Having had the privilege of being in the FIFA delegation for the World Youth Championship in the delightful country of Malaysia, I can look back on many intense and special moments, souvenirs of a technical and personal kind from a tournament during which, for once, we were able to spend more time talking about football than about refereeing.... and that is something in itself!

For someone who likes to defend the honour of the refereeing fraternity at the same time as to enjoy good football and appreciate true acts of fair play, the time spent in this beautiful part of Asia was both refreshing and rewarding.

It was interesting, for instance, to observe the influence that FIFA's new rules and instructions had in the intensive context of these 52 top matches, for no matter what the inevitable sceptics may think, these changes have been gradually modifying the approach to the game over the past few years.

For a start, one thing should be made clear for all those who, wrongly, maintain that goalkeepers have become the favourite target of all these changes. If they, the goalkeepers, or their predecessors, had not taken too much advantage of a certain leniency on the part of referees in the past, who knew that a free-kick in the penalty area can be a tricky situation to handle and who tended to turn a blind eye to the four-step rule and instructions against time-wasting - then the game's law-enforcing officers would not have had to set their sights on the goalies.

After seeing how much time was saved also by the system of having ballboys around the pitch throwing a spare ball back to keep the game going, after the ball had gone out of play, it was difficult to understand why some competitions and some countries do not follow this recommendation by FIFA - a device by which the only loser, if any, is the poor old referee, who has to be fitter than ever now that he no longer has those natural breathing spaces in the action.

Another encouraging thing was the total of only 178 yellow cards and 11 reds, far less than the previous edition of the championship, when there had been 20 matches less. Fair play was real, not merely symbolically limited to the yellow flag carried into the stadium at the start of every match or affixed to the sleeve of the referees' shirts.

And who was to take the credit for that? To the referees themselves, who maintained a fairly consistently high level throughout, or to the attitude of the players, or their coaches, or their team officials? Or maybe to the wise heads of FIFA, who succeeded in giving back the game much of its dignity? In fact, all of them played their part. While it is difficult to be a good referee when all the players around you are showing their worst side, it is also true that a bad referee can be sure to spoil a good game.

So recognition has to be given to everyone who helped make Malaysia 97 one big party, free of trickery or dispute:

  • to the players, for the way they respected each other and also the match officials, an attitude which contributed greatly to an atmosphere in the competition that was almost angelic but no less genuine

     

  • to the coaches and other team officials who frequently showed a chivalrous side despite the disappointment of defeat or elimination. In Kangar, for example, where I was based for the early matches, the mentors (a description they truly deserved, for once) of the teams of Canada, Australia, Argentina and Hungary, and later also of Japan, were a model of correct behaviour and politeness, worthy of emulation in any football school. I know there were plenty of others elsewhere.

     

  • to the referee and their assistants, who formed a solid group from the start and who worked hard but happily without ever trying to get the better of any colleagues as has unfortunately often been the case in the past. But it is the players who are the essential link in the chain, of course, and we can only hope that they will not lose these virtues when they start to knock on the doors of their senior national team, and that we will be able to say the same of their superiors when they contest the World Cup in France in a year's time. END