The World Cup Ref Crisis

A bad call stole a game that should have belonged to Team USA. Josh Robinson explains why FIFA’s broken referee-selection process is to blame—and how to fix it.

Elise Amendola / AP Photo

The ball was still in the back of the Slovenian net as blue jerseys flocked to Koman Coulibaly, a financial auditor from Mali who just happens to referee international soccer on the side. The American players, led by Landon Donovan and a livid Michael Bradley, wanted to know why Coulibaly had just disallowed the United States’ critical third goal. What had he seen? Who had committed a foul?

Coulibaly stayed silent. The match report he filed later, in which referees are supposed to clarify their thinking during the game, contained no explanation.

Click Below to View Our Gallery of the Worst Blown Calls in Sports History

“We asked the ref many times who the foul was and he couldn’t explain it,” Donovan said after the 2-2 draw. “We asked him numerous times in a non-confrontational manner and he just ignored us or didn’t understand.”

Hundreds of replays and thousands of irate column inches later, it is clear that there was no discernible foul by any American in the buildup to the goal. If anything, the Slovenian defenders were guilty of some egregious jersey pulling and holding. Now FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, will reportedly review the incident and consider stripping Coulibaly of the whistle for as the World Cup moves forward.

But FIFA needs to do more than just censure Coulibaly. The federation has always resisted bringing instant replay to the game—and that’s a whole other debate, anyway—so the solution must lie with the referees. The problem is that the system for picking who blows the whistles at the World Cup is in desperate need of reform. Even though the tournament was surprisingly well officiated until Friday, FIFA cannot have mistakes like Coulibaly’s hanging over the tournament.

Full coverage of the World CupIt all boils down to the fundamental problem of experience. Soccer referees spend most of their time working domestic league games, moving up the ladder one painstaking season at a time. Once they reach their country’s top flight, they can be selected to run even bigger games at the club and international levels if they distinguish themselves. And so it goes, all the way to the World Cup. But the value of their experience is largely a reflection of the quality of their leagues. If players are better, faster, and richer—as they are in, say, the English Premier League—the referees naturally become more effective in dealing with the super-talented egomaniacs who are populating the fields of South Africa this summer.

National team coaches think the same way about their players. They are more likely to pick guys who ply their trade week in, week out at the highest levels. Why should picking referees be any different?

Because FIFA said so. The 30 referees in the current World Cup crop hail from 28 countries. Those include places where world-class domestic soccer is played, like Brazil, England, and Spain, as well as places where it is not. Like New Zealand. Like El Salvador. Like Mali.

Yet the top brass insists on applying an ill-conceived form of affirmative action to make sure that the refereeing corps isn’t dominated by Western Europeans and South Americans. They justify it by saying that if referees hadn’t survived a rigorous selection process, they would never make it to the World Cup anyway.

Their road to South Africa began in 2007 when the regional confederations nominated a total of 54 officials to be considered for World Cup duty. Europe was allowed to offer the most, with 14, while Oceania got two. Coulibaly was deemed fit to be among Africa’s five nominees, which also included one who officiates in the tiny Seychelles islands (population: 90,000). In 2008, those 54 attended a mini-camp in Switzerland where they were watched, prodded, and quizzed for a week before being whittled down to 38. The final group was announced earlier this year.

The ref selection could be streamlined if FIFA bought into a single proposal: make sure the World Cup referees are professionals.

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But instead of spending two or three years making sure everyone is up to speed, the whole selection could be streamlined if FIFA bought into a single proposal: make sure the World Cup referees are professionals.

The English Premier League was among the first to adopted this. Until then, referees were postmen, lawyers, and schoolteachers during the week, and keepers of order in the world’s most competitive league on the side. It was practically a hobby for the men in the middle, while everyone around them from the groundskeepers to the club directors made soccer their full-time job. In the last five years, France, Holland, Italy, Spain, and the United States soon initiated programs to make their referees professionals, too. At the very least, it raises accountability for everyone concerned.

But FIFA has consistently proven reluctant to take drastic action. Even after Martin Hansson of Denmark somehow missed the blatant handball that sent France to the World Cup at Ireland’s expense, he was allowed to travel to South Africa because he had already been selected. Though it punished him by only letting him serve as a fourth official in this tournament—in charge of the benches and stoppage time—it is hard to imagine FIFA making any meaningful changes.

Besides, nothing is bringing back the American goal now anyway.

“I think as players and as a team and for fans, it should never really come down to things like that,” US defender Jay DeMerit said of Coulibaly’s decision, “but unfortunately that's the rules we live by.”

Joshua Robinson is a freelance writer based in Manhattan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and Sports Illustrated.