Soccer  

Pierluigi Collina talks to ESPN about World Cup refereeing

The old cliché is that you know the referee had a good game when you don’t notice him. But there’s a ton that goes into making sure World Cup referees don’t get noticed, and the man responsible for bringing it all together is Pierluigi Collina, chairman of FIFA’s referees committee — himself a former FIFA ref who took charge of the 2002 World Cup final.

Julien Laurens and I sat down with him for the latest episode of “Gab & Juls Meet,” and he walked us through the process.

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The first thing to remember is that you can’t just figure out how many match officials you need — in the case of this World Cup, 36 referees, 69 assistant referees and 24 video match officials — and then figure out who you think the top officials in the world might be. If you did, you might end up with a bunch of European referees from the top leagues. After all, most of the players at the World Cup play in Europe’s top leagues and these refs have the most experience working with them. But just as the countries that participate in the World Cup are representative, so too are the match officials. Eleven of them come from Europe, seven from South America, six each from Asia and Africa, five from North America and one from Oceania.

“We began the process almost as soon as the 2018 World Cup ended,” Collina says. “We monitored hundreds of match officials from around the world in each confederation. Our committee has members from every confederation and we tracked them throughout the process. We had seminars for them, remotely during the pandemic and then in-person, we tracked them and then we made our decisions.”

The 139 match officials all stay together in the same hotel. They train together too, and as part of their preparation, FIFA even arranged a semi-professional tournament for them to officiate so they could get live practice — referees need to stay fit as well — and not have to take a break from working their domestic leagues to the World Cup. There are match analysts who cut video for them too because these days, referees are expected to prepare ahead of time, knowing the players they will take charge of, their characteristics and their tendencies. That way, Collina says, they are better prepared and can focus on their job. If you know Player X is likely to hold up the ball and Player Y is likely to try and run behind a defender, you can anticipate and position yourself accordingly.

It’s a far cry from past World Cups.

“I remember when I was asked to referee the 2002 final between Brazil and Germany I had to ask for VHS tapes of each of the games both teams had played until that point,” Collina says. “I locked myself in my room for a day and a half, taking notes and watching every minute of every match. Because the goal of a referee is to be one step ahead, to know what is going to happen before it happens.

“At the time, it was pretty unusual to prepare like that,” he adds, “but I’m proud of the fact that today this is normal prep for a referee.”

Collina talks about how there’s a team spirit among his referees, but there’s also a natural rivalry. Like the teams, refs want to stick around the tournament as long as possible. Collina and his team are charged with evaluating them and appointing them. In the past, this was often a political process, fraught with suspicion. Collina remembers how he was sent home when Italy qualified for the 1998 World Cup quarterfinal. And, in fact, none of the referees in the final eight that year came from countries that had qualified.

“I have to say our main criteria is quality,” he says. “Sure, there’s a neutrality to be respected. But the first priority is always quality.”

For example, we won’t see a German referee in charge of a Germany match for the foreseeable future. Or, if Germany are playing in one semifinal, there won’t be a German ref in the other any time soon. This is to avoid conflicts of interest, either real or perceived, and the sort of conspiracy theories that dogged FIFA for decades when it came to officiating.

The committee Collina now chairs was historically seen as one of the most powerful because it gave out plum assignments to match officials. Not coincidentally, the top spots were usually assigned based on political clout, rather than refereeing expertise. In 2010, for example, the chairman and vice chairman of the committee were FIFA vice president Angel Maria Villar and FIFA executive committee member Ricardo Teixeira (the former resigned after being arrested for embezzling funds in 2017, the latter received a lifetime ban for ethics breaches). Neither man had a refereeing background.

“[This practice] changed when Gianni Infantino became president of FIFA in 2016,” says Collina. “And it was a positive change. Those who have responsibility for referees must have a refereeing background and, of course, they must be independent from anyone else.”

Then there’s VAR (or video assistant referee) that was introduced to the World Cup in Russia in 2018. Collina is pleased with how it went, though he says the bar is even higher in Qatar. There will be four video match officials for each game: a VAR, an assistant VAR, another assistant VAR who will focus exclusively on offside, and yet another VAR whose job will be to facilitate the flow of communication.

“The video match officials were chosen for their skill and experience as VARs,” he says, conceding that looking at a screen can be a different skill than officiating a match. “Crucially, compared to Russia, we all have more experience.”

This time there are added wrinkles, like the “semi-automatic” offside, which is basically a three-dimensional visualization of players’ positions on the pitch. It’s not like the early days of VAR, with lines drawn on screens. The system collects 29 data points from each player 50 times per second and the position of the ball is measured 500 times per second in order to determine as accurately as possible when a pass is made.

Then there’s goal-line technology. “When it was first introduced, the margin of error was around three centimeters,” Collina says. “Now it’s in the region of a few millimeters.” All of this should make decision-making quicker and more accurate, but as Collina states, “Sometimes accuracy and speed don’t go together. … If you want to be sure, it takes time.”

Collina has also worked to address a perennial pet peeve: time-wasting and injury time at the end of games. He makes a distinction between things like goal celebrations and intentional time-wasting and delays which are an organic part of the game, like the ball going out of play or dead-ball/set-piece situations. “In Russia, we tried to be more accurate in compensating for time lost during games and that’s why you saw six, seven or even eight minutes added on,” he says. “Think about it: if you have three goals in a half, you’ll probably lose four or five minutes in total to celebrations and the restart.”

It will be the fourth officials’ job to calculate the time to be added on for time lost during the game, while one of the VAR team members will keep track of time lost to video reviews. Collina says it’s a better system than in the past, when it was up to the referee to decide or, as he puts it, “pretended to decide” because, in fact, it has long been the fourth official’s job: the referee is simply too busy.

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Unlike in the past, there won’t be a psychologist as part of the FIFA team to support referees who may suffer anxiety because of the pressure or mental health issues after a mistake. Collina says it’s not because referees don’t suffer psychological stress, but because he views it as very personal and talking to a therapist you’re meeting for the first time in Doha is probably less useful than speaking to a friend or therapist back home. “I think you’re more likely to open yourself with someone you speak to regularly,” he says. “But the support can be remote. … They are professional and if they feel the need, we will help them any way we can.”

For the first time ever, Collina’s committee has selected three women referees (France’s Stephanie Frappart, Japan’s Yoshimi Yamashita and Rwanda’s Salima Mukasanga) and three women assistant referees (Brazil’s Neuz Back, Mexico’s Karen Diaz Medina and the United States’ Kathryn Nesbitt).

“They’ve all had experience in men’s football, not just domestically, but in FIFA competitions too,” he says. “I have to say I understand it’s quite big news, because it’s the first time in FIFA history. But I’d love it if it wasn’t news, if we simply treated them as six members of the FIFA refereeing team at the World Cup and nothing more.”

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It’s another sign of how World Cup officiating is changing. What seemed novel, like VAR, not that long ago, is now taken for granted. And it feels like these changes, even the major ones, have taken place quietly. Which is just how Collina likes it. Best when the referee isn’t noticed — by anyone but Collina and his team, that is.