Monday, June 21, 2010
Blowing the whistle
The vuvuzelas were at their screeching loudest and the pitches were in prime condition. But where were all the spectators? Answer: nowhere.
Monday marked a special open training day for referees working at the World Cup and provided a unique glimpse, on the outskirts of Pretoria, into the intense preparations they undergo to officiate at the highest level.
During a two-hour training workshop open to the media, all the officials were put through their paces by trained instructors. Using a group of local amateur players, every offside trap was monitored, each made harder to read than the previous one; every foul in the box scrutinised and recorded on video to check for mistakes. All were deliberately carried out to the simulated sound of vuvezelas to try to replicate South Africa's unique World Cup atmosphere.
FIFA instructor Esse Baharmast, who officiated in the 1998 World Cup, says that contrary to the public perception, referees are rigorously trained on a daily basis, with an alarming success rate.
"The group has been together for years so they are, in a sense, one big family,'' he said. ''We give them immediately feedback, whether they should have given a penalty or not. If they are wrong, was it their positioning? Was it their angle? You won't believe it but 97% of their calls are actually correct."
What about the officials themselves? How stressful is it being the man in the middle of a pressure cooker situation? Swiss referee Massimo Busacca , for instance, was described by Carlos Alberto Parreira, after the host nation's 3-0 trouncing by Uruguay, as the worst he had ever seen in all his years as an international coach.
That kind of attack must be hard to take on the chin? "This is my second World Cup and I have already done one European Championship so I am pretty experienced," Busacca retorted. "What's important for us refs is not to listen, not to read the newspapers. Maybe four or five years ago, I might have complained about this kind of criticism but not today. It's far harder for the younger ones."
Bussaca is not one of those who feels referees should explain controversial decisions, a subject that grows with each contentious issue. "If we start doing that, they will complain even more. Imagine that happening in the World Cup? Far better for us, as a group, to discuss things in our debriefing so that we get it right the next time. But don't think refs don't explain things to players on the field, they do. The players have a lot of adrenaline so sometimes it's important to anticipate something rather than wait until it's too late."
It's hardly surprising, given the amount of abuse they invariably receive, that referees need help to undergo one of the most stressful jobs in professional sport.
Step forward Spanish sports psychologist Manuel Lopez whose job it is to make the refs feel relaxed and totally concentrated. "Decision-making is a very complex thing," says Lopez. "I try to help them be totally focussed on the task at hand. Our main concern is for them to get rid of any distractions."
Lopez won't discuss specific cases but says that fine-tuning referees mentally is just as important as their ability on the pitch. "We have a debriefing session with all of them. They are very highly-skilled people but because of the media coverage, it can at times be very demanding."
Lopez, a 58-year-old former assistant referee whose last match was the UEFA Cup final in 1997, says the way football has developed necessitates the need for officials to have psychological support, given in either English or Spanish. Has he seen referees' lives ruined by the pressure?
"At times the family life of a referee can, shall we say, be influenced by a given performance. Our job is to try and stop it affecting his professional life," he said.
Lopez, like Busacca, isn't comfortable with the concept of decisions having to be explained, even when they can lead to progress in the competition or instant elimination. "I don't have a clearcut answer but what I can say is sometimes explanations can be counter-productive."
But, says Lopez, it is clear referees are unfairly lambasted by the public at large. And this, he says, should stop. "Players don't find themselves virtually criminalised when they make a mistake. Is should be the same for a referee. They are, after all, human beings. It's important to think about."