Referee in the eye of the storm again

Referee in the eye of the storm again

Referee in the eye of the storm again

This World Cup has begun in São Paulo exactly where the last one ended in Johannesburg four years ago — with bad refereeing the central issue.

The blame game mirrors our modern society.

In South Africa, the Dutch players brutally fouled the Spaniards, and were allowed to do so by a permissive English ref, Howard Webb.

In São Paulo, a Brazilian named Fred fell theatrically at the slightest touch on his bicep, and the Japanese ref, Yuichi Nishimura, awarded the penalty kick that proved decisive in Brazil beating Croatia in the opening game of the 2014 tournament.

So who are the fall guys? Players who foul and feign, or arbiters who cannot tell the difference?

 FIFA, itself a discredited body, chooses the referees.

They are the sport’s policemen (and Webb happens to be a police officer when he is not actively on paid refereeing duty).

 With the eyes of the sports world upon them, these men must, like Caesar’s wife, be seen to be above suspicion.

Any tiny error, any interpretation of the rules, will nowadays be dissected by a dozen instant replays from TV cameras.

The way that Webb and Nishimura made the important calls, or turned a blind eye to incidents, is less a matter of culture, more a matter of competence.

It took the English referee four years to admit that he may have been too lenient in the 2010 final.

The Japanese will not get the luxury of time because expert opinion has already rained down upon him.

We all have hindsight and opinions. Mine is that Nishimura’s worst decision was not the penalty that he gave, but the fact that Neymar, the poster boy of Brazil’s first home World Cup in 64 years, was still on the field to convert it.

Some 40 minutes before that penalty, Neymar had elbowed Luka Modric in the face. It happened in a stadium where Brazil’s head of state, Dilma Rousseff, had urged the people and the players to remember “the national team represents nationality.”

In this cauldron, men must keep cool heads. Only Neymar truly knows if he intended to harm Modric.

Again, those inevitable television replays showed that he did look to see where the Croat was before he led with his elbow.

If the referee thought it was a deliberate foul, the card should have been red. If he deemed it to be accidental, there should have been no card at all.

Nishimura took the middle option, the soft option. He cautioned Neymar, he did not send him off, and two minutes later Neymar scored his 32nd goal on his 50th appearance in the yellow jersey of his country.

Add to that the contentious penalty (Neymar’s 33rd goal), and the disallowed Croatia score when an assistant referee decided that Ivica Olic had illegally jumped into goalkeeper Júlio César, and that meant the three most critical judgments of the opening night of the tournament went to the home side.

 Justice is going to be a constant theme around this World Cup.

The running protests in the streets express the outrage of some Brazilians about the obscene cost of building a dozen huge arenas at enormous cost in a country that has such an unequal distribution of wealth.

The ingrained love of soccer is, understandably, also huge in the Brazilian sense of identity.

One game played and won, six more to go, and Brazil will be not just the host but the holder of the Cup.

Again, Rousseff dared to say before the opening of an event that brings the world to her door: “Brazil overcame the main obstacles and is ready on and off the pitch for the Cup. The pessimists have been defeated by the hard work and determination of the Brazilian people who never give up.”

All this was evident before a ball was kicked in São Paulo, and will grow as the tournament advances.

The national team is itself a confluence of the sport that Brazil has played more beautifully than any other nation, embracing the win-at-all-cost attitude that its coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, unabashedly champions.

Big Phil, Felipão, coaches it and calls it as he sees fit. His team that won the 2002 World Cup in Japan was nowhere near as coarse as he was happy for people to think it was: The three R’s, Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho were as creative, as hypnotic a trio as any team of any World Cup in the past decade and a half.

Yes, he can be gruff and tough. He is from the south of Brazil, from immigrant Italian farming stock. But Scolari, make no mistake, knows the beauty of winning.

Even in the tense opening game on Thursday, Oscar as the creative link and Neymar the instinctive finisher shone artistically at times.

That should grow as the need for pragmatism fades and, hopefully, as the spotlight on referees dims.

Croatia, a country whose population would fit into one third of São Paulo, was wronged this time — but let it be said that its goalie, Stipe Pletikosa, fell to the ground on all three goals as swiftly as Fred was to fall.

Artful dodging is a global malpractice. Brazilians are a global resource employed by countless clubs. But every nationality attempts it — soccer either tolerates cheating or trusts referees to spot it and have the courage to punish it.