CONCACAF refereeing determined to be of highest level at 2017 Gold Cup
As the old adage goes, the best referee is an invisible one. If, when the final whistle blows, the fans can't remember the name of the man in the middle of the field, he's done his job. In the 2015 Gold Cup, however, the refs were anything but absent.
In the quarterfinals, Mexico defeated Costa Rica due to a phantom penalty awarded by Walter Lopez in the 121st minute. Two days later, El Tri caught another series of breaks when Mark Geiger showed red to Panama's Luis Tejada for a foul that was not serious, then awarded a late-game penalty kick with which Mexico tied the match.
Following that game, Panamanian players took a photo with a banner reading "CONCACAF thieves. Corrupt!" while their FA president, Pedro Chaluja, had some strong words for the federation.
"We perceive that this match was manipulated, and not by the Mexican federation, but there are interested third parties," he said. "The bad refereeing decisions were deliberate and with the intention of protecting the third parties. These events can only be decrypted if FIFA and CONCACAF join together to carry out a thorough investigation into the development that referee Mark Geiger was so unfavorable and ended up robbing the victory and the dreams of all Panamanians."
The chaos of CONCACAF, laid bare for all to see. (To his credit, Geiger admitted making errors in that game but declined to elaborate as to what those errors were.)
Fast-forward two years and Brian Hall, the federation's new director of refereeing, is one of the men tasked with avoiding a similar situation at the 2017 tournament (July 7-26). VAR, the video assistant referee system that debuted at the Confederations Cup, will not be used in the Gold Cup, but Hall and other CONCACAF leaders worked to put a few new initiatives into place that they believe will help the 17 match officials from 10 countries who are assigned to work the games.
One major move is to house all the refs at the same location in Dallas. In the past, referees and their teams were assigned groups and traveled with the groups. This year, however, they will fly into and out of host cities from Dallas, returning after each match to ref HQ, where they will participate in postmatch training sessions with the entire referee crew.
"They are together as one family. We're trying to build that family atmosphere," Hall says. "By having everyone in the same headquarters, we have a streamlined message that we hope will help drive consistency going forward with the referees. It helps bring a positive atmosphere to the referees, giving us the opportunity to coach more face-to-face, more one-on-one."
(The ref center also includes a rec room stocked with foosball and pingpong tables, Xbox and more.)
Fitness is another focus. A sport scientist is working with each ref individually to provide customized workout plans, which are sent to every individual via smartphone. The referees also passed a more robust fitness test -- similar to what potential refs at the 2018 World Cup will need to pass -- one that was administered two months before the tournament. A successful referee is one who is in the correct position, and fitness plays a role in being in the correct place at the right time.
The final major change is that there will be a referee portion of the team arrival meetings, a time before the tournament when officials check passports and give a high-level picture of what the players and coaching staffs can expect.
At this meeting, the referee team will stress six focus points they have been instructed to watch: protecting the safety of the players; contact above the shoulder; denying a goal-scoring opportunity (previously, the last defender who stopped a scoring chance inside a penalty area would see red; now it's yellow and a penalty kick); time wasting via simulation or injury; dissent/mass confrontation; and delaying the restart of play/failing to respect required distance. Hall believes alerting players to these focus points will help eliminate some of the on-field confusion.
These are good moves, but the truth is that referees will still make mistakes and fans will know when they do, now more so than ever due to replays and the massive number of angles offered by television broadcasts. Peter Walton, a longtime English Premier League ref who is now the general manager of the Professional Referee Organization (PRO), which oversees refs in North America, thinks this is both a curse and a blessing.
On one hand, "it makes the game very popular because people at home can sit there and form their own opinion on the game, but the game is not played in ultra HD slow motion," Walton said. "Go down at field level and see how quick the game is."
On the other, the sheer amount of coverage means more opportunity for teaching refs. "We can use angles in training seminar," he said. "We're showing clips from behind the goal. You'd never referee the game from there, but you can see issues that the referees on the field couldn't. Then we're asking, 'Should we look at our position, our movement, our awareness, our anticipation?'
"Gradually, over the course of a generation, we will referee the game slightly differently than they did 10 years ago because of the angles the camera is showing them where they are getting things wrong."
For example, PRO analysts noticed that ref teams were missing more penalty calls in the half of the penalty box closest to the assistant referee than in the half further away. As a result, they instructed the referee to alter his positioning slightly to be closer to the assistant ref. The change decreased the number of missed calls dramatically.
The goal is to reduce the errors but keep some level of subjectivity in soccer: That's one of the things that makes it the beautiful game.
"Soccer is almost universally popular," Walton said. "And it's like that because you and I can go to a game and see almost two different games based on the colors that we wear. That's opinion. That should never ever be taken away from the game. What we're about is correcting the big decisions, getting those big decisions correct that are influencing the games. That's where video refereeing will come into play as well. But there will always be subjective plays."
Because that's what makes the game great. "We need to keep that in the game so we do have subjectivity, controversy and debate," Walton said. "That's what makes the game so popular. Keep it in, but the referees will work very, very hard to make sure they get those key, match-changing decisions correct.
"If the competition ends with a mere hint of who the match officials were, then that's success," he finished.
Hall agrees: "We want to be the best team on the field when the final whistle blows."
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.