WORLD CUP '94: 5 DAYS AND COUNTING : The Weight of the World : Greater Stakes, Stricter Emphasis on Rules Interpretation Have Placed a Heavier Burden on Cup Referees Than Ever Before

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was, without question, the most blatant piece of cheating in the history of international soccer.

But the referee missed it.

The strange thing is, the incident need never have happened.

If Argentina's Diego Maradona had been a sportsman, he would not have punched the ball into the net with his fist and later claimed it was "the hand of God."

And if English soccer officials had not been so closed-minded, they would not have objected to having a Brazilian referee officiate England's 1986 World Cup quarterfinal match against Argentina in Mexico City.

But Maradona is not a sportsman. A once-gifted athlete, yes, but not a sportsman. And English soccer officials are notoriously insular. They feared a Brazilian would favor the Argentines, as fellow South Americans, and so Ali Ben Naceur of Tunisia was assigned by FIFA to referee the match.

To be fair to Ben Naceur, not many in the crowd of 114,580 at Azteca Stadium saw the foul. England goalkeeper Peter Shilton and Maradona both leaped to reach a high ball--Shilton to punch it away and Maradona to head it into the net.

Maradona got there first, but as Shilton and the English defenders immediately insisted and as television replays later confirmed, the Argentine captain used his clenched right fist to drive the ball into the net.

Despite English protests, the goal stood and Argentina went on to win the game, 2-1, and eventually the World Cup.

Pele, commenting on the affair later, said: "It is certain that if the Argentines or Uruguayans had been in the same position as the English, they would have trampled the referee."

Instead, all that happened to Ben Naceur was that he entered the World Cup history books as the official who blew the call.

It is the nightmare scenario that haunts all 24 referees selected to officiate this summer's World Cup.

There seldom has been a World Cup entirely free of refereeing controversy, and the problems faced by "the men in black" have ranged from the frightening to the absurd.

For instance, in the first World Cup, in Uruguay in 1930, police had to rush onto the field to separate players when fighting broke out between Argentina and Chile. In another game, between Romania and Peru, play became so violent that Chilean referee Alberto Warken was forced to eject Mario De Las Casas, Peru's captain. De Las Casas thus gained the unwanted distinction of becoming the first player to be thrown out of a World Cup game.

Even the championship match that year was not free of controversy, and Belgian referee Jean Langenus had to cope with the ludicrous demands by both the Uruguayans and Argentines that the ball used in the final come from their country. To solve the dilemma, a different ball was used in each half.

Today's referees have to be ready to deal with far more difficult problems. As the game has grown, so too have the pressures. Much more is at stake for the teams and the players; the prestige of winning is the same, but the financial rewards are incomparably greater.

As a result, there is more gamesmanship involved. Perhaps cheating would be a better word. Players feign injury to waste time or to get an opponent in trouble. Players take dives in the penalty area in the hope of drawing a penalty kick. Players use their hands illegally. They hold, they push, they spit, they fight.

One graphic illustration of how the sport has changed can be seen in the number of penalty kicks awarded in World Cup play. There were 55 in the first 10 tournaments between 1930 and 1974. But in the four since, 58 have been given.

On top of all this, today's game is played at a far greater speed than in years past. The players are better prepared and are perhaps fitter than their counterparts from the past, because of better training methods and better diets.

All of which means the referees, who sometimes are twice the age of the players, have to be fitter too. And more alert.

Belatedly, FIFA has recognized this and is acting to rid referees of the stereotyped image of being out of shape and out of touch.

Of course, the men in the middle, as they are known, have always been the targets of criticism, some of it justified. But now they are subjected to far more second-guessing than ever before. The eye of the television camera is everywhere, and instant replay, slow motion and videotaping give sportswriters and fans the opportunity to dissect every play.

FIFA is trying to standardize refereeing, at least at the highest level in world and continental championships, but it is no small challenge. Rules are rules, but their interpretation varies. European referees, for example, allow a greater degree of physical contact, that is to say, stronger tackles and shoulder charges, than their South American counterparts. Other differences also exist.

On the soccer field, the referee is both judge and jury. His decision is what matters. He has two linesmen but they only make calls on offside and out-of-bounds plays, and even those calls can be overruled.

What might appear from the stands to be a clear foul is not necessarily what the referee sees. He has a different angle and might invoke the advantage rule or spot another infraction unseen by more distant viewers.

The seven most important words in the rules of soccer, it has been pointed out, are these: "If in the opinion of the referee . . . "

No one else's opinion matters; the referee has total control.

During the most recent World Cup, in Italy in 1990, referees received more criticism than perhaps ever before. Unfortunately, much of it was justified.

The referees had been ordered by FIFA President Joao Havelange to crack down on violent play, under threat of being sent home if they did not. The result was chaos. Some referees punished the most innocuous of fouls, others ignored blatant fouls. Communication between referees and their linesmen was poor.

By the end of the tournament, a record 170 yellow cards had been issued and 16 players had been tossed out of games, including Argentina's Pedro Monzon and Gustavo Dezotti, who became the first players to be red-carded in the championship final.

The abiding image of Italia '90, at least from the officiating standpoint, is of referee Edgardo Codesal Mendez of Mexico being surrounded and jostled by angry Argentine players, including Maradona, who did or said enough to be given a yellow card.

It is not an image FIFA is proud of, and world soccer's governing body has set out to change it in this summer's tournament. Here are some of the changes:

-- The maximum age of the participating referees has been fixed at 45, with the intention of lowering it in the future.

-- Instead of using referees as linesmen, this World Cup will be officiated by 24 referees and 24 specialist linesmen.

-- The "man-in-black" phrase is no longer applicable. Instead of wearing all-black uniforms, referees will be sporting fuchsia, silver or yellow shirts.

"They are fairly conservative but more attractive than the traditional black jerseys," said Scotland's David Will, chairman of FIFA's referees committee. "The image of referees is gradually changing, and we think this is part of the modernization of the image."

-- All referees and linesmen will be based in Dallas during the tournament and will travel to matches in teams of four, grouped according to language compatibility when possible.

"You may rest assured that we will see better control of matches in 1994," Joseph (Sepp) Blatter, FIFA's general secretary, said last December in Las Vegas.

Blatter, who is from Switzerland, visited the United States again last March when all of the referees underwent a series of physical and written tests and attended seminars on rules interpretation.

"Very precise instructions have been given, principally about changes in emphasis," Will said. "We talked about changes in the psychological approach of referees and linesmen to soccer so that, hopefully, in the World Cup we shall see attacking soccer.

"We have tried, by changing the psychology of the referees, to take away the advantage from defenders and give it to the forwards."

One of the new interpretations of the rules will be to consider tackles from behind as serious fouls.

"If it is serious foul play, it is automatically an expulsion," Blatter said. "If there is a tackle from behind, it must be a red card. It cannot be a yellow card."

Yellow cards, or cautions, also will be given to players who fake being fouled by taking a dive, Blatter said.

Whether all these changes will result in more open and attacking play, rather than the defensive doldrums that characterized the 1990 tournament, remains to be seen.

An effort has been made but it will still be up to the referees to make the calls.

"The man in black will not be in black any longer," Blatter said, "but he will still be in charge."

World Cup Referees

These are the 24 referees for the 52 matches of the 1994 World Cup. They are listed by name, age, occupation and country.

Referee Age Occupation Fabio Baldas 45 Clerk Leslie Mottram 43 Teacher Jamal Al-Sharif 37 Civil servant Jose Torres Cadena 41 Businessman Manuel Diaz Vega 39 Manager Pierluigi Pairetto 41 Veterinary surgeon Ali Mohammed Bujsaim 34 Civil servant Neji Jouini 44 Manager Philip Don 42 Headmaster Sandor Puhl 38 Director Ernesto Filippi Cavani 43 Lecturer An Yan Lim Kee Chong 34 Customs officer Bo Karlsson 44 Bank clerk Joel Quiniou 43 Computer specialist Francisco Lamolina 43 Businessman Arturo Angeles 40 Engineer Heinz Hellmut Krug 38 Sports educationalist Kurt Rothlisberger 43 Teacher Renato Marsiglia 43 Systems analyst Rodrigo Badilla Sequeira 36 Office clerk Peter Mikkelsen 34 Teacher Mario Van Der Ende 38 Teacher Alberto Tejada Noriega 37 Surgeon Arturo Brizio Carter 38 Lawyer

Referee Country Fabio Baldas Italy Leslie Mottram Scotland Jamal Al-Sharif Syria Jose Torres Cadena Colombia Manuel Diaz Vega Spain Pierluigi Pairetto Italy Ali Mohammed Bujsaim United Arab Emirates Neji Jouini Tunisia Philip Don England Sandor Puhl Hungary Ernesto Filippi Cavani Uruguay An Yan Lim Kee Chong Mauritius Bo Karlsson Sweden Joel Quiniou France Francisco Lamolina Argentina Arturo Angeles United States Heinz Hellmut Krug Germany Kurt Rothlisberger Switzerland Renato Marsiglia Brazil Rodrigo Badilla Sequeira Costa Rica Peter Mikkelsen Denmark Mario Van Der Ende Netherlands Alberto Tejada Noriega Peru Arturo Brizio Carter Mexico

Four other referees are on call as reserves:

* Vassilios Nikakis, Greece

* Shin-Ichiro Obata, Japan

* Salvador Imperatore, Chile

* Marcio Rezende, Brazil

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