Cape Town, South Africa
The global soccer establishment, which has gathered here in South Africa ahead of Friday's World Cup draw, is dealing with an international mess that has been decades in the making.
Last month, in case you missed it, France defeated Ireland on a goal that was allowed to stand even though replays clearly showed that French captain Thierry Henry touched the ball twice with his hand. Ever since, the world has been consumed by whether its most popular sport should continue to allow the outcomes of its most important games to be influenced, even decided, by one person who has to run as much as 12 miles per match with a whistle in his mouth.
In an emergency meeting Wednesday, FIFA's executive committee will discuss two radical proposals—one that would add two referees for every World Cup game (for a total of six) and another that would allow video replay to review calls. The committee also will consider an extraordinary proposal to include the jilted Irish team in the World Cup, although one FIFA official Tuesday called the idea "impossible."
At present, FIFA President Joseph "Sepp" Blatter favors adding referees but opposes video replay. If the 24-member executive committee votes for either change, soccer's rule-making International Board will make a final decision in Zurich in March.
"It's important to make sure what happened will not happen again," FIFA Secretary General Jérôme Valcke said Tuesday.
No matter how they turn out, FIFA's deliberations—and last month's incident—have cast a glaring new light on what is arguably the toughest job in sports. As a referee in the quadrennial World Cup, which is the planet's most coveted single championship, an official must oversee games in which life and death may be at stake (Colombian player Andrés Escobar was assassinated only weeks after he kicked the ball into his own team's goal during the 1994 tournament) and where war and peace can hang in the balance (in 1969, Honduras and El Salvador fought a Football War that coincided with rioting connected to a qualifying match).
To keep their places at the highest level, World Cup officials must take regular fitness tests. Because of the physical demands of the job, they face mandatory retirement at age 45. But most referees can't keep up with the world's fastest players, and no one can keep up with a moving ball.
"The main problem is you can get out of position so quickly," said Esse Baharmast, who officiated in the 1998 World Cup and is now a referee instructor for FIFA. "Two touches of the ball, and all of a sudden the play is 50 yards away."
The average soccer pitch is nearly 78,000 square feet, leaving the head referee, two sideline assistants and a fourth official near the field each to watch roughly 20,000 square feet and share oversight of 22 players. By comparison, a boxing referee keeps his eye on two fighters within a 324-square-foot ring. Major tennis tournaments can have 10 officials watching over a 2,100-square-foot singles court, most of them responsible for a single boundary line—and there's often a computer system backing them up. Even Major League Baseball, which expects only a handful of umpires to cover a wide area—and has had its share of officiating questions—allows instant replay for some calls.
If soccer had golf's strict honor system, Mr. Henry of the French team and other offenders would have to admit their fouls. In the absence of that, however, officials have little else to rely on when they miss a violation. Giorgio Chinaglia, the former Italian goal-scorer, said ignoring instant video replay on the most important calls seems absurd today. "This isn't the 19th century anymore. It's almost 2010," Mr. Chinaglia says.
The question now is whether FIFA should try to come up with safeguards to improve officiating or whether it should hang on to its traditions of having a single, supreme ruler of the match who can't consult computer or video analysis to make calls.
"The issue is we played 853 matches to get to this point, that's the number of qualifying matches, and now all we are talking about is one match," Mr. Valcke lamented.
FIFA is conducting an experiment in the Europa League, where five officials are used. In addition to the head referee and two sideline officials, two more are on the goal lines at the ends of the field to help the referee settle disputes in the penalty area—such as determining goals. But amid calls for innovation, many within the game's professional ranks don't support major changes. Brian Hall, who refereed in the 2002 World Cup, says he worries that additional officials or video reviews would disrupt the flow of the game.
A decade ago, U.S. Soccer, the nation's governing body, took part in an international experiment to officiate games with two on-field referees, each one responsible for half the field.
Paul Tamberino, a former FIFA referee who oversees referee development for U.S. Soccer, says in most cases the two-man approach led to poor game management. Neither official would take charge or communicate authoritatively with the players, deferring to his on-field colleague instead. Mr. Baharmast, the FIFA referee instructor, says there were several cases where both officials would neglect to call an obvious foul believing that the other one would blow his whistle.
"I'm a purist," Mr. Tamberino says. "You want to use video for whether a goal is a goal, that's probably a good thing, but not for fouls or red cards."
Mr. Baharmast says he doesn't want video either—even though he knows what it's like to suffer the world's wrath.
During a game between Brazil and Norway in the 1998 tournament, he called for a penalty kick in the 89th minute of a tie game after a Brazilian player had tugged on the shirt of a Norwegian striker trying to head the ball into the goal (the main television camera didn't catch the foul). Following the game Mr. Baharmast was blasted for making such a pivotal call so late in the game with just a minute to play before extra time.
Ironically, his savior was a camera—in this case, one shooting from behind the goal that captured the foul and got Mr. Baharmast off the hook.
Write to Matthew Futterman at firstname.lastname@example.org
Corrections & Amplifications:
One of the proposals FIFA's executive committee will discuss Wednesday would add two referees for every World Cup game, for a total of six referees. An earlier version of this article said that proposal would raise the total number of referees to three.