In Defence of the World Cup Referee


In Defence of the World Cup Referee

Illustration: Arati Gujar

When I was a 10-year-old, I was enrolled in a basketball class coached by a giant Catholic Bandra uncle with size 13 shoes and calves the size of my midriff. Catholic Basketball Uncle was utterly terrifying. As you can imagine, he had no qualms about using his size to his advantage, often throwing size 7 balls in the faces of the children who would refuse to pass the ball, and casually backhanding the kid with one hand in his pants and one finger in his nose.

But of all the things that irritated Catholic Basketball Uncle, one thing would make him fly into a rage like no other – complaints directed at the referee. He made this very clear one afternoon while he was “refereeing” a game of 5v5 (smoking a cigarette on a plastic chair while we ran around whacking each other). At some point during the game, one of the young boys tripped over his own feet, and immediately insisted from the ground that the ref should have called for a foul. Catholic Basketball Uncle didn’t say a word. He instead rose from his chair slowly (think of an elephant rising out of a river), lifted the crying child by his shorts, and placed him on the fence separating us from the Bandra traffic.

“Very fair you are, no. Sit on the fence now,” he said, while the rest of us tried our best not to crack up in the corner. The lesson – while probably utterly horrifying for 12-year-old crying boy – was clear: In a team sport, where every player is expected to carry his own weight and work in tandem with his teammates, there is and was no room for tantrum-throwing and referee-blaming. Human error would, and always will be a part of the team sport.

It took me 17 years, but as this FIFA World Cup continues throwing up last- minute shockers, and the responsibility continues to fall on the poor referees’ shoulders in Twitter Kangaroo courts, I can finally agree with this sentiment. For some reason, there has been this sudden expectation from both referees and their linesman to be physically able enough to run as fast as Cristiano Ronaldo, maintain the vision of Marvel’s Hawkeye, and display the coolness of the Dalai Lama, while being super self-aware that every single error they make will instantly be dissected by millions of fans.

Only last week, the American referee Mark Geiger of the Columbia-England game was called out by the Columbian team for displaying a “clear bias” toward England. The Columbians were offended that their players had received six yellow cards despite practically pummelling the English squad. Surprisingly they didn’t have much to say, when in the same game, Columbian Wilmar Barrios headbutted English midfielder Jordan Henderson and was lucky to escape with a yellow card. Maradona too lashed out at Geiger saying Colombia suffered a “monumental robbery”, only to apologise later after being pulled up by FIFA.

That’s the basic problem – arguments over refereeing will always come across as childish (remember the crying kid on the fence). When a call goes against a team, you’ll notice players gherao-ing the ref with exaggerated hand movements and vocal outrage. When the call is made in a particular player’s favour, meanwhile you’ll notice them move innocently in the background where they pretend to tie their shoelaces.

The fans get equally riled up – a call in their team’s favour is “part of the game”, a call against them is a “travesty to the beautiful sport”. A team could play 90 minutes of really unappealing football, concede a penalty in the dying minutes, and an entire country will bay for the blood of the referee.

Despite what anyone might see, the VAR has only added to the referee’s woes. Take for instance the Australia-France game, which the Socceroos lost 1-2. French player Antoine Griezmann appeared to be caught by Australian defender Joshua Risdon with his leg outstretched as he entered the penalty area. Uruguayan referee Andres Cunha stopped the game to consult the screen on the side of the pitch and award a penalty. Immediately after the game, Australia’s coach came out, vein popping in his forehead, and claimed the referee had made a mistake awarding the penalty, and that officials should be more “honest”.

A system like VAR could never fully replace a referee, because a referee’s job in any sport is not just to run around looking at things – they must react to external stimulus, not just technically call out a foul. Watch any game where play is stopped for every nonsense mini-tackle and you’ll understand what I mean. Alternatively there are those players who commit six mini-fouls in a row, and get outraged when they are booked for the seventh challenge, despite it being the least offensive of all fouls. This is something VAR will never be able to do as well as a human referee.

It took me 17 years, but as this FIFA World Cup continues throwing up last- minute shockers, and the responsibility continues to fall on the poor referees’ shoulders in Twitter Kangaroo courts, I can finally agree with this sentiment.

Now I’m not suggesting, of course, that the players and coaches of the World Cup should be hung on a fence by their pants until they start respecting the referee, but maybe scary basketball dude had more than a valid point. His logic was pretty simple, once you decide to play a team sport, you’ve decided to hand over control to a referee – whether he’s a fit man able to run as fast as a cheetah, or an overweight uncle who was just looking for a way to revisit his youth. You support this referee no matter what because, in the long run, just like in life 50 per cent of the decisions are going to go in your favour.

For the kids who still don’t agree, there is always carom.