Final referee sets FIFA example
In May, Nicola Rizzoli, the referee who'll take charge of the World Cup final between Germany and Argentina on Sunday, said he hoped he would not be considered for the final.
"Because I hope Italy will be in it," he said. "A referee's run at a World Cup is also dependent on how his country does."
That's the thing about World Cup referees: If your country is in the semifinals, you won't be officiating again in the tournament. That's why Bjorn Kuipers, one of the best officials in the competition, wasn't considered. He's Dutch, and the Netherlands were in the semifinal.
But that's really one of the last remaining "rules" the FIFA Referees Committee gives itself in appointing officials. The whole notion of "confederation neutrality" -- a match featuring a European team facing a South American team would ideally be given to someone outside UEFA or CONMEBOL -- has gone out the window. So too has the idea that referees would not get the same team more than twice.
This will be the third time Rizzoli officiates Argentina, after their 1-0 win over Belgium in the quarterfinal and the 3-2 victory over Nigeria in the group stage. That is unusual, although the Referees Committee evidently thinks that should not matter and it simply ought to pick the best man for the job. If that's the case, it's hard to argue.
Rizzoli, a 42-year-old architect from Bologna, has plenty of experience, having officiated a host of big games, including the 2012-13 Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. In addition to the two Argentina games, he was in charge of Spain vs. Netherlands way back in the group stage, and his performance then underscores the type of referee he is.
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On the one hand, he was not flawless. Robin van Persie appeared to barge into Iker Casillas for the third Dutch goal, which could have been disallowed. Equally, Diego Costa's tête-à-tête with Bruno Martins Indi could have been punished with a card, maybe even a red.
On the other hand, he never lost control of a potentially explosive game, given that it was a rematch of the 2010 World Cup final and that there were more than a few hot tempers on the pitch. And he did it without showing excessive cards, which is something FIFA's committee has appreciated in this World Cup.
It's in keeping with a slightly new approach to officiating, one aimed at communication and control via body language. In that sense, Rizzoli is the poster boy. He is constantly talking to the players, calming them down, warning them, defusing tension. The flip side is that, sometimes, his decisions aren't perfect, although he remains better than most.
The committee would have looked at a number of factors, including the officials' body of work in past seasons, their performance in games thus far, the difficulty of the matchups and the number of incidents in a game. Massimo Busacca, the head of FIFA referees, said officials had been called on to make some 1,800 decisions in this World Cup, just under 30 a game. In some matches, however, the number was nearly double, and the committee would take that into account as well. Getting two decisions wrong out of 30 is looked upon more favorably than blowing two out of 10.
The best that can happen is that this is the last you read about Mr. Rizzoli for the next few weeks. If that occurs, then the World Cup final will have been played without controversy and we will have had a "clean finish." Which, ultimately, is all we ask of our referees.
Gabriele Marcotti is a columnist for ESPN FC, The Times and Corriere dello Sport. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.