BERLIN: Their ranks include a tax inspector, a tire salesman, even an airline pilot. Then they step on the soccer field and become referees.
Conventional wisdom holds that the best referees are the ones that nobody notices.
Instead, these arbiters of what is fair and what is foul are fast becoming the story of this World Cup. Never have so many red and yellow cards been doled out at a World Cup, and that s with two weeks left.
While it s normal for coaches and players to complain about officiating, there have been some doubtful calls that all but decided games. Who are these referees, how were they selected and are they qualified to oversee the world s biggest sporting event?
FIFA selects the cream of European and Latin American referees as their football is considered to be of the highest standard and produces referees capable of handling pressure.
Because of the need to stimulate refereeing in other parts of the world, Asian and African referees are also selected, which means some of the world s best referees miss out, especially as very few countries get to send more than one referee to the tournament.
Until Sunday, the name Valentin Ivanov was revered in Russian football.
A prodigious goal scorer for Moscow s FC Torpedo and for the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 60s, Ivanov picked up an Olympic gold medal and made two trips to the World Cup.
But it was his son, also named Valentin, who had hundreds of millions of people watching their TVs in disbelief as he oversaw a Portugal-Netherlands grudge match. Now the younger Ivanov s name is attached to two World Cup records: he tied the mark for most yellow cards in a match (16) on Sunday, and issued a record four red cards.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter s assessment was critical. I think there could have been a yellow card for the referee, Blatter said in a television interview.
When FIFA set up the system for choosing referees, the aim was to have the corps mirror the global nature of the tournament.
That works, to a point. But different countries have different officiating standards, and that can lead to inconsistency.
Though all have passed FIFA s certification, many referees here are not full-time professionals. Some come from nations that may never play a World Cup game.
They are an eclectic group. Coffi Codjia of the West African nation of Benin lists his occupation variously as marine traffic engineer and tax inspector. Slovakia s Lubos Michel formerly sold tires. Egyptian referee Essam Abd El Fatah pilots planes.
After the first round of the 2002 World Cup was clouded by basic errors from referees who lacked the proper experience, Blatter insisted on a strict selection process.
Referees have been picked with assistants either from the same country or the same continent so they could work as teams.
We could not be more prepared with the referees, they have all been physically and psychologically evaluated, Blatter said before the World Cup.
His instructions were to crack down on sliding challenges and flailing elbows. Referees obliged by issuing a rash of cards in a relatively incident-free opening week.
Markus Siegler, FIFA s communications director, said the fact that referees were applying the rules rigidly had aided an attacking brand of football.
Then things started to deteriorate.
Referees started missing handballs, not awarding goals that looked fair and allowing goals that did not. Some bad decisions could have been reversed with the use of television replays, but FIFA is strongly opposed to that.
One instance was when Mexican referee Benito Archundia didn t award France a goal on a ball that South Korea s keeper batted away from the line after it had appeared to have crossed over the line.
All the coach wants is that we have coherent refereeing, France coach Raymond Domenech said. Instead, players and coaches complained and the number of bookings piled up as matches became more tense.
After 54 of 64 matches, the totals were staggering: 24 red cards, 298 yellow cards, both World Cup records.
And, contrary to expectations, it has predominantly been top-shelf referees who have been getting it wrong.
Ivanov refereed the Confederations Cup final last season. English Premier League referee Graham Poll was a contender to referee the final, but he s likely to be heading home after a fundamental blunder in the first round that could have resulted in an unprecedented replay. It was a case of losing count. He awarded a Croatia player three yellow cards against Australia, when a red card should immediately follow the second caution.
Andreas Werz, FIFA s spokesman for referees, told The Associated Press that Poll might not be among the referees who stay after the second round.
Germany s Markus Merk, who oversaw the 2004 European Championship final, was also expected to be among the candidates for the World Cup final if the host team did not advance. He dented those prospects with a whistle-happy first-round match between defending champion Brazil and Australia.
A lot of the games, everyone s talking about the referee, which shouldn t be, said defender Scott Chipperfield, whose Australian team was bounced Monday after a penalty decision by a Spanish referee let Italy win 1-0 in the last moments. They should be talking about how good the game is. Not the refereeing. It s something that needs to be looked at. AP