FIFA World Cup 2014, Brazil – by PMNW Patron Howard Webb
To be selected to officiate at a FIFA World Cup finals is something quite special. To be fortunate enough to be involved in two World Cups is not only a great honour but also fairly unusual. At FIFA World Cup 2014 in Brazil, only 4 referees from the 33 in attendance were making a return to the greatest football festival on the planet, together with 13 assistant referees. However, significantly, only one trio was making a return. The team representing The Football Association from England; Mike Mullarkey, Darren Cann and I.
The road to the World Cup finals in Brazil for the candidate referees had begun many months before, with attendance at various preparatory seminars in Zurich, Rio de Janeiro and Gran Canaria, and involvement in a variety of FIFA tournaments such as the Under 20 and Under 17 World Cups, the Confederations Cup and the World Club Cup. Based upon various criteria, the initial shortlist of officials was reduced until, in early January, the final list of 91 officials was announced to the world. This figure was made up of 25 referees with 2 assistant referees each and 8 reserve referees each with a reserve assistant referee. The competition had been strong and many quality officials missed out. Only 10 European referees made the cut from over 20 who are Elite-listed by UEFA, so the sense of relief and satisfaction at being selected was strong.
Having been informed of our successful inclusion in the final list, thoughts initially turned to our previous involvement in the World Cup finals, in South Africa 4 years earlier. We knew that our success at that tournament would make a strong impact on our 2014 tournament, and that in fact we were going into somewhat unchartered territory. No referee in the modern era had returned to a World Cup finals tournament having taken charge of the ultimate game, match 64, The World Cup final at the previous tournament. We were realistic enough to know that nobody had ever refereed 2 final matches and had no reason to think that this would change. After all, why would it? FIFA have a good number of talented and capable officials to choose from for the final. Going into a tournament knowing that it wasn’t possible to reach the end was unusual, but we hoped it would make us a little more relaxed having ‘been there, done that’. As such, we didn’t set ourselves specific outcome goals as we know from experience that you can’t control the number or type of appointments you receive at a tournament; so many external factors come into play which affect this. All you can do is control your own performances. As such, we set ourselves performance goals and worked with Professor Ian Maynard (sports psychologist who works with PGMOL officials) pre-tournament to ensure we went to Brazil in the best possible frame of mind.
I also learned from the experience of 4 years earlier when I had done some acclimatisation work at Sheffield Hallam University to deal with the altitude we would encounter in South Africa. I’m not sure how much difference that work made, but it certainly did me no harm and I decided to repeat the exercise prior to Brazil 2014 by undertaking acclimatisation for the heat and humidity which we would face, especially if appointed to the northern Brazilian venues such as Manaus, Fortaleza and Natal. 8 sessions followed throughout May, performing interval sessions on a non-motorised treadmill in an environmental chamber at temperatures of anything up to 40 degrees celsius and 85% humidity. In order to replicate a real match situation, a full 90 minutes was spent in the chamber in each session. It really was torture. The hardest training I have ever done in my life, both physically and mentally, but I knew it would stand me in good stead. Not only could I see my physical output improve over time but I also knew that psychologically the session would do me good because I knew that I could cope with such conditions for the length of a match. Having experienced extreme heat and humidity when refereeing in Fortaleza during the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup, and subsequently become quite ill due to dehydration, I knew what a real challenge the conditions could present and wanted to be as prepared as I possibly could be.
So, feeling fully prepared physically and mentally, I flew down to Rio on 31st May together with my wonderful team of assistant referees. We are blessed in this country to have some very talented assistants who are amongst the best in the World. I’m fortunate that my career has coincided with 2 of the greatest ever in Mike and Darren. We’ve worked together so many times before and developed such great trust amongst the team. Even now, I’m often amazed by the quality of their decision making. It gives a referee great confidence going into a major tournament when supported by such skilled professionals.
Our base in Rio was one with which we were all very familiar, having spent around 4 weeks there in 2013 at a preparatory workshop and for the Confederations Cup. Our hotel, the 5 star Windsor Barra, occupied a prime sea front location in the up and coming west Rio district of Barra da Tijuca. Access to the beach was really easy and regular post-training dips in the warm South Atlantic were a real treat. This was a huge departure from what we’d experienced in South Africa, when the referee HQ had been the remote walled country club of Kievits Kroon near Pretoria which, whilst being luxurious, was difficult to explore from. Our hotel in Rio was well-equipped with a gymnasium, games room and TV room, all for exclusive use of the match officials. There was also a roof-top pool. We also had the backing of an excellent support team which included physiotherapists, a doctor and 6 massage therapists. FIFA vehicles and drivers were made available for us to use to explore the area during down-time.
The 12-day pre-tournament seminar involved several sessions of video review, with around 160 clips from previous tournaments being examined in various areas including handball, DOGSO, penalty area incidents, awareness/anticipation and player management. The aim was to gain consistency across the group of referees, irrespective of which part of the World they were from. A video assessment was carried out, using online technology, in order to assess the outcome of the learning in terms of consistency in the various areas. The clips which gained the least consistent answers were re-visited.
Huge importance was placed on being in the right place at the right time. This was particularly emphasised during the outdoor integrated training sessions involving physical drills and technical training, with simulated match situations being created by youth players. The excellent facilities of the Centro de Futebol Zico, owned by the Brazilian legend who we met and chatted to on several occasions, was used for this purpose. Instant video feedback was available at the training ground, so situations could be reviewed immediately.
This was particularly useful for the assistant referees who performed repeated offside drills, some of which became really quite complex as the days went by and the players became more skilled at timing their moves. As usual, the assistant referees rose to the occasion and showed high levels of accuracy, with Darren and Mike yet again being 2 of the best. In order to glean an even greater understanding of the difficult job assistant referees have, and to better appreciate the communication they need from the referee when making offside judgements, I even had a go on the line… needless to say, my accuracy was nowhere near that of Darren and Mike! However, it was an excellent exercise and reinforced to me the benefits of letting the guys know whether there was a touch on the ball, who made the touch and whether the ball was played intentionally or merely by deflection.
Having completed a full FIFA fitness test in Zurich in March, there was no additional test in Brazil, but we were subjected to a ‘fitness check’ by way of dynamic yo-yo, a variation of a standard intermittent fitness test with movement around the diagonal of the field of play in 20 metre bursts. The check would reveal any underlining injuries that any of the officials may be carrying, but there was no pass/fail point.
FIFA World Cup 2014 saw several innovations and in the pre-tournament seminar phase in Rio we prepared for these. We visited the Maracana Stadium in order to test the goal line decision system. Of course, having had experience of a very similar system in the Premier League throughout season 2013-14, we were at an advantage in feeling familiar with this. We were also provided with information relating to the potential use of ‘cooling breaks’. These would kick-in if the wet bulb globe temperature (WBGT, which takes into account not only heat but also humidity) exceeded 32 degrees. In such circumstances two 3 minute breaks would take place at 30 minutes and 75 minutes respectively. The time lost for the breaks would be added onto the time shown on the ‘time allowed’ board at the end of each half. The WBGT would be continuously monitored by the FIFA match co-ordinator throughout the match. If the temperature dropped significantly during the 90 minutes then the 2nd break wouldn’t happen, and vice-versa.
The 3rd innovation created the biggest reaction from the media and general public, that being the introduction of vanishing spray to be used at attacking free-kicks to ensure the defensive wall remained 9.15 metres/10 yards away from the ball. Despite the fact that I was aware of its successful use at previous FIFA youth tournaments and knew it had been used successfully in North and Latin America, honestly speaking I had my reservations about it pre-tournament. We spent some time on the training ground practicing its use, deciding where best to wear it on the waistline of the shorts. We also established best practice in terms of where to use it on the field of play and what procedure to follow, drawing upon the experience of those officials who had used it before.
The opening match – Brazil -v- Croatia, kicked off in Sao Paulo on 12th June. This prestigious appointment went to my good friend from Japan, Yuichi Nichimura and his team. Yuichi had worked with me as 4th official on the previous World Cup match, the final in Johannesburg 4 years earlier. I imagine it’s unprecedented for a referee to officiate in consecutive World Cup matches.
We had to be patient for our first appointment and continued to work hard on the training ground on a daily basis every morning. The afternoons were spent watching the matches on TV. It really was football heaven, with as many as 4 matches being played on some days.
On 19th June, in the capital Brasilia, we took charge of match 21, Colombia -v- Ivory Coast, a match in the 2nd group stage. Both teams had won their opening match which reduced the pressure on them. Games between nations from different continents is what the World Cup is all about and we were delighted with the appointment. There were several players involved who we knew well from the Premier League.
The match kicked-off at 1pm in the extremely impressive Estadio Nacional de Brasilia, with a 65,702 capacity crowd. The stadium was almost exclusively yellow as the Colombian fans made it feel like a home game for them, with the exception of a small pocket of Ivorian fans. The weather was warm, around 26 degrees, but nothing to what I’d experienced in Fortaleza the summer before.
The match passed smoothly, with only 2 yellow cards being necessary and a good attitude from the players. I also had an opportunity to use the much talked about vanishing spray after about 20 minutes, but not before it had fallen from my waistband in the 2nd minute when I began to sprint on a counter-attack! The match was one of high quality, especially in the 2nd half. The full-time whistle was followed by plenty of handshakes, which was satisfying. The final score of 2-1 to Colombia created a carnival type atmosphere not only in the stadium but also in our hotel which had been invaded by Colombians! Their celebrations went on long into the night. Despite the satisfaction we were feeling at a job well done, our mood was dampened by the result of the England -v- Uruguay match which immediately followed ours. Having rushed from the stadium back to our hotel (via the Budweiser fridge in the FIFA office!) we caught the second half on TV and were disappointed to see a loss which virtually put England out of the tournament. Yet again we were fervently supporting our national team, as we had been 4 years earlier, despite what some people might think!
Despite England’s result, we left Brasilia the next day for the 2 hour flight back to referee HQ in Rio, feeling happy as we reflected on a job well done. At a tournament it’s always a great feeling to get that first match under your belt. It’s only at that point that you really feel part of the tournament.
We had a further wait for our next assignment. One of the tricks of being successful in tournament football is to not over-analyse the fixtures in anticipation of which you might receive. It’s not easy though because we are there to work and we all want to be involved in matches. We tried to stay relaxed and continued to give 100% on the training ground.
When our next assignment did come we were thrilled with it. Match 49, the first of the knockout matches, when things become really serious. This is where one of the teams would go out, where matches become frantic and emotions fraught. All matches at this stage are big ones but this one involved the home nation Brazil which meant the eyes of the world were on it. Their opponents Chile had looked really good in the group stages and we knew, in all likelihood, that we would be in for a tight affair.
Curiously the parallels with 4 years ago, in South Africa, were remarkable. Not only did we referee the same fixture of Brazil -v- Chile in the same Round of 16 but it also fell on the same date of 28th June. Going into the match, we hoped it would go just as well as it had at Ellis Park, Johannesburg.
The mind games started the day before the match with the Chilean contingent suggesting that the referees at the World Cup wouldn’t be strong enough when officiating Brazil, whilst the Brazilians retorted by claiming offence at the thought that they needed the referees to help them through. Of course this is all water off a duck’s back and is something I’ve experienced so many times before.
At 1pm in the Mineirao Stadium, Belo Horizonte, the match kicked off. Naturally all 56,091 seats were occupied and the atmosphere was intense. I would suggest it was as intense an atmosphere as I’ve experienced in 25 years of refereeing, which has included many big games. This was my 42nd full International match and I would be required to draw upon all that experience.
An early Brazilian goal settled things down somewhat but Chile put things back on a knife edge when they capitalised on a defensive mistake to equalise. We sensed that this one was going to go all the way. Our nerve was tested early on with a strong penalty appeal for Brazil but any contact was minimal and certainly insufficient to be deemed as foul play, despite the huge roar of 50,000 people in the stadium and no doubt 200 million across Brazil.
The biggest moment came on 61 minutes, with the teams still locked at 1-1. A long cross, which left me a little distant from play due to poor anticipation on my part, was controlled by Brazilian attacker Hulk. From my position, albeit 27 metres away, I was able to see that Hulk brought his right arm around and that the ball was controlled through a combination of chest and bicep. Without contact with the arm the ball would, in my opinion, have reacted rather differently than it did, dropping nicely to his foot before he knocked it past the Chilean goalkeeper into goal. I knew the use of the arm had been crucial. As the stadium erupted and Hulk wheeled away, I penalised the handling offence and cautioned Hulk. It wasn’t lost on me that this was a huge moment in the match and could have proved to be a huge moment in the World Cup for these two teams.
The match went into extra-time during which neither team could find a break through. Brazil had the better chances but it was Chile who came closest to snatching a win, with substitute Pinilla hitting the crossbar with a blistering strike in the very last minute. My full time whistle seconds later took the match to the lottery of kicks from the penalty mark. The game had been an intense examination of the refereeing skills of my team and I and we felt we had come through well. 7 yellow cards were necessary and 51 free-kicks (the 2nd highest figure in the tournament, eclipsed only by the 54 in the quarter-final match Brazil -v- Colombia).
Brazil won through in a tense decider from the penalty mark, which provided great entertainment for the watching World. Over 19 million people watched the match in the UK alone during a peak time Saturday evening slot and the match became the most ‘tweeted-about’ sporting event ever, exceeding the number of Twitter entries for the Superbowl of 2014. When we returned to our dressing room, mentally and physically exhausted, we were delighted to receive message after message on our mobile phones congratulating us on the performance and confirming that the big decisions were correct. We’ve always hugely appreciated the support we’ve received from lots of people whilst engaged on tournament duty and especially from those within the referee family. This was no exception.
We returned to Rio the next day, where we carried out the usual match day +1 recovery training which involved low-intensity jogging on the promenade. The huge profile and exposure of the match the day before became evident as we jogged along, with motorists slowing down and shouting ‘WEBB, WEBB’ through open windows.
The de-briefs at FIFA World Cup 2014 were conducted in a similar way to those in South Africa 2010, with several matches being reviewed at the same time on video on a big screen in the conference room. All the referees who were at HQ participated as clips were discussed, with the usual aim of sharing good practice and identifying areas for development. After our two matches three clips were shown from each, all of which were positive, and we felt we had done enough to earn another appointment.
On rest days we took the opportunity to visit local landmarks, including the impressive Sugar Loaf mountain which we reached by cable car. As James Bond fans the 3 of us were keen to see the location where Bond battled Jaws on a cable car roof in the 1979 film Moonraker! We also went to a nearby favela named Rocinha (little farm). We’d heard lots about the favelas and some of our hotel staff lived in Rocinha, so we were keen to see what life was like there. We visited with German referee Felix Brych and his team, who were some of our closest friends at the tournament. The experience was a memorable one. The favela had grown on a hillside with houses seemingly on top of one another in a higgledy-piggledy manner like nothing we’d seen before. However we were made to feel welcome by the locals.
We had the chance to watch the quarter-final between France and Germany live at the Maracana, one of 3 matches we saw there. Then, together with the rest of the world, we watched on in astonishment as Germany beat Brazil in the semi-finals in the way they did. There was a genuine sense of mourning in the country after that. The Brazilian people were simply stunned.
We were pleased to be on the list of retained referees when it was announced after the quarter-final stage but we were also realistic in knowing that several factors contribute to the appointment process, including geography and personal history with the teams involved. We knew options for another match were limited and so it turned out with the teams who made it through to the semi-finals. Sometimes even non-football matters can have an impact. Prior to us leaving Rio for home FIFA confirmed they were delighted with our contribution and that we couldn’t have done any more.
Naturally we were thrilled for our good friends from Italy, led by Nicola Rizzoli, on their appointment to the final and were happy to share with them the benefit of our experiences from 4 years earlier. It was pleasing to see them subsequently deliver the match to a safe conclusion.
FIFA World Cup 2014 was another amazing experience for us. The universal view seems to be that it was one of the greatest World Cups and it was a privilege to be a part of it. The matches were fast-paced and open with teams playing to win. By and large the players played in a correct manner, with cautions down from 241 (3.8 per match) in 2010 to 187 (2.8 per match) in 2014. Dismissals were also down from 17 to 10. Goal line technology worked well and was crucial in two matches when it assisted in making a result-defining indication.
Cooling breaks were used only once, in the hot and humid northern coastal town of Fortaleza during the quarter-final match Mexico -v- The Netherlands, when the temperature exceeded 32 degrees.
And as for the vanishing spray, its use was so widely accepted as a positive introduction that the UEFA Champions’ League, UEFA Europa League and Barclays Premier League will see it being used in their competitions next season. I’m also now a convert to the idea!
Whilst slightly disappointed that we hadn’t been utilised more, we flew home with a sense of pride at how we had performed. We felt grateful for the opportunities afforded to us and honoured to have represented English refereeing at a major tournament once again and, in fact, for the final time. As a team we are too old to be considered for the 2016 European Championships in France. However, we can look back on a truly amazing journey through 6 tournaments together and look forward safe in the knowledge that we have excellent English colleagues to take the baton on to France 2016, Russia 2018 and beyond.
Howard Webb, 8th August 2014