While players and Coaches can make or break reputations this summer, there's a third category who will play equally vital roles…
Under scrutiny by billions of television viewers around the globe, players will be warned to be on their best behaviour during the month-long tournament at Brazil 2014. And Coaches will be told what they can do, where they can stand and whom they must talk to before and after games. But influencing both parties will be those much-maligned men in the middle.
Once merely referred to as the Men in Black, they now draw much more colourful expletives for the way they can change history. Every decision will be replayed a hundred times by television. Every controversial decision – and sometimes those non controversial ones too – are likely to be challenged. What's certain is that at the end of every game one side or the other, and generally both, will pin some blame for the 'wrong' result on the referee.
Although even a schoolyard kick around can't survive these days without an arbiter, they're the most hated species on the planet. We can't live with them, but we can't live without them. And it has been ever thus. Even when such financial fortunes weren't available to players and teams, winning was still paramount. That's why back in 1954 English referee Arthur Ellis got slated for his handling of the Brazil-Hungary World Cup match. Despite sending off three, it was the weak handling by Ellis of a match forever tagged the Battle of Berne that was to blame.
The same happened to another English official, Ken Aston, in 1962. Chile met Italy in front of nearly 70,000 spectators in Santiago. Disgraceful scenes saw players kick lumps out of each other and lunge into karate chops. Only two players were sent off. Again it was the referee who got most blame. In fact, Aston never took charge of another match.
Argentina and Germany, meanwhile, still haven't got over 1966. The Argie-bargie that led to Antonio Rattin getting his marching orders against England was a pre-planned conspiracy according to the South Americans. As for Geoff Hurst's second goal in the Final which bounced off the underside of the bar, put that down to joint complicity between a Russian linesman and Swiss referee Gottfried Dienst. The Germans still believe that.
Somehow England or their officials seem to have been involved in a lot of the shenanigans. Remember the 1974 Final? Referee Jack Taylor awarded two penalties in that match between Germany and Holland. The first came inside the opening minute and went to the Dutch. Nevertheless, they still complain that the former butcher from Wolverhampton cost them the trophy.
And what about the gentleman from Tunisia who ignored Diego Maradona's Hand of God in the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City in 1986? Even from a far off Press tribune, it was clear what had occurred. Luckily for Ali Bennaceur, the Argentine ace went on to score one of the greatest World Cup goals ever which somewhat stifled Bobby Robson's protests.
And, just four years ago, England were the victims again when Uruguayan official Jorge Larrionda failed to award Frank Lampard a clear goal after his shot came off the underside of the crossbar against Germany. The introduction of goal-line technology this summer should help eradicate those kind of errors, but don’t expect the men in the middle to stay out of the headlines…
Ravshan Irmatov (Uzbekistan), Yuichi Nishimura (Japan), Nawaf Shukralla (Bahrain), Benjamin Williams (Australia), Noumandiez Doué (Ivory Coast), Bakary Papa Gassama (Gambia), Djamel Haimoudi (Algeria), Joel Aguilar (El Salvador), Mark Geiger (United States), Marco Antonio Rodríguez (Mexico), Enrique Osses (Chile), Néstor Pitana (Argentina), Sandro Ricci (Brazil), Wilmar Roldán (Colombia), Carlos Vera (Ecuador), Peter O’Leary (New Zealand), Felix Brych (Germany), Cuneyt Cakir (Turkey), Jonas Eriksson (Sweden), Bjorn Kuipers (Holland), Milorad Mazic (Serbia), Pedro Proenca (Portugal), Nicola Rizzoli (Italy), Carlos Velasco (Spain), Howard Webb (England).