media turned up in force, but they were not there to learn about the training regimen of top referees. To a man they were in search of Jorge Larrionda, wanting to hear his justification for over-ruling the infamous Lampard goal-that-wasn’t, or Roberto Rosetti for his opinion on allowing the Tevez goal to stand.

Arriving at the referee’s training base at the Odendaal High School in Pretoria, journalists and camera crews were promised full access to the referees and their assistants. “Who is here?” we asked. “It would be easier to say who won’t be here,” answered the FIFA representative, itemizing just the refereeing teams from that day’s games. Even English referee Howard Webb would be present, fresh from his game at Ellis Park the previous night.

“Can you point out Larrionda?” we all asked. “Don’t worry about that,” we were told by the FIFA official, “you’ll spot him by the crowd of people around him, just try and give him a little space and treat him with some respect.”

The training session was spread across two pitches, and after the general warming up exercises, the referees initially worked on their fitness and speed. However, of far more interest to the press was the whereabouts of Larrionda. No-one was quite certain what he looked like and many clutched small photographs of the official in the hope of identifying him, but although there were dozens of stretching referees on the training pitch, there wasn’t one that seemed to match up to pictures.

“He is here, don’t worry,” said the jovial FIFA official. “You’ll have plenty of time to talk to him after training, just give him a chance as everyone will want to talk to him.”

After the warming-up session, there was demonstration of offside training, with journalists given a chance to run the line so they could “experience the challenging work of the assistant referees”. This exercise was performed under match conditions, which meant the piping of vuvuzela sounds through the public address system for nearly half an hour. The referees seemed oblivious to the deafening cacophony

After the offside training, some of the referees joined in a bizarre circuit of the pitch, complete with tribal chants, alongside the local African footballers that had been recruited for the training games. Then the moment everyone had been waiting for. Referees were separated by confederation and there was a mad dash as we hurdled the perimeter fence and sprinted towards the South American officials. But there was no sign of Larrionda.

“Where is he,” we asked the clearly confused FIFA official, who returned moments later with an explanation. “It seems that he’s been receiving so many telephone calls at his hotel from certain sections of the media that he’s chosen not to come.”

In the absence of Larrionda, Howard Webb was sought out for his opinion on goal-line technology, but as with every other referee at the training session, the answers sounded uncannily similar.

“Should technology be used to help referees?” we asked.

“I’m open minded about anything that makes us more credible as match officials,” replied Webb, “but that’s a decision for FIFA to take and whatever tools I’m given I’ll use them to the best of my ability. We’ll just watch this space with interest and see where it goes.”

“Can the referees make a stand and demand the use of technology to assist them in their job?” we asked.

“Well, it’s not really our job to make a stand,” said Webb. “We go out there and do our job and you guys can apply pressure if you think that’s appropriate, but let’s hope that we don’t change the nature of the game by knee-jerk reactions. It’s for other people to decide and we’ll see where the deliberations go.”

“What’s your personal opinion?” we asked.

“I’ve got no personal view,” replied Webb, in a well-rehearsed line being spouted on every corner of the training pitch by referees of all nationalities.

It was a line echoed moments later by FIFA’s head of refereeing Jose-Maria Garcia-Aranda. One journalist was tiring of the same answer. “Do you have an opinion?” he demanded. “We’re not in North Korea, you must have an opinion?”

Aranda, it turned out, had no opinion. “If you are happy with that, you are welcome,” he answered, “and if not, then it is your problem.”

Elsewhere at the training ground there was at least one experienced former referee with an opinion and he could understand exactly what Uruguayan referee Larrionda must be going through.

Urs Meier was vilified by the British press in 2004 for disallowing Sol Campbell’s 89th minute goal against Portugal in the quarter-final of the European Championship. As a consequence Meier was dubbed ‘Urs hole’ and ‘idiot ref’ by the British press, and he received more than 16,000 abusive e-mails and death threats after the tabloid newspapers published his contact details.

“They gave telephone numbers, they gave addresses and they made a campaign against me,” he says today from the safety of his position as a pundit for German television. “It was a really a hard time and I can imagine what must be happening for the Uruguayan referee.”

While all the referees at this World Cup are sticking to the FIFA line, now he is retired Meier is free to back the use of goal-line technology. “It’s either a goal or it’s not a goal,” he says. “You don’t need video replays, you just need a chip in the ball and it is easy to make the right decision.

“A shot from 20 or 30 metres out, if it hits the crossbar and bounces down to the ground, it’s always a situation that you are unable to see. It really is a black zone for the referee and for the assistants. When this happens you cannot give the right decision unless you guess.

“Ten years ago there would only be one player who would try and hit a free-kick from 35 metres out, but today, with the new ball and the players, it happens in every game. If you have a shot from 40 metres out, where is the offside line? It’s 20 metres away from the goal and the assistant has to stand there, so it’s not possible to see the goal-line.”

Meier is not necessarily in favour of video replays or extra officials, as he feels this would not help incidents like the crowded goal-line clearance that occurred during the Italy v Slovakia game, but he is a firm believer in the technology of a chipped ball.

“If you have another player on the goal-line standing between the fifth official and the situation, then he couldn’t possibly see if it is a goal or not. You would need a lot of different cameras because you have a lot of different situations. With a chip in the ball it is easy. Also, when the keeper is over the ball, when he blocks the ball on the line, with a chip in the ball it’s easy to tell whether it’s over the line.”

Having listened to all of the 2010 World Cup referees refusing to voice an opinion on goal-line technology, Meier is certain that his former colleagues would be totally in favour of its introduction if they were free to speak. “In such a cases as the Germany v England game, of course it would help, and after the World Cup I’m sure they will all say yes,” he laughs.

Before we leave the training session, in another bizarrely-timed gesture we are handed a press statement by FIFA president Sepp Blatter, in which he apologised to the English and Mexican football associations for the mistakes of referees Rosetti and Larrionda, announcing that football's ruling body was now re-opening the discussion on the use of technology in football. “I deplore when we see a referee’s mistake,” he said, “but this is not the end of the World Cup or the end of football.”

Later on it is announced that that both Jorge Larrionda and Roberto Rosetti haven’t made the cut for the latter stages of the competition. For them, the World Cup is over, as it is for England and Mexico, but the debate will rage on regardless.

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