The World Cup Team Preview You Didn't Know You Needed: The Referees / by McG

By McG (@FWjmcg)

The spectacle of the World Cup is upon us once again. Story lines are already emerging, from Mo Salah’s shoulder and how it may drive the fate of his Pharoes, to the evergreen “will Messi finally win on the international stage?”, and of course whether or not the worst ranked host nation will manage to progress from what is statistically the easiest group in the modern era… But there’s myriad journalists and bloggers covering that already.

I’m here to talk about the inevitable villain of this most revered of tournaments, and no I’m not talking about Дядя Вова. No, of course I’m talking about referees who will emerge as the foulest characters of this world cup, unless Nigel De Jong comes out of retirement and files a one time switch. It’s doubtful referee scandals will etch themselves into the collective memory like Hugh Dallas in the minds of USA fans or Byron Moreno for Italians – though already this tournament has had a whiff of scandal as Saudi referee Fahad Al Mirdasi was suspended from the competition before the first kick after being caught in a match fixing scandal.

Although there are sure to be controversial moments with the introduction of VAR, we can hope that the most egregious errors will be caught live, even if it comes at the consequence of some of the flow of this beautiful game. In a twist of plot unlike almost any other in world soccer, the American FIFA refs may be the most expert at the tournament, given their now year-long dress rehearsal with VAR in MLS. Jair Marrufo (happy birthday J) and Mark Geiger are the two men deemed worthy of the World Cup appointment from our national league, and it wouldn't surprise me if both advance in the tournament due to their cool handling of the new system in place.

Honestly I’m not here to vilify the referees, no, I’m just here to make an introduction. To give you a peek into their habits and backgrounds so that when the inevitable moment comes when you say “who is this clown?!?” after what appears to be a blown or controversial call, you have some context. For example – when Sorin Stoica sent off two Philly Union players off a few weeks back in Atlanta, I couldn’t help but chuckle since the week prior I had noted that, statistically, he is the ref most likely to send off two men in a game, in fact it happens just about as often as him sending off a single player. What I’m saying is that context might help you be less surprised when something interesting happens.

I’m going to dive into some basic stats, and look for interesting things which might merit more context, so come along for the ride won’t you?

A quick comment on methodology – in order to make comparisons between referees easy and relatively fair (it isn’t, but we’ll get to that), I took all my data from worldfootball.net which has nice summaries of matches, yellows, second yellow, and reds issued by each ref in competition. I’m also fond of histograms – so I’ve applied the Sturge’s rule to my binning, in hopes that some interesting trends would emerge. We have top level match data from 7,727 matches to review, almost 30,000 yellow cards, and over 2,000 red card ejections – sounds like fun!

 Figure       SEQ Figure \* ARABIC    1    : Referee age during the 2018 World Cup, binned in 2-year width, counts noted at the top of each data bar. Boring visualization I know, but it's boring data.

Figure 1: Referee age during the 2018 World Cup, binned in 2-year width, counts noted at the top of each data bar. Boring visualization I know, but it's boring data.

The 36 refs selected (wait, we’re down to 35 with Mr. Al Mirdasi being sent home for match fixing), from all federations except the elusive Antarctic FF, range in age from 32 to 45 (the mandatory FIFA retirement age). I find it exceptional that there’s not one, but two, 32 year old referees… wait one of them is Al Mirdasi, back to a single 32 year old. So what does a ref have to do in order to start getting World Cup matches at 32 (besides fix matches)? Costa Rican ref Ricardo Montero is the youngster in this active group, having gained FIFA accreditation in 2012, remarkable for a 26 year old. He’s come through the ranks of CONCACAF, working CCL, Gold Cup, and U-17 and U-20 World Cups in the last six years after making his domestic league debut in 2010. Talk about a meteoric rise! I’d peg this young man as one who might be overcome by the moment, or make a rash decision due to the exuberance of youth.

The remainder of the group skews towards experience as you might expect, with quite a few referees likely seeing their last international competition as they approach their 45th birthdays. Thanks gents for your service to the worlds game, in its most unforgiving position. Even with the youngsters weighing down the group, the average age is 40.2 years, a collective 14 centuries of human experience to rely on will see us through this one.

 Figure        SEQ Figure \* ARABIC     2      : Count of matches as available from worldfootball.net, binned in 92 game widths.

Figure 2: Count of matches as available from worldfootball.net, binned in 92 game widths.

Age is just a number though as the saying goes, what kind of in-game experience do these folks have you may ask? Well I mentioned earlier a collective 7,727 matches I have records of, but it’s probably a fair bit more than that.

There are clearly some experienced refs here, with more than 400 matches, four refs (Pitana, Cakir, Kuipers, and Brych) are rock solid vets at this point, and most of them have more than 200 games or roughly 10 years of experience. However, this distribution tells a story that’s tough to intuit initially, a story of access, of wealth, of stability – or the lack thereof. Seven of the 14 refs in Bin 1 to the left (those with 30—122 games on record) are from AFCON. The remaining six are comprised of three from CONCACAF and two each from OFC and AFC. Those 15 refs with fewer than 122 games on record comprise almost half the group, but a quick look into the details reveals that these counts only comprise their international appearances. The domestic leagues they oversee week to week don’t have data available, and they are primarily in AFCON. I wonder why that is?

First Last Match Count YPG SYPG RPG ARPG FED Age
Bamlak Tessema Weyesa 30 2.2 0.07 0.10 0.17 AFCON 37
Ricardo Montero 31 2.4 0.03 0.06 0.10 CONCACAF 32
Malang Diedhiou 32 2.1 0.06 0.13 0.19 AFCON 45
John Pitti 35 3.5 0.14 0.11 0.26 CONCACAF 39
Norbert Hauata 37 2.8 0.08 0.16 0.24 OFC 38
Mohammed Abdulla Mohamed 44 3.2 0.09 0.20 0.30 AFCON 40
Janny Sikazwe 48 2.8 0.06 0.10 0.17 AFCON 39
Bakary Papa Gassama 48 2.6 0.10 0.04 0.15 AFCON 39
Nawaf Abdulla Shukralla 80 3.6 0.10 0.06 0.16 AFC 41
Alireza Faghani 82 3.6 0.05 0.04 0.09 AFC 40
Joel Aguilar 95 3.4 0.14 0.09 0.23 CONCACAF 43
Gehad Grisha 96 3.1 0.08 0.05 0.14 AFCON 42
Matthew Conger 111 3.8 0.14 0.12 0.25 OFC 39
Mehdi Abid Charef 112 3.6 0.11 0.09 0.20 AFCON 37
YPG: Yellows issued per game, SYPG: Second yellow cards per game, RPG: Red cards per game, ARPG: All red cards per game, FED: Federation
 Figure       SEQ Figure \* ARABIC    3      : Count of matches at the CONFED and FIFA level, the level of experience is less skewed away from AFCON referees

Figure 3: Count of matches at the CONFED and FIFA level, the level of experience is less skewed away from AFCON referees

Racism. I’m talking about racism here in case you aren't clear. I think it’s especially appropriate here to mention in the context of Russia, a country and league which regularly feature racist behavior. The Russian and Qatari bids for these Cups was rife with corruption, that much has been laid bare. But let’s take a moment to stop and reflect how the bias of FIFA has extended into such things as the simple availability of match data for their highest rated referees.

Do better FIFA, FFS.

Things are more evenly distributed when looking at just matches at the confederation level or higher (let’s call these international matches). This includes youth international matches, things like Cup Competitions, and Champions Leagues for all confederations.

Let’s pivot to something less controversial – who can control a match? Which refs use their most important tools - cards - to influence games? Let's begin by taking a look at how many yellows are issued per game by the refs in Russia.

 Figure       SEQ
Figure \* ARABIC    5      : Referee rate of yellows per game, based on worldfootball.net data, for referees at the 2018 World Cup.

Figure 5: Referee rate of yellows per game, based on worldfootball.net data, for referees at the 2018 World Cup.

With both a median and mean of 3.6 yellows per game, it appears there’s not as much variance within the federations as I would have expected, but lets take a closer look.

 Figure       SEQ Figure \* ARABIC    6      : Referee rate of yellows per game for CONFED and FIFA matches only.

Figure 6: Referee rate of yellows per game for CONFED and FIFA matches only.

When we remove domestic competitions from the data set things seems to calm down significantly, with only one referee issuing more than 4.5 yellows per game, down from six when all data is counted. 

Figure 7: Above average yellow per game rate, sorted from highest to lowest rate, all matches.
First Last Match Count YPG SYPG RPG ARPG FED Age
Wilmar Roldan 326 5.0 0.17 0.31 0.48 CONMEBOL 38
Julio Bascuñán 291 4.8 0.14 0.22 0.36 CONMEBOL 39
Andres Cunha 181 4.8 0.17 0.15 0.32 CONMEBOL 41
Enrique Caceres 307 4.7 0.17 0.19 0.36 CONMEBOL 44
Nestor Pitana 419 4.7 0.15 0.15 0.30 CONMEBOL 42
Sandro Ricci 215 4.6 0.22 0.18 0.40 CONMEBOL 43
Antonio Miguel Mateau Lahoz 353 4.5 0.14 0.13 0.27 UEFA 41
Gianluca Rocchi 366 4.4 0.22 0.19 0.41 UEFA 44
Cesar Arturo Ramos Palazuelos 180 4.1 0.18 0.21 0.39 CONCACAF 34
Cüneyt Cakir 447 4.0 0.15 0.17 0.32 UEFA 41
Milorad Mazic 270 3.9 0.12 0.09 0.21 UEFA 45
Sergey Karasev 237 3.8 0.14 0.11 0.25 UEFA 39
Damir Skomina 273 3.8 0.10 0.10 0.21 UEFA 41
Matthew Conger 111 3.8 0.14 0.12 0.25 OFC 39
Szymon Marciniak 322 3.7 0.12 0.14 0.26 UEFA 36
YPG: Yellows issued per game, SYPG: Second yellow cards per game, RPG: Red cards per game, ARPG: All red cards per game, FED: Federation

CONMEBOL is straight wild! It’s hard to separate the play on the field from the bias of the refs here, but it’s worth noting that the top six refs in yellows per game hail from South America. Although not quite as drastic, it’s worth noting that seven of remaining nine refs who issue yellows at a rate above average hail from Europe.

9.png

Unsurprisingly we see a similar trend in the red card per game department. It’s a little less drastic in the South American skew this time, but the trend holds. If you’re a player reading this (ok if you’re a fan of a team in the world cup), don’t be surprised if you rack up cards and maybe pick up a seemingly rough suspension with a European or South American referee.

Removing the domestic competitions similarly shows the steady nature of the international game, dropping the average number of reds per game about 10%. Wilmar Roldan and Sandro Ricci still seem fearless when brandishing the red, with Sandro at 0.4 reds per game and Wilmar sending folks off more often than not at an astonishing 0.54 reds per game!

Figure 10: Above average red per game rate, sorted from highest to lowest rate, all matches.
First Last Match Count YPG SYPG RPG ARPG FED Age
Wilmar Roldan 326 5.0 0.17 0.31 0.48 CONMEBOL 38
Gianluca Rocchi 366 4.4 0.22 0.19 0.41 UEFA 44
Sandro Ricci 215 4.6 0.22 0.18 0.40 CONMEBOL 43
Cesar Arturo Ramos Palazuelos 180 4.1 0.18 0.21 0.39 CONCACAF 34
Julio Bascuñán 291 4.8 0.14 0.22 0.36 CONMEBOL 39
Enrique Caceres 307 4.7 0.17 0.19 0.36 CONMEBOL 44
Andres Cunha 181 4.8 0.17 0.15 0.32 CONMEBOL 41
Cüneyt Cakir 447 4.0 0.15 0.17 0.32 UEFA 41
Nestor Pitana 419 4.7 0.15 0.15 0.30 CONMEBOL 42
Mohammed Abdulla Mohamed 44 3.2 0.09 0.20 0.30 AFCON 40
Clement Turpin 350 3.1 0.08 0.20 0.28 UEFA 36
Antonio Miguel Mateau Lahoz 353 4.5 0.14 0.13 0.27 UEFA 41
Szymon Marciniak 322 3.7 0.12 0.14 0.26 UEFA 36
John Pitti 35 3.5 0.14 0.11 0.26 CONCACAF 39
Sergey Karasev 237 3.8 0.14 0.11 0.25 UEFA 39
YPG: Yellows issued per game, SYPG: Second yellow cards per game, RPG: Red cards per game, ARPG: All red cards per game, FED: Federation

But seriously, CONMEBOL is wild y’all… you should be watching more Copa Libertadores.

So that’s it for the World Cup 2018 referee intro. Don’t be surprised when Wilmar Roldan red cards two players in the same game, and don’t be surprised when the young ref Ricardo Montero let’s some seemingly egregious fouls go with just a whistle and not a card… cut the kid a break, he’s just in awe of these primidone’s as the rest of us are, he’ll mature into his role in Qatar ’22, North America ’26, and whatever comes after that… seriously it’s crazy he’s reffing a World Cup at 32.

Enjoy this World Cup, despite all the problems it has… and believe me it has its problems.

For abstracted referee statistical musings in MLS check out http://ptfcollective.com/category/better-know-a-ref/