By Matt Niksa
To read Part I, click here.
In continuing the conversation about this 2014 World Cup, a talking point heading into this tournament was the officiating, particularly because of what happened in South Africa four years ago. To say that the 2010 World Cup was a display of inadequate refereeing would be a gross understatement.
Before a ball was even kicked in South Africa, Thierry Henry’s illegal handball in France’s World Cup qualification victory over Ireland led to huge questions over FIFA’s refereeing standards. Sepp Blatter, the president of FIFA, confirmed before that competition that the World Cup would be refereed without the help of goal-line referee technology. He called for “all players and coaches to observe fair play.”
Fair play? In a World Cup? Those two phrases are almost oxymorons to each other. The 2010 FIFA World Cup was dominated by controversial refereeing, overshadowing some of the more memorable World Cup performances. There was Malian referee Koman Coulibaly, who disallowed a game-winning USA goal against Slovenia for no apparent reason. There was that Frank Lampard shot against Germany that was judged to have not crossed the goal line, when TV replays showed the ball was a foot over the line. On that same day, Argentina was awarded a very questionable opening goal when Carlos Tevez scored a goal from a clear offside position. The big screen monitors showing the replay of Argentina’s goal caused outrage among the Mexican fans in attendance, and the goal turned out to be the game-winner for Argentina.
However, the most disastrous refereeing performance from 2010 came ironically in the World Cup finals, when Spain and the Netherlands played the equivalent of an American football match. There were 14 yellow cards between both sides, with nine yellow cards shown to the Netherlands. It didn’t matter that Spain won in extra time on an 117th minute game winner. What mattered was that Netherlands midfielder Nigel de Jong channeled his inner Ralph Macchio and kung-fu kicked a Spanish player, yet only received a yellow card. The 2010 FIFA World Cup was a disgrace, and it was amazing that any referee who officiated a match in South Africa was able to referee again.
As such, I had very low expectations for the World Cup referees going into this tournament. Even with the newly implemented goal-line technology, I thought the referees would struggle to keep up with the intense Brazilian heat and the raucous Brazilian crowd. To my displeasure, my worst fears were realized in the opening game.
Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura made several decisions that favored host nation Brazil, as the Brazilians triumphed in a controversial 3-1 victory over Croatia. The most questionable call came in the 71st, when Dejan Lovren brushed against Brazilian striker Fred in the box. Fred took a tumble, almost praying to the referee to give the penalty kick decision to Brazil, and he was awarded with the call. Neymar converted the subsequent penalty kick to score the game-winner for Brazil, a victory that was undeniably aided by the referee.
However, after that Brazil-Croatia game, I actually thought the refereeing was fairly solid. There were some questionable decisions in every game, but people always have the misconception that refereeing has to be perfect. True, this is the World Cup, and the referees have to be the best that FIFA has to offer, but it is human nature to make mistakes. As clichéd as that sounds, I thought the most debated calls in certain fixtures were correct.
For example, the call against Joao Pereira that gave Germany a penalty kick was correct, as was the red card given to Pepe for headbutting Thomas Muller in Germany’s 4-0 romp. I saw the replay of the Ashkan Dejagah-Pablo Zabaleta incident in the Argentina-Iran game, and I believe Serbian referee Milorad Mazic made the correct call in not awarding the penalty in Argentina’s 1-0 victory over Iran.
I thought the two worst calls in the group stage were in the Bosnia and Herzegovina-Nigeria game, where the referee disallowed a clearly-onside Edin Dzeko from scoring the equalizer, and in the Uruguay-Italy game, where Luis Suarez bit Italian sweeper Giorgio Chiellini. While Suarez escaped a deserved red card, FIFA later banned Suarez from taking part in any football activities for four months, fining him the equivalent of $119,000. Those two calls aside, I thought the refereeing was solid in the group stage.
As for the knockout round, quarterfinals, semifinals and World Cup final, I thought all of the games were refereed with the highest quality. Yes, Arjen Robben won the Netherlands a penalty kick in the dying seconds to stun Mexico. But if a defender makes contact with an offensive player in that position and at that time of the game, the offensive player will go down nine times out of 10. It is just gamesmanship. There was minimal contact, but Robben did beat Rafa Marquez to the ball, and it really was clumsy defending that caused that game-winning Netherlands goal.
The France-Nigeria game did have one missed call of note: the studs-up, dangerous tackle by Blaise Matuidi on Ogenyi Onazi that caused Onazi to be subbed off, changing the whole complexity of the game. In that situation, referees should send a message that those tackles will be punished with an immediate red card. Same for the Juan Camilo Zuniga tackle on Neymar that caused Neymar’s broken vertebrae. Those tackles can seriously impact careers, which means if the referee sees it, he has to go to the back pocket.
I will not give my judgment on the third-place Netherlands-Brazil game because frankly, none of the referee’s decisions affected the outcome of the game, but I definitely want to talk about the World Cup final between Argentina and Germany.
For starters, I thought center referee Nicola Rizzoli did a fantastic job of allowing both teams to play, instead of making it a stop-start affair. However, I thought he should have been better with Christoph Kramer’s head injury, as players who receive head injuries should not be allowed to continue playing. In addition, I thought Rizzoli could have sent off German Benedikt Howedes for a studs up challenge on Argentine Pablo Zabaleta, but hindsight is always 20-20. The offsides calls in that game were spot on, and I liked how, in contrast with the 2010 World Cup, when the referees were booed off the pitch after the final, the crowd gave the referees a round of applause. This speaks to a higher quality of refereeing, not just in the final, but throughout the tournament.
As I finish typing this column and look out of my room window, I cannot help but feel sad that this summer’s main attraction has come to an end. Now, for all intents and purposes, I will have to wait another month until European soccer resumes play.
For some stars of this World Cup, this Cup may be their last. Clint Dempsey will be 35 by the time the next World Cup rolls around, and after playing forward for so long, his body may only have so much left in the tank. This is certainly the last World Cup for Italy’s Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo, both of whom have performed brilliantly for their country for almost an entire decade. Howard, as mentioned earlier, may have put on his goalie gloves for the last time in a U.S. jersey.
Although all of these players listed are crucial to their own respective teams, I think the retirement of Miroslav Klose will hurt the most to the German national game. He not only broke Brazilian legend Ronaldo’s record for most goals scored in a World Cup career, but he played so well down the stretch for Die Mannschaft. He will most likely retire after this World Cup, but he will go out as a living legend, a legend that I wish could play on the biggest stage forever.
However, I do not want to be depressed after watching a World Cup final. I want to be optimistic. There really was a lot to be excited about during this entire World Cup. I thought the refereeing was improved from 2010, the quality of play was faster, and the games were more entertaining.
It is also inspiring to see teams like Costa Rica and the Netherlands make deep runs into the tournament. Most people before the tournament started never even heard of Costa Rica’s national team, but after making it all the way to the quarterfinals, its fanbase has probably increased 50-fold (even my sports editor David is now a fan of Los Ticos). As for the Netherlands, to see them beat Brazil 3-0 was one of the more gratifying World Cup games, as it showed the quality of the Netherlands and the flaws of an overrated Brazilian squad.
One thing that I think most fans love about the World Cup is that it can inadvertently turn budding stars into superstars after only three games. We all saw the quality of this tournament when Colombian player James Rodriguez stepped onto the pitch. Known by his fans as the successor to Colombian legend Carlos “El Pibe” Valderrama, Rodriguez is one of the world’s brightest talents at age 22. But if the world had not heard of Rodriguez before the World Cup, they certainly were introduced to him during the competition. He scored in every match he played in, with every goal followed by a coordinated post-goal celebration dance. It was fitting that he was the one who scored the last Colombian goal in the tournament, a penalty kick goal in Colombia’s 2-1 loss to Brazil. Shakira may have been the one who entertained the crowd during the opening and closing ceremony, but it was her Colombian counterpart Rodriguez who wowed the crowd in between.
The alarm clock on my drawer may say 2:23 a.m., and I am exhausted. As I get ready for bed, I reminisce one more time before I drift off to sleep. This World Cup may not have earned the plaudits of the 1998 World Cup in France, which many consider to be the best World Cup of all time, but the 2014 edition certainly did not disappoint. It is not everyday that stars in their prime (Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi, the entire German national team) take the pitch to represent their country. We are all witnessing a golden generation of soccer, where every team that enters the World Cup can either go out in the first round or go deep into the tournament. The unpredictability of it all allows us to be spoiled with great soccer matches, great individual efforts and great goals.
Before the World Cup, I questioned FIFA’s decision to award Brazil the honor of hosting this tournament, since the funds spent on creating new stadiums and hotels could have been spent on improving Brazil’s infrastructure. With the World Cup over, I know that the protests over Brazil’s participation in the World Cup and its supposed lack of care for the poor will only intensify, especially after Brazil’s horrid showing over its last two games. To that end, I just want to congratulate Brazil for hosting a fantastic World Cup, because although the country may be embroiled in political turmoil and a widening wealth inequality gap, I know Brazil knows how to do one thing right: host a damn good soccer tournament.