Refereeing hoping to stay out of the World Cup spotlight

Martin Rogers
Yahoo Sports
Referee Howard Webb
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Referee Howard Webb, right, walks with Dutch referee Bjoern Kuipers during a training session in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Friday. (AP Photo)

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SAO PAULO – Four years ago, when one refereeing controversy after another had rocked the 2010 World Cup, FIFA president Sepp Blatter vowed to take action to improve standards and increase professionalism among the men in the middle in time for the 2014 tournament.

The next month and change will determine whether his wish is met, but as soccer's greatest event draws ever closer, a peek at the list of 25 referees set to rule the World Cup's 64 games provides plenty of cause for concern.

While mistakes are the thing Blatter and his FIFA cronies are desperate to eliminate, several members of the chosen group that will be handed whistles on the biggest stage of all have made some embarrassingly high-profile errors.

The big name of the bunch is Englishman Howard Webb, a common sight at Premier League games and the referee for the 2010 final between Spain and the Netherlands.

Webb is back despite failing to punish Dutch midfielder Nigel de Jong for his brutal lunge into the chest of Xabi Alonso in the early stages of the title game, an infringement that deserved a straight red card but instead attracted no penalty.

Then there is Germany's Felix Brych, who allowed a "ghost" goal in a German match last year despite the ball having missed the target completely but instead found its way into the goal through a hole in the side netting.

More on the follies of the World Cup's most questionable choices later. Because for now it is worth noting that missing from that inglorious list is the sole American referee to be selected for this summer's tournament.

Given that staying anonymous during a game is usually the sign of a fine official, Mark Geiger, a high school math teacher from Lanoka Harbor, N.J., should not be concerned that he is far from being a household name, even in American soccer circles.

Maligned referee Felix Brych from Germany shows a yellow card during the Europa League soccer final in May. (AP Photo)
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Maligned referee Felix Brych from Germany shows a yellow card during the Europa League soccer final in May. (AP Photo)

There is no such thing as a blemish-free referee. The very concept of such a thing is impossible. Every decision made during the course of a game is likely to anger one team, sometimes both.

But Geiger has earned respect in Major League Soccer and a handful of international competitions, including the 2012 London Olympics, and he's noted for his high level of physical fitness and clear decision-making.

"He is certainly one of the better MLS referees," said Trevor James, head of scouting with the Chicago Fire, who has been involved in coaching in the league since its inception in 1996. "He has a good manner with the players, with some give and take and he is also stronger than he may appear at times.

"He is very approachable from a coach's point of view. He allows you to make a point but will tell you if he thinks you are wrong."

It is quite a refreshing change for an MLS referee to be held in such high regard. David Beckham's regular gripes at the league's officials were a recurring theme of his time with the Los Angeles Galaxy and his frustrations helped in part to paint the picture of an inept and inflexible bunch.

Geiger can help to buck that trend if he has a good World Cup and, hopefully, avoids the kind of brain freezes that have befallen the likes of Argentina's Nestor Pitana, who missed this but will be in Brazil, and the infamous Koman Coulibaly, who won't work the World Cup.

Coulibaly, from Mali, denied the U.S. a dramatic comeback victory against Slovenia in the group stage in 2010, inexplicably whistling for a foul as Maurice Edu fired the ball home for what would have been the winner but in the end became a footnote in a 2-2 draw.

Yahoo Sports reported at the time that Coulibaly would not officiate another game at the World Cup and so it has transpired. He didn't get close to the final list this time.

"[Officiating] is one thing that you really can't control, like we saw last time," said Edu, who was among the final cuts as Jurgen Klinsmann scaled his U.S. roster down from 30 to a final 23 three weeks ago.

"You just have to go out there and focus on your own thing and, as far as the referees go, hope that you are getting a good one."

It seems that teams who get Geiger will be getting a good man. However, Geiger's rise on the world scene comes as a result of two decades of work by American soccer authorities, beginning at the grass-roots level.

Geiger has had support, advice, training and encouragement all the way through the ranks and has thrived on it. In 1994, Arturo Angeles was the U.S. refereeing representative when it hosted the tournament, yet largely had to fend for himself.

With no national league at that point, Angeles, now 60 and a senior figure in training referees in Southern California, had to prepare on his own. He joined a running club, sought physical training advice from high school track and cross country coaches, and gained match experience when international teams passed through his native Los Angeles to play friendly matches.

Angeles officiated Argentina's 4-0 victory over Greece in 1994, a match noted for Diego Maradona's brilliant goal and subsequent wild-eyed celebration. Days later the Argentine icon was kicked out of the tournament for testing positive for a banned substance.

"The thing the World Cup referees have to remember is that in soccer there are different cultures," Angeles told Yahoo Sports in a telephone conversation. "That is the toughest test.

"The European teams are very technical, the South American teams use more contact, CONCACAF (where the U.S. plays in qualifying) can be quite rough. You have to balance those factors, adjust, study the game, be prepared and make the right judgment call when the whole world is watching you – in a split second.

"It is a great challenge for any referee, the biggest and most difficult challenge you can have."

FIFA is doing its part to help reduce mistakes. Blatter is far from perfect and some of the actions of FIFA under his watch – er, Qatar, really? – have been boneheaded and allegedly crooked.

But the governing body has done a fair job of implementing additional training seminars for its World Cup referees, who should be better equipped to face global scrutiny over the coming weeks.

There are even a few gadgets to help them out this time, with the long-awaited implementation of goal-line technology and a vanishing spray to ensure defensive players do not encroach within 10 yards on free-kicks.

It is a big step forward and it should make sure there are no mistakes at all, right? Not so much. The scope of the technology is limited to certain scenarios, meaning that the onus will still primarily be on the ref to get things right.

But to err is human and so, ultimately, are the referees. Even if a few irate coaches and players might disagree at times.