A revolution in refereeing is occurring here and it is being led not by the highly paid super-referees of Europe, but by the representatives of Asia, the Americas and the Middle East. These are early days yet, but the most accomplished referees so far in the tournament have been Ali Bujsaim of the UAE (France v Senegal), Saad Mane of Kuwait (Uruguay v Denmark), Jun Lu of China (Croatia v Mexico) and Felipe Ramos Rizo of Mexico (France v Uruguay). The idea that officiating in major domestic leagues or European competitions every week is an essential qualification in the top flight has been conclusively exposed.
Even the criticism of Joo Young Kim of South Korea was justified only on the grounds that he should have sent off Rivaldo as well as the two Turkish players. It was a mockery of Fifa's hard line on diving – or, in the anaesthetised official language "simulation" – that the Brazilian received a mere slap on the wrist, a £5,000 fine, for his desperate theatricals. If Fifa are serious about enforcing their campaign against this particularly unattractive and, in the Champions' League at least, depressingly prevalent aspect of cheating, then a high-profile example of the art cannot go so casually unpunished.
On Wednesday in Ibaraki, the haughty figure of Kim Milton Nielsen officiated the draw between Germany and Ireland. It was not one of the worst performances – and Nielsen will doubtless get more games in the knockout stages – but it was not as accomplished as might have been expected of such an experienced European referee.
An assault on Dietmar Hamann, high and late, escaped censure beyond a free-kick and, on more than one occasion, Nielsen blew when he should have played advantage. Nielsen's pedantic style of refereeing suddenly looked out of date as if a long season of whistle-blowing in the Champions' League, a tournament often marred by irritating petty fouls, had dulled his understanding of the basic principles of his job. When in doubt, Nielsen whistles, which is not how Fifa want the rules to be interpreted in this World Cup.
Philip Don, head of referees at the Premier League, has yet to be convinced. "It is a matter of finding the right balance between letting the game flow and picking up the main offences," he says. "The behaviour of the players seems to be very sporting at the moment. There's very little dissent, very little protest at decisions. It will be interesting to see if that lasts into the later stages when there's more at stake." Two red cards, for Diao of Senegal and Thierry Henry of France – Uruguay's Dario Silva should also have been sent off in the same game – early in the second round of group matches suggested a heightening of the tension.
One game can sour the atmosphere, but little has yet spoiled the refereeing Disneyland. The short-cut system of justice – two yellows or one straight red and an automatic one-match ban – has increased players' willingness to co-operate. No one is inclined to take the risk at this stage. A clearer line of communication has been established between Fifa, the referees and the coaches to iron out the sort of misunderstandings which blighted the early stages of recent World Cups. In February, the World Cup referees gathered in Seoul to be instructed on Fifa's latest interpretation of the rules and they did so again just before the tournament began.
In encouraging referees to react to the feel of a game rather than laying down tablets of stone on particular types of foul, Fifa have fostered a type of self-policing. Players are mostly good referees; they just hide the fact well. They know when they have committed a foul, for all their ritual protest, and they know when they have not. Like the referees here, they prefer to be given the benefit of the doubt. No player feels more foolish or more vulnerable to attack by his teammates than when he has hurled himself to the turf only to find the ball has moved swiftly into the space where he should have been and the referee has waved play on. It is remarkable how quickly controversy and injuries are forgotten. Minds are not on protest but on playing.
Fifa can take credit for persevering with a long-term revision of refereeing policy, a reaction to the desperate negativity of the 1990 World Cup. Slowly, the balance of power has shifted away from the defender, with the eradication of the tackle from behind, the restructuring of the offside law and, more recently, by banning goalkeepers from handling deliberate back-passes.
Each of the moves was criticised at the time, but, 12 years on, referees have become more confident in their ability to let the game flow. No longer do they have to impose their authority at the first sign of physical contact. Just how long the amnesty will last is another matter. Players will exploit leniency as ruthlessly as any loophole and, with giant screens replaying incidents in slow motion to the crowd, referees are coming under increasing scrutiny. But the notion that European referees are the best in the world might not stand up to examination in the coming weeks. Maybe it is time we asked the better ones here to help us out in the Premiership.
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