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It will be lonely for referees in South Africa

Published:Saturday | April 24, 2010 | 12:00 AM


Millions of football fans will be able to enjoy every detail of this year's World Cup in South Africa using the most up-to-date technology, but the referees who make the decisions will be relying on their eyesight and good judgement alone.

"I'm not God," Swiss referee Massimo Busacca said to players during a European Championship game in 2008. "I make mistakes."

Busacca and Belgian referee Frank de Bleeckere are among the favourites to be awarded the task of officiating the final on July 11 - if they can steer clear of controversy.

The referees at the World Cup will be on their own, unlike the millions of critics on the touchlines and in front of television screens who will savage their perfor-mances after viewing replays and slow motion from dozens of TV cameras. At previous tournaments, fans have issued death threats at referees who make calls against their teams. Some refs have even quit the game.

The World Cup is the biggest test a referee will ever face, both professionally and personally.

The 30 referees taking charge of the 64 games in South Africa have been selected already. Ten of them come from Europe, six from South America, four each from the Asian, African and CONCACAF regions and two from New Zealand. Each official has his team of two assistants who have worked with him consistently over the last two years.

No capable referee

Notable omissions from the list of referees appointed to South Africa include Australia's Matthew Breeze, who also failed to make the final cut at the 2006 World Cup. While El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico, with two, will all be sending referees, FIFA decided that the United States does not have a capable referee for the World Cup.

While most of the European and Latin American referees are used to officiating in the most stressful circumstances, players are hoping they avoid some of the referees who take charge of games in countries like Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia or the Seychelles, where the speed of play is far more leisurely.

Once they are at the tournament, referees and their assistants will be swathed in a protective blanket of security, locked away from the world's prying eyes at a luxury hotel where they will be provided with sports psychologists to boost fragile confidence and technological tools that allow them to study the strengths, weaknesses and favourite tricks of the teams they will be refereeing.

At home, viewers will benefit from multiple replays of contentious decisions that expose refereeing errors. FIFA has decided not to introduce any form of replay or goal-line technology that would enable decisions to be corrected if necessary. Hostile at first to technology, most referees now agree they would prefer it to be introduced to spare them the vitriol poured on them in the media and in the stands.

Second-biggest tournament

Nor will referees benefit in South Africa from the experiment currently on trial in the Europa League, Europe's second-biggest club tournament, of extra assistants at each end of the field used as an extra pair of eyes in the penalty area. That experiment has only received a tepid response and may be dropped next year.

The most surprising area of change, or a lack of it, is in goal-line technology, where FIFA has shelved all plans to allow technology to decide when the ball has crossed the line.

Cheating has become widespread in modern football and players are essentially too good at it to be spotted with the naked eye. Players are shown a yellow card for simulation, but often they get away with it, winning penalties and earning a red card for the alleged fouler. Ironically, players tend to escape mass condemnation for their cheating behaviour while the referees are pilloried.

Swedish referee Martin Hansson has survived to travel to South Africa despite missing a handball by striker Thierry Henry to set up a goal that qualified France for South Africa and eliminated Ireland.

Brazil's Carlos Simon and Italy's Roberto Rosetti are seen as referees at the peak of their job, but they may not be able to officiate the final because of a rule that bars referees from taking charge of matches involving their own country.