It was bound to happen. Sooner or later the issue of refereeing was going to crop up at this World Cup. It always does.
After a very bumpy first few days, we had enjoyed a relatively smooth ride: the odd error, but no full-blown controversy and postmatch freak-out.
That was until Friday's quarterfinal between Brazil and Colombia and the performance of one Carlos Velasco Carballo.
Right now, the Spanish referee is getting it from all sides. Luiz Felipe Scolari is angry with him for not taking control of the match and thereby perhaps preventing the injury that will cost Neymar the rest of the World Cup. Colombians are annoyed by the "hack-a-James" manhunt that went on unchecked by yellow cards. Even Radamel Falcao weighed in via Twitter.
Neutrals wonder how it's possible that you call no fewer than 40 fouls -- many of them tasty ones -- before cautioning anyone. Indeed, when the first yellow was shown -- to Brazil's Thiago Silva -- it wasn't for a foul, but for interfering with Daniel Ospina's goal kick.
This being the FIFA World Cup, and FIFA being FIFA, folks are prone to see vast, occult referee conspiracies to favor one team or another. And, in the past, there certainly were some rather questionable appointments and performances.
Today, the referees' committee, the body that appoints and evaluates officials in conjunction with Massimo Busacca, the head of referees, is made up largely of ex-officials. Its chair and deputy chair come from nations not involved in the World Cup.
In the past, this wasn't the case. It was a coveted committee because it wielded power and it was filled with football administrators, rather than guys with specific refereeing experience. Bigger, more powerful nations appeared to hold more power.
There's an easy narrative embraced by some: that officials favor Brazil. After all, they hit the trifecta. They're the host nation and having the hosts go deep into the competition tends to be good for business. Plus, they're Brazil -- historically the most popular team with neutrals -- and that's good for business too. Finally, Brazil -- like other big nations -- carry a lot of weight within FIFA.
It's an easy and tempting narrative to apply to Velasco's performance, but it has some major flaws. Thiago Silva's booking was exactly the kind Velasco could have avoided with impunity. Depriving Brazil of their captain for a World Cup semifinal -- he was on a yellow from previous games -- is a huge call and not the sort of thing someone trying to aid the Selecao would do.
Two of the other big calls that went Brazil's way also stand up to scrutiny. There was an offside on Colombia's disallowed goal. And, on the penalty, when Julio Cesar brought down Carlos Bacca, there's room to debate whether it was a clear-cut denial of a goal-scoring opportunity. Bacca gets the ball past the Brazilian keeper who, at that stage, has no legal way of stopping him. But you have to consider whether the trailing defender, David Luiz, could have recovered. And whether Bacca could have reached the ball before it went out of play. Both are judgment calls, you can easily argue both ways. A red card would not have been scandalous, but neither is the fact that Velasco chose yellow.
That's the thing about Velasco, he rarely makes technical errors. He's usually in the right place at the right time and sees things correctly. The problem with him is the way he manages players, particularly Friday night, when the game clearly got away from him.
Neymar out of the World Cup
- Ex-ref blames FIFA for Neymar injury
- FIFA to investigate Neymar injury
- Referee Carballo faces criticism
- Jones: The morning after the night before
- Duarte: The World Cup's crushing loss
- World Cup Tonight: How will Brazil cope?
- Young: Brazilian media reacts
- Uersfeld: German media reaction
- Lang: Five players who must step up
- Neymar injury dampens celebration
Before we crucify him, we need to consider the directive that FIFA gave referees ahead of this World Cup. Busacca asked them to use yellow and red cards only as a last resort and to try to let the game flow as much as possible -- a suggestion that's been heeded.
Why did he do this?
First of all, to favor a more flowing game and, thereby, goals. (There's plenty of data that suggests a correlation between cautions and scoring: the lower the first, the higher the second.)
Another was to limit suspensions. The presumption was that referees should do what they can -- again, within the limits of common sense -- to avoid players getting banned because, ultimately, we want to see the best players on the pitch. This is especially important in a shorter, knockout tournament.
If, say, Lionel Messi had kicked out late in the quarterfinals, picked up a yellow to go with a previous one and was suspended for the semifinal, it wouldn't do much for the team that suffered his infraction. But it'd be a huge boost to whoever faces Argentina in the semifinal.
Finally, Busacca belongs to the school of thought that believes that referees need, whenever possible, to manage games through talking and psychology. A stern verbal rebuke can achieve as much as a card. The best referees are masters at this and it's the direction many want to go.
The problem with Velasco is that he's not that type of official. He has his own style and personality. He ordinarily asserts his authority through cards, not by communication. Indeed, go through Brazil vs. Colombia and you'll see very few instances of him addressing players, despite the fact that he could easily communicate with all of them.
Good referees know that FIFA directives aren't gospel. Gospel are the laws of the game and their own common sense and experience. Yet, at the same time, the referees are stuck in a conundrum between what they believe is right and what they're asked to do and, sometimes, they conflict. In Velasco's case, he embraced the "shy away from cards" directive but not the "match management through communication" order.
The result was the car crash we all witnessed.
You can see why FIFA issue directives. They want some level of consistency in style, while favouring attacking football and entertainment. Yet this time they probably went too far. A World Cup is no place for experimentation, particularly when dealing with officials who spend most of their time with their national federations, which may have different ideas of how to officiate.
All that said, despite the controversy, this has not been a horrible World Cup for match officials, relative to past ones. Mistakes were made -- some of them avoidable -- but the overall balance thus far leans to the positive. Fingers crossed that doesn't change in the few games we have left ... the ones that really matter.