Before the World Cup becomes a distant memory, I thought it might be worth while looking at how referees prepare themselves for the big games, particularly internationals. We are all used to clubs and players watching their upcoming opponents on video to check their strength and weaknesses but what do referees do? I mentioned at the end of last season how Fifa ran seminars on the Laws for those referees selected to officiate in Brazil, not of course to learn the Laws of the Game but to ensure that they were applied uniformly by all the referees. The Laws of the Game are constant across the world and one thing that Fifa is very keen to ensure is that no matter where in the world, or at what level games are played, the laws are always the same. True there are some modifications for players under 16, for women footballers, for veterans (over 35) games and players with disabilities. These however only cover such aspects of the game such as size of the pitch, size of the goals, size of the ball, duration of play, and substitutes. Everything else relating to playing the game remains the same. Having said all that, because there are varying influences in different parts of the world, some interpretations of the Laws get twisted. One of the reasons of course is that the Laws have to be translated into many languages and sometimes a word when translated may not mean the same as was intended by the law makers. So these seminars were aimed at ensuring, for the World Cup at least, that every referee would have the same understanding
When it came to the games themselves at the World Cup Finals, the referees of each game sat down, like the coaches do in sizing up their opponents, they analyzed videos of each team’s previous games. They too looked at their strengths and weaknesses. What were their tactics, for example were they a passing team or did they make a lot of use of the long ball, were they all-out attack or more inclined to try and strike on counter attacks? Did they constantly attempt to whip ball into the penalty area and if so, who were the key players who were their target men? They looked at a team’s strategy at free kicks especially those close to goal. They also looked players who may be picked on by opponents; we all remember how Pele got kicked out of the 1966 World Cup. Perhaps a player may be known to have a short fuse and so retaliate quickly which means opponents may deliberately niggle him and wind him up, hoping that it will result in him being sent off. Then of course there are teams and players who seem to specialise in holding and shirt pulling at dead ball situations in the penalty area.
These are the sort of pre-match preparation that English referees learnt from Pierluigi Collini, now head of refereeing at UEFA, when they ran the line to him at international matches in his hey-day, His pre-match preparation was legendary. It has been criticised by some as pre-judging but that is not what it is about. The idea is to improve positioning and movement by knowing how teams play, so to be in the right place at the right time. If a referee can be in the proximity of the action when crucial decisions have to be made, the more likely they are to be correct.
We all know of course that even with the best preparation, mistakes will still be made but Fifa were determined that there would be as few as possible and I think that generally speaking, all this preparation paid off at the World Cup.