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Countdown to the World Cup Final: Let’s Hope for a Memorable Match… for the Right Reasons!

b2ap3_thumbnail_The-World-Cup-014.jpgOK, so maybe I am a bit too self-confident when it comes to time management.

 

Before I jet off to Chicago at the crack of dawn on Friday to attend – of all things –  the 25th reunion of my college graduation, I sat down on Thursday evening to share my thoughts and observations of the 2014 Brazil FIFA World Cup.

 

That’s right.  On the 15th anniversary of the United States’ triumph in the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup Final just down the street in Pasadena, I am at my desk pounding out my 14th career blog on soccerrefereeusa.com.  And, although I am filled with excitement for Sunday’s big game, I won’t be pulling off my jersey (or scoring the decisive tiebreaker kick from the penalty mark) any time soon.

 

South America’s month long fútbol gala is about to wind down, allowing Brazilians to better focus on four years of misery and regret... and their collective disdain for Juan Zuniga.  As promised, our hosts threw quite the party, and even though a fair amount of stadium paint wasn’t dry (including some green paint on the pitch!), we wouldn’t mind being on the guest list again in another 40 years.

 

Lots to reflect upon, but I will start by declaring the end of the Continental Divide. 

 

The shift started in 2002, and 12 years later, the World Cup is no longer a two-continent tournament, with UEFA and CONMEBOL alternating “home continent advantage” every four years. Make no mistake: CONCACAF has awoken, arrived and made its presence felt… on the pitch (three teams advanced into the Round of 16), and with two referee trios earning rightful places in the final week of competition.  It will be very interesting to see how qualification goes for the next tournament (CONCACAF is already lobbying for 4 guaranteed team spots of 32)… and to see if our officials receive better recognition for their expertise and accomplishments.

 

Speaking of which, as soon as the tents are folded around Rio next week, focus will shift to preparation for the 2018 Russia FIFA World Cup… and one really great idea I have for the 2022 Qatar FIFA World Cup: I want to be named the official drinking water vendor… high temps this week in Doha reached 111F. Water break, anyone?

 

I already wonder aloud who might evolve as the best referee trios in CONCACAF for 2018… and if CONCACAF gets to send more than 3 trios to Russia.  I know, I know… it’s too soon to look ahead, as we should be celebrating the successes of Mark Geiger, Sean Hurd and Joe Fletcher, and also congratulating Chiqui Marco Rodriguez and his Mexican colleagues, but like the world champion Los Angeles Kings, I can’t help but roll up my sleeves and look ahead.  Will anyone (including Alan Kelly or Jair) make a serious run to surpass CONCACAF’s top two?

 

Back to Brazil, where the Cup is about to runneth over (wasting water will soon be a crime in California… I will remain drought tolerant as long as I can water my garden daily and hose down my driveway once a week).  This tournament has had its highs and lows – I would like to suggest more highs than lows – and I believe that overall, we’ve seen better consistency and more acceptable performances from the corps of game officials. The first two days really bombed and then things got a whole lot better.  But, as the standard improved overall, we noticed disappointing performances and regrettable decisions even more.

 

Let’s start with the lowlights and get them out of the way, including a small handful of unfortunate misses…

 

When in Doubt, keep the flag down… better yet, don’t give those AR’s flags at all:  Mexico had not one, but two goals incorrectly disallowed in their opener against Cameroon on June 13.  Thank goodness goal differential was not an issue in deciding Group A.  Nerves are one thing… competence is another… and the AR’s from Colombia had a stinker.  Fortunately, AR performances improved as the tournament progressed.

 

 

Take a Bite out of Crime:  When Uruguay’s Luiz Suarez could no longer claim it was unintentional (all you referees watching at home… did we have “mouth to shoulder” contact or “shoulder to mouth?”) and his suspension was handed down, he issued a seemingly contrite apology to Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini.  But credibility was long lost (too bad that FIFA has yet to adopt a “three strikes” policy for  attempted cannibalism).  And so I ask: Was I the only one who found it odd that the bite went undetected by Chiqui Marco… who used to be called something chiqui-er (in a “Transylvanian” sort of way)?

 

 

The Challenge that Broke Brazilians’ Resolve: How did the reckless challenge on Neymar in the semi-final not constitute misconduct?  I realize that hindsight is always 20:20 (including my own misjudge of Mr. Geiger’s Orange Card), but I can’t imagine HOW the officials weren’t on heightened alert for such a possibility in the waning moments of the Brazil/Colombia quarterfinal.  The final chapter to a terrible Cup for Spain was the miss by Referee Roberto Alonso Fernandez and his trio.

 

Making Flippy Floppy:  The tournament wasted no time in this area.  Fred’s penalty area flop in the opening game set the stage for the next great widespread abomination for FIFA to deal with… and they better clean it up and fast.  While progress was made in a number of other areas of player discipline, we took a major step back in the springboard competition.  It’s time for FIFA to step up their efforts to eradicate diving… as a start, they should DEMAND referees to caution players for taking them.  And referees who don’t can enjoy a month-long holiday with Japan’s Yuichi Nishimura.

 

 

Geiger Counter:  After two rock solid performances in the group stage, a pair of “errors of omission” might have cost Mr. Geiger dearly in his Round of 16 match between France and Nigeria on June 30.  If he isn’t working on Sunday, you have to wonder if this is the reason: he failed to recognize the seriousness of an ankle busting tackle in the 54th minute (full disclosure: I also underestimated the seriousness of this Serious Foul Play), and a wayward Olivier Giroud elbow drew only a verbal warning when misconduct was clearly evident.

 

 

But, two mistakes do not erase a great showing in three matches by our North American hybrid trio… and Mr. Geiger’s name continued to be rumored as a candidate to whistle the Final as my Thursday filing deadline approached. Team Geiger advanced to uncharted territory in Brazil, and by doing so, they earned the praise and admiration of 150,000 registered officials throughout the United States and Canada.

 

The tournament also had a few head scratchers…

 

After Mr. Nishimura bombed out in the opening game (badly miss-scoring the aforementioned Fred dive), he was kept around through the group stage and knockout rounds without receiving another Referee assignment.  One can only imagine his photo collection, his scrapbook… and his room service bill!

 

Then, FIFA announced that no fewer than 15 referee trios were kept for the last four games… which means that half of them were paid decoys to make bribery attempts and other unmentionables much more unlikely throughout the final week… sorry for mentioning it, but you have to question such incredible overkill.

 

And speaking of FIFA announcements, was it just me, or did we hear something about emphasis being placed on ensuring player safety… did that mean “Do everything you can to ensure safety as long as you don’t give too many cautions and you do your absolute best to not send players off?”

 

Finally, I just don’t get the policy of suspending players after receiving their second caution of the tournament.  Look, it was certainly his own doing (and the appeal was absolutely ludicrous), but the second caution in five games to Brazil captain Thiago Silva caused him to miss the semi-final against the Seahawks (sorry, the Germans).  Easy fix: Reset the caution counter at the end of group play, and start fresh with the Round of 16.  Then, if anyone bags two cautions in three games, I am OK with sitting them down (even if it’s Jermaine Jones).

 

 

Thankfully, we had our share of happier times as well…

 

Underappreciated Down Under:  The Socceroos again went three-and-out, but Benjamin Williams’ officiating trio from Australia made strides.  I’m not suggesting that they can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best of UEFA or CONMEBOL, but they silenced critics...  like Brian Hall back in 2002.

 

Goal Line Technology is as Good as Hurd/Fletcher:  The introduction of GLT was flawless and proved to be an additional asset … except for the games worked by Mark Geiger’s crew.  Forgive my bias, but Sean Hurd and Joe Fletcher had a flawless tournament… and for the one incident that involved GLT, Mr. Fletcher outran the ball to the goal line and was in ideal position to judge without the need for GLT.  Mr. Fletcher’s ONLY misstep throughout the tournament:  An error of inclusion, when he assumed the Match Inspector was reaching for his hand and not that of the Chilean captain in the tunnel.

 

 

Gotta Love the Ticos:  Costa Rica proved to be not just the overachieving underdog but also the darlings of the tournament… what an inspired showing!  Five matches with no defeats.  The arrival of James Rodriguez on the world’s stage… to James, we can anticipate a deserved world-class payday, and to thousands of Costa Rican boys back home, newfound inspiration!

 

And now, for the best of the best…

 

I was most impressed by the consistent performances of eight Referees.  In addition to the fine work of Marco Rodriguez and Mark Geiger from CONCACAF, I enjoyed the excellent showing by UEFA’s Cuneyt Cakir (Turkey), Jonas Erikkson (Sweden) and Bjorn Kuipers (Netherlands).  I would have liked to see more of Howard Webb… perhaps the Englishman gets the nod to work as Fourth Official in the Final?  From CONMEBOL, I thought Sandro Ricci (Brazil) was the one to watch.  And speaking of one to watch, it seemed that EVERY time I switched on my television, I saw Uzbekistan’s Ravshan Irmatov… did he really whistle half the games?

 

And finally, as we prepare for the tournament’s final curtain, I share this list of my hopes and wishes for Sunday’s Final:

 

  • A spirited, flowing game with three or more goals – and all of the good, clean, legitimate goals.  I would prefer that one team score two of them.  And no goals disallowed due to incorrect offside decisions, please!

 

  • No mystery calls – please don’t let Mr. (TBA) be the only one on the pitch to spot something.  It’s been 16 years since the Esse Baharmast nightmare… and I think he is finally sleeping restfully.

 

  • Twitter blows up over a breathtaking, amazing goal celebrated around the world – I don’t mean a new record for Tweets in a five-minute span… I mean sooooooo much traffic that Twitter goes down for a first-ever re-boot.

 

  • And, if Germany wins, EVERY player should be given one week of private celebration with the Cup at the German Federation’s remote training site in Brazil… private guest list, no questions asked (but no international incidents).  Seriously, talk about dedication to success: while other teams scouted out resorts, military installations and university training settings, the Germans purchased acreage and built their own compound.  Amazing.

 

What was your take on the Cup?  Has the officiating improved?  Who were the surprise performers?  And which officials should we watch over the next four years on the road to Russia?

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