Who’d want to be a referee? You’re the twenty-third man on the field, bearing a heavier responsibility than anyone else, and yet paid a tiny fraction of what any of the others earns. Any wrong call you make—with the naked eye and on the spur of the moment—is endlessly dissected and derided on television and in the press, by commentators who have the advantage of multiple hindsight.
And if you make the right call, the players of one team will mob and jostle and hassle you, to the point where it feels as though they’re offering physical violence. Plenty of them are brutal enough that it sometimes seems a real threat.
As long as football matches are refereed by human beings with human fallibilty there will be mistakes. Some refs are better than others, and the best, like all of us, have their off days. The first match in this World Cup, between Brazil and Croatia, was poorly refereed by Yuichi Nishimura—but even he could not have had a worse match than my compatriot Howard Webb in the last World Cup final betwen the Netherlands and Spain four years ago.
The very experienced Englishman is a former police sergeant and ought to be a stern disciplinarian. He had already been in charge not only of a domestic Cup Final but, only weeks before, had refereed the Champions League final in which Inter beat Bayern Munich. And yet, despite dishing out fourteen yellow cards and one sending-off, he lost control of the game—as Ravshan Irmatov, the Uzbek refereeing USA v. Germany looked like doing at one point on Thursday—and allowed a shameful display of brutality by the Dutch, happily punished by losing in extra time.
No referee in this World Cup has had such a hard time as Marco Rodríguez, the Mexican who was in charge of Italy v. Uruguay in Natal on Tuesday. At the time and since he has endured endless abuse from the Italians. I thought he had a perfectly good game. The foul on José María Giménez for which Claudio Marchisio was sent off may have been on the borderline between yellow card and red. But referees have continually been instructed to punish players who go in studs-first at ankle height or above, and Marchisio’s studs hit Giménez a few inches below the knee.
As for the single most controversial moment in this tournament so far, Rodríguez was looking at the ball and simply didn’t see Luis Suárez bite Giorgio Chiellini. A referee can’t take action for something he hasn’t witnessed. That will remain the case, for better or worse (and I’ve already said that the examples of cricket and rugby suggest it’s for better), until football allows appeals and television replays.
As it was, justice was done when the episode was reviewed by FIFA and Suarez was banned from playing for four months, to Liverpool’s vexation, and for nine international matches, to Uruguay’s. Though vexation is scarcely the word—incoherent rage would be more like it.
The president of Uruguay tweeted or bleated about a wicked conspiracy against poor “Luisito.” Óscar Tabárez, the team coach, said that "this is a football World Cup, not about cheap morality." Almost inevitably, Diego Maradona, someone else as personally odious as he was dazzling on the field, chimed in to ask, “Why? Who is killed? This is football, this is friction—why not send him to Guantanamo?” which goes straight into my Anthology of Grotesque Comparisons. And a loud screech went up that it was all was a witch-hunt inspired by the English media.
That is almost the reverse of the case. Suarez has been in the forefront of what the excellent Richard Williams of the Guardian has called “the overpaid and over-indulged players” of “that unlovely entity, the English Premier League.” Far from universal hatred in England, numerous tender-hearted folk have said that Suarez needs psychiatric help.
Oh come on. If he hadn’t been a very rich and famous—and brilliantly gifted—footballer, Suarez would be in prison by now. It’s true that he’s almost psycopathically violent, but he’s well beyond shrinking. Four months’ ban? The fellow needs four months in boot camp, on bread and water with a daily 30-mile route march carrying a 50-pound pack. Come to think of it, don’t the French have a Foreign Legion for men like that?