Another big game came and went, and once again refereeing decisions became a primary part of the discussion in the aftermath. In game official Yuichi Nishimura’s view, Dejan Lovren tugged down Brazilian striker Fred in the penalty area, leading to a spot kick that Neymar converted to bring the score to 2-1 – a lead Brazil would never surrender in a 3-1 win.
Pundits around the world disagreed with the call, but some on the U.S. National Team felt unsurprised by it. After all, they had just been warned against doing exactly what Lovren did. A FIFA-mandated presentation in their São Paulo hotel days before the beginning of the tournament’s start covered the use of hands in the penalty box, among a host of other issues the referees would focus on at this World Cup.
These are the issues the U.S. will need to be sharp on in front of Swedish referee Jonas Eriksson, who will take charge of their opening match against Ghana in Natal on Monday.
“They already say that we have to watch out with the hands in the box and on corner kicks,” midfielder Jermaine Jones said when asked his opinion of the penalty call. “We know the rules and we have to be careful.”
Former referee Esfandiar “Esse” Baharmast delivered the presentation, which also addressed areas like tactical fouls, dissent against referees, and what constitutes a foul, a yellow card, or a straight red card.
In reviewing that last distinction, Baharmast took the players through video of specific plays, then asked them to debate whether the play was a simple foul, or deserving of something a little harsher. The team’s answers (and subsequent debate) revealed another way the team’s multiple backgrounds must come together in this crucial moment in Brazil.
“We have guys that play that play in Germany, we have guys that play in the Premier League, we've got guys that play in MLS, and guys that play in Mexico,” defender Geoff Cameron said. “We know the difference of some styles. Maybe in the Premier League, they allow you to play a little bit more, while maybe in South America they might call it a foul.”
In one situation, the video showed two players jostling for a 50/50 ball. The attacker took a heavy touch, and the defender’s challenge took out the defender and not the ball. Shown the video, the players were asked to determine what sort of punishment the play merited.
“I think most of the European-based guys, including myself, we though 'OK, it's just a foul, get on with it,'” said midfielder Aljeandro Bedoya, who plays for FC Nantes in the France’s Ligue 1. “But the other half said ‘Yeah, that's a yellow card.'”
In the middle of this debate was Baharmast, an American official who knows a thing or two about the pressure of making a tight call in a World Cup game. The defender in this situation had a raised foot, he explained. The referee in the video awarded a yellow card.
“It's good that we see that kind of thing, because maybe it will prevent us from making those kinds of fouls,” Bedoya said.
Also on the docket was the issue of handballs, and what constitutes a “natural position” of the arms when on the defensive. Here, as on the field, there was a bit of debate between the players and the referee – something that Baharmas encouraged, both in the presentation and on the field. However, he emphasized that any conversations with officials, all of whom will speak English, must remain at a respectful level throughout the game.
“Players and refs will always have their differences, but it's nice to get a baseline of what they're looking at, and the things they're concentrating on,” said U.S. midfielder Brad Davis.
This relationship between players and referees is a two-way street, but on the players’ side, the expectations for the referees at the World Cup is fairly simple. In fact, one could argue it’s the same thing any player wants from any referee, anywhere.
“The best referees in the world, they're consistent from the first whistle to the last one, and they're personable,” Cameron said. “I think the presentation was positive. Now we know what to expect.”