Sepp Blatter: Officiating a top priority

Updated: August 29, 2010, 3:35 PM ET
Associated Press

ULRICHEN, Switzerland -- FIFA president Sepp Blatter believes referees should be full-time professionals if they want to work at the next World Cup.

Blatter told The Associated Press on Sunday that improving the quality of elite referees is his top priority for the game in the coming months -- and beyond, if he is chosen next June to lead FIFA for a fourth four-year term.

Blatter said that if he's president, "only professionals" will be taken to Brazil in 2014.

"We must do something for the top referees," he added, speaking at a tournament held in his honor by his family's home village in the Swiss Alps. "You can't have non-professional referees in professional football."

Blatter's call for change followed a series of high-profile errors by World Cup referees in South Africa, where just two of the 30 selected for FIFA duty listed refereeing as their full-time job.

In June, Blatter promised FIFA would review how referees were prepared for future World Cups two days after witnessing England and Mexico eliminated on the same day following game-changing mistakes in their second-round matches. He apologized to team officials after each match.

Blatter said Sunday he will present a detailed report to the FIFA executive committee, which he chairs, at a meeting scheduled Oct. 28-29 in Zurich.

"It's a new approach to refereeing at the highest level," Blatter said, adding that younger referees would be preferred. FIFA currently requires match officials to retire at 45.

FIFA was already "doing well" in grassroots training, with $43 million budgeted for its global Refereeing Assistance Program before the next World Cup tournament kicks off.

"This will go on, but we must do something for the top referees," Blatter said.

He is a longtime supporter of referees being more dedicated and better paid, in order to raise standards and lower the risk of them being vulnerable to corruption. FIFA paid referees $50,000 to work in South Africa.

Blatter's latest comments suggest he could finally get his way, after conceding this month in an interview published on the German soccer federation's website that "there are other opinions" against full-time referees.

FIFA rewarded the two professionals at the World Cup by assigning Englishman Howard Webb to referee the final, and giving Japan's Yuichi Nishimura duty as fourth official for Spain's 1-0 extra-time victory over the Netherlands. Webb took extended leave from his job as a policeman because England's wealthy Premier League helps fund a roster of professional match officials.

Blatter said refereeing and helping choose hosts for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, which is scheduled to happen Dec. 2, are his two most important tasks.

Speaking in the sunshine at Ulrichen, which spreads across a narrow strip of flat land near the source of the Rhone river, Blatter was relaxed about a possible challenge to the presidency he has held since 1998.

One potential opponent, Asian confederation president Mohamed bin Hammam, has ruled himself out, while FIFA vice president Chung Mong-Joon of South Korea has not declared his intentions.

"The race is open," Blatter said. "I don't know where candidates could come from."

Now 74, Blatter said he had another four-year mission after successfully taking the World Cup to Africa: "Football in general is an economic power in the world. What we need now is a social and cultural acceptance of the game," he said.

He acknowledged working under "really tough" pressure over the past year because many people did not share his faith in South Africa to deliver a safe, well-organized tournament.

Since then, he has attended the women's under-20 World Cup in Germany and the first Youth Olympic Games soccer tournaments in Singapore.

Blatter said he was energized "more than ever" by a few days' recuperation in his home Valais region, where he said the work ethic was taught by his father Joseph, who worked as a mechanic after the family moved further down the valley to Visp.

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press