“Their team spends as much time as possible in the final third of the pitch. They take their time with the ball on their feet… Pay attention here: how they play with two very quick wingers ready to start a counter-attack, even when they don’t have the ball.” When you listen to the lecture, it is easy to guess that this is a football coach giving instructions about the opponent to a team. However, a deep understanding of the game has become more and more of a pivotal part of the preparation for other protagonists in elite football: the referees.
An exhaustive study of the tactical and technical characteristics of modern football is one of the key elements of the seminars for pre-selected referees for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia and the FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2019. Jean-Paul Brigger, the head of FIFA’s technical division, attends each of these continental gatherings and is constantly ready to pinpoint tendencies and provide analytical data to help the referees understand the game better, predict actions and eventually improve their positioning and decision-making. “Understanding the game has always been important for the referees, of course, but when the game has become so fast, and with a huger variety of tactics, it has become truly paramount in elite football,” explains Brigger following the seminar for CONCACAF and CONMEBOL referees, which took place in Miami between 25 and 29 April. “If you know a team is constantly pressing the opponent’s defenders when they have the ball, for example, this has a direct impact on your positioning as a referee. Because you know there’s a higher possibility of a decision needing to be made, you better stay closer to the ball. It’s the kind of knowledge that pays off very clearly.” Ever since he took helm of FIFA’s Refereeing Department in 2011, Massimo Busacca has been working relentlessly to reach consistency and uniformity across the board. As FIFA takes the unprecedented step of carrying out joint preparation for both men and women on the way to the World Cups, the former Swiss international referee sees the technical understanding of the game as another weapon to minimise the amount of mistakes as much as it’s humanly possible. “I’m looking to incorporate every element that may reduce the number of mistakes,” says Busacca. “The knowledge of the game of football and of the teams that play the match can be a weapon for that. The mistakes will always be there, but we try to constantly set the bar higher. A referee that in ten important decisions makes one mistake can be a top referee. If he or she commits two or three mistakes, then they can no longer be considered a top referee.”
The sessions conducted by Brigger have been received with an enormous degree of interest from the prospective World Cup referees, even more so when the analysis involved the women’s game, which has been going through such visible and fast-paced evolution. “Receiving technical training allows us to understand why players do certain things, to be able to recognise tendencies in the games and to adapt accordingly,” said Canadian Carol Anne Chenard following the seminar in Miami. “Having feedback from the technical department has also identified to the referees the evolution of player and team tactics. This allows us to properly prepare ourselves to deal with what we will see on the field of play.” Fresh from taking part in Brazil 2014, where he became the first American referee to officiate in the knockout stage of a FIFA World Cup, Mark Geiger was also pleased to see the emphasis given on technical studies in Miami. “Proper positioning and having the correct angle is crucial in evaluating situations during a game, because without it a referee cannot make a correct decision,” he explained, while summing up the ultimate – and by no means easy - goal of being able to anticipate actions. “Knowing how the teams play will help the referee determine where the next phase of play will be and what will happen next”.