Why Bad Refs Are A Huge Problem For Women's Soccer
There are currently 22 referees, 49 assistant referees and seven support referees from 48 countries in Canada officiating the Women's World Cup. Every one of them is a woman, and they represent FIFA's effort to improve opportunities for women in the game by mandating all officiating of the games to be overseen by women.
In theory, it is encouraging to see FIFA supporting its manifesto of "the future of football is feminine." But in reality -- and not of their own doing -- many of these referees, particularly those without high-level national soccer league work, lack the experienced eye needed to handle the increased speed of the attack, aggressive play and sometimes diving inherent to a Women's World Cup.
I would argue that FIFA should have hired the best referees, period. Simply put, these were not the 22 best referees in the world, by a long shot.
In a statement to ESPN's Jeff Carlisle, a FIFA spokesperson responded: "Since 1999, the FIFA Women's World Cup has featured all female referees. This was a decision by the FIFA Referees' Committee following a suggestion by FIFA president Blatter ... At the same time we expect top quality standards across all areas at such an important competition. The selected officials for the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup Canada are experienced referees who, prior to the tournament kicking off, took part in a comprehensive programme to ensure that they were in peak condition and as well-prepared as possible."
My point here isn't to harp on human error -- we all know officials are trying to do their best -- and it isn't really even about the gender of the referees. It's about the incredible importance of getting calls right for women's soccer.
At the Women's World Cup, officials often are the most important people on the field, for their mistakes have the potential to not only change the outcome of the game but also affect the long-term health of soccer in affected countries.
For example, New Zealand seems to have been hit hardest by referee errors in this World Cup. In the team's first game, against the Netherlands, the referee did not award an absolutely clear penalty to the squad affectionately known as the Football Ferns. The call prevented a possible tying goal. The injustice continued in New Zealand's last game, against China. The Ferns needed a win to stay alive in the tournament. But the official awarded an incorrect penalty for a handball that didn't actually hit the hand of New Zealand's Betsy Hassett. China converted the penalty, tying the game, and a dejected New Zealand is going home partly because of two incorrect decisions affecting their fate.
Here's why that is such a big deal. By not advancing to the knockout stage, New Zealand will bring home $375,000 in award money rather than $500,000 for making it just one more game. (For context, the Women's World Cup winner will bring home $2 million, second place gets $1.3 million, third pockets $1 million, fourth gets $800,000, fifth through eighth get $725,000, and round-of-16 losers make $500,000.)
You may wonder: Is that amount of money really such a big deal?
The answer is yes. Most women's soccer programs rely heavily on FIFA award money to boost year-round training, specifically to help put resources toward Olympic training. The majority of women's soccer players typically are compensated only with stipends and from grants or endorsements from businesses that sponsor the team -- oftentimes that means players receive $15,000-20,000 per year, total. So you can see how every round of advancement at a World Cup has an enormous impact on the overall support levels.
The shaky reffing could also have a profound impact on the future of soccer in Ivory Coast, a Women's World Cup debutant that has received little or no support leading up to the tournament. Against Thailand, two missed offside calls led to two goals in a 3-2 loss that all but sealed Ivory Coast's fate. Had those two calls been made correctly, Ivory Coast would have been in the running to advance as a third-place team. Instead, it's going home.
FIFA's decision to feature only female refs should be applauded for its ambition but reconsidered in the future. Because a blown call in women's soccer can make or break an entire national program.