Should we trust the World Cup's men in black?

Bodyguards and boosted pay for referees may help fight match-fixing. Tackling simple errors is altogether tougher

When the stupidity of Lord Triesman and motives of Melissa Jacobs have been dissected, one nagging question will remain. It may spring to mind a month or so from now, when you see someone sent off during the World Cup, or when you next disagree with a linesman flagging for offside. It is at these moments that you might find yourself wondering: are the lusting Lord's allegations feasible?

The prospect of Spain taking an envelope or two of Russian roubles to bribe referees seems far-fetched. Were they minded to cheat – there is no evidence, and given the quality of Spain's players there seems little need – the Spanish FA has plenty of cash itself, and considerable influence within Fifa's Referees Committee.

But let's pose the question: were someone inclined to fix a match at the World Cup, would it be possible to nobble the ref?

There is a history of suspicion, almost from the beginning. In 1934 Benito Mussolini, Italy's fascist dictator, seems to have spent much time with referees before his team's matches and may have influenced their selection. Two of the men who refereed Italian matches in that tournament were subsequently suspended and beaten opponents cried foul.

The sight of the 28-year Swedish official Ivan Eklind, and his linesmen, giving Il Duce the fascist salute before the final is certainly unsettling. Eye-witness reports suggests the Italians were allowed to get away with tactics which were roughhouse even by contemporary standards. But in the final the Czechs took the lead with 19 minutes to go, then hit the post before Italy levelled, without controversy, in the 81st minute, which suggests Eklind would have to have been cutting it very fine.

Nearly 70 years later it was the Italians complaining, convinced Ecuadorean Byron Moreno had fixed their 2002 World Cup defeat by South Korea under orders from Fifa. Their coach, Giovanni Trapattoni, was among those hinting that the organisers wanted the joint-hosts to remain in the competition. Italy had a goal wrongly disallowed for offside, and Francesco Totti harshly sent off for diving. A year later Moreno retired after being twice suspended in his home country after strange goings-on in domestic games.

When Spain were knocked out by South Korea in the following round, having also had a good goal disallowed, conspiracy theorists were convinced. But it is still hard to square with the fact that Italy led the Koreans with two minutes left, and even after Seol Ki-hyeon levelled Italy would have won had Christian Vieri not missed an open goal.

In between these finals South American countries alleged a European conspiracy in 1966. First the holders, Brazil, were brutally kicked out of the competition, English and German referees overseeing their three games. Then, in the quarter-finals, a German referee dismissed an Argentine against England, and an English referee sent off two Uruguayans against West Germany. As for the final, and Geoff Hurst's shot that did, or did not, cross the line, let's not go there.

No, let's. At Wembley, as in Rome and Seoul, as in previous tournaments from Buenos Aires to Valencia, officials favoured the hosts. This can usually be put down to human nature, from the inevitable swaying of opinion 100,000 voices shouting "goal" can have, or a sense of self-preservation; in the first final, in 1930, the well-regarded Belgian referee John Langenus demanded protection and planned out a swift escape route to his ship.

These days referees can reasonably assume that, at a World Cup at least, they are not going to be assaulted by angry supporters. They still have protection, though. Each referee will have a bodyguard stationed outside his hotel door before matches. No direct outside calls are allowed to their room. This is not, however, to protect them from fans, but from match-fixers.

The 90 officials, 30 referees and their assistants, will be billeted throughout the tournament in a "safe house" (a hotel devoted largely, possibly entirely, to them). The venue is yet to be revealed. The "Big Brother House" approach is partly so they can develop a bond to help one another cope with the pressures of the tournament, partly so they can be briefed and debriefed daily, and partly so no one can compromise them.

To that end, referees' pay has also gone up from £11,500 in 2002, to £23,000 in 2006, and now to £30,000 for the forthcoming tournament, a sizeable sum, even for western European officials. The logic, slightly cloudy, being that the more they earn, the less likely they may be to be swayed by stuffed envelopes. It is, though, relatively small compared to the potential profits to be made by match-fixers. In the German scandal of 2005, the disgraced referee Robert Hoyzer was paid €67,000 (£57,300) to manipulate cup and lower league matches by a Croatian match-fixing ring.

The fixers were motivated by the profits that could be made through gambling on rigged matches. This is the main concern for football authorities today. Earlier this year a Bosnian referee was banned for his alleged part in a match-fixing ring which operated in nine countries in central and eastern Europe, fixing matches in the early rounds of the Champions League and Europa League. The fixers are thought to have earned €10m from bookmakers in Europe and Asia, primarily China.

But while match-fixing appears to be on the rise, there is reason to think the World Cup will be immune because it is so closely scrutinised. The referees, operating at the pinnacle of their career, are also less likely to be subverted. Fifa's problem is that poor decisions raise the suggestion of fixing even when it has not occurred. It has thus spent much time and money on raising standards.

England will be represented by Howard Webb and his compatriot assistants, Darren Cann and Michael Mullarkey. Webb is not the best referee in England at present – Mark Clattenburg, Chris Foy or Martin Atkinson all have better claims – but he was when the provisional 54-man list was drawn up in 2007.

There are several reasons such an early selection is made. The intervening three years give Fifa time to weed out the weaker referees, iron out the cultural differences in the way referees from different regions officiate (probably the real reason South American players had problems with European referees in 1966), prepare them for the pressures (the officials have dedicated sports psychologists) and raise the level of those from minor nations.

Politics means referees have to be chosen from across Fifa's confederations. The 30 include 10 from Europe, six from South America, four each from Asia, Africa and Concacaf (North and Central America and the Caribbean), and two from Oceania.

The latter pair are both from New Zealand – since Australia moved to the Asian Confederation the Kiwis are the only serious nation left in Oceania. Only Mexico also have a pair of representatives – compared to none from fellow-Concacaf power, the US, which has caused some controversy.

How good the Kiwis, a teacher and a naval officer, are remains to be seen. There have been some good referees from minor nations; to judge from his performance in the Algeria/Egypt World Cup play-off, South Africa-bound Eddy Maillet, from the Seychelles, is one. However, it is reasonable to suggest officials with plenty of experience in the major leagues are going to be better than those without, as the hapless Tom Henning Ovrebro demonstrated at Stamford Bridge last season. Didier Drogba was not the only left one suggesting "It's a disgrace."

More poignantly for English fans, how experienced was Ali Ben Nasser, the Tunisian who failed to spot the "Hand of God" goal?

It is possible that referees will be bought this summer; it is possible some have been intimidated by gambling-ring match-fixers; it is possible some may subconsciously favour Spain, knowing the referees' boss is Spanish. But it is far more likely that strange decisions – and there will be some, of that we can rest assured – are due to nothing more sinister than incompetence. As Swiss ref Massimo Busacca, a candidate for this year's final, once said: "I am not God, I make mistakes."

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