Michel Vautrot, from France, was a FIFA referee up to 1990 and comments regularly in this column on the Laws of the Game and on referees' problems and viewpoints. He is now a member of the FIFA Referees' Committee.
The lights have gone out on France 98 and now it is time to analyse and dissect. And, as usual, refereeing is a central part of the debate, just as it was during the tournament itself...
But is that really so surprising after all? Without claiming to be some kind of mystic, I must say that I had pointed out in the last three editions of this column what was going to happen — which just goes to show that you can't teach an old dog new tricks... Let's take a quick look at what I had written :
Having said all that, it was clearly not going to be hard to guess what the reactions would be, with a little understanding for football or for human nature in general. It was just the same old song, with some people saying what they knew but not always knowing what they were saying.
- referees are bound to be at the centre of polemics (February)
- the referees are sure not to leave anybody indifferent (April)
- I know from experience that refereeing will be at the centre of attention, for a multitude of reasons (June).
Even at the risk of getting a few backs up, I am not afraid to state (and there are plenty of people who agree with me) that the general standard of refereeing at the World Cup was more than good. There were, of course, some inevitable hiccups which were really not as scandalous as some people tried to make out, whether in the heat of the moment or because of their own involvement (or even, perhaps, just to be contentious. What was better still was that the assistant referees, who never have an easy job, surpassed their standards of any previous competition.
There is no denying that one refereeing error is one too many. But who among the players, the coaches, the officials or the media did not commit one single error during this super World Cup? There was the same old litany of clichés, sometimes designed to offend, trotted out time and again :
- Why don't we have professional referees? But the referees at France 98 were prepared and handled like professionals, backed up by a highly skilled technical and medical staff.
- Why appoint officials from "small" countries? Quite apart from FIFA's rightly cherished concept of universality, this remark is an affront to those good referees from countries such as Thailand, Saudi Arabia, the UAE (the Brazil-Holland semi-final) or Morocco (the Final), or to assistants from Vanuatu, Malta, Oman, Kuwait or Honduras. Could the same be said of all those from the bigger countries? Let's not forget that there are plenty of big countries who are only too happy when they are drawn to play against smaller countries, but who do not want anything to do with their referees!
- Why keep a player out of a Final because a referee had been "guilty" of applying the rules? Unless I am wrong, Law XII condemns the attempt to foul as much as making actual contact; and if a law is badly written then it should be changed, but we should not blame the person responsible for applying it.
- Why not use video evidence? We all remember how the American referee Baharmast was lynched by the media after giving Norway a penalty against Brazil until the late discovery of another video camera angle that proved him right and helped save his honour.
My grandfather wisely used to say that sometimes you have to wonder if it is worth changing a blind horse for a nag with one eye – just as one has to wonder if it worth making such a fuss about controversial incidents, such as the penalty in the Italy-Chile match, and the use of video which only serves to back up differing opinions between acknowledged specialists. Just because a player misses an unmissable chance, it does not mean we have to introduce virtual football and all kinds of electronic gadgets. Even so, it is a shame that video evidence was not used more after the event, by the disciplinary authorities.
Of course, there is always room for improvement. For example, we should not use the World Cup finals for important new ideas such as the new ruling on the tackle from behind, when the players and referees are not too sure about them. Neither should we threaten to send referees home in disgrace like a dog that has committed an indiscretion on the carpet. Everyone knows that referees at this level are selected on the basis of nothing but their performance on the pitch, even if some are ruled out by the involvement of their national teams. It is true that it always makes us mad to see a clear advantage situation stupidly spoilt by a bad reflex action which simply should not happen at this level.
But football is a human game and referees should be, too. The referees deserve to be able to hold their heads up high again, for as Honorary President Joao Havelange so often said, "It's easy to criticise, but who would want to swap places with them and who would be able to do their job better than they do themselves?"
There have been voices in favour of more former players becoming referees. Realistic? It is often said that poachers make the best policemen. We should not forget that it is possible to become a good player without knowing the rules and while it may help to have been a good player in order to succeed as a referee, it is not necessarily enough in itself.