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!
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.
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?