The FIFA anthem rings as the referee grabs the game ball off the stand. Songs of each nation sound as their fans’ voices echo throughout the stadium. Taking in the crowd, the official gets goose bumps, a pounding heart, and feels shivers.
In that moment, after the ball is placed in the center circle and the whistle sounds for kick-off, the referee blocks everything out except for what is between the four corner flags.
This is how former World Cup referee Brian Hall explained the focus and mentality a referee has that is officiating under a global spotlight. The ability to ignore exterior distractions is what he feels differentiates a top-class referee from a regular referee.
Being mentally tough is just a part of the job at the World Cup level. Officials are required to make split second decisions that can potentially alter the outcome of a game. Unlike officiating at the MLS level where consequences for a bad call have time to ease over time, one at the World Cup ensues worse repercussions. Hall, who officiated in the 2002 FIFA World Cup, understands the mental strain put on these referees.
“You have the stress now for a week and a half after making a bad call. Not sleeping, wondering what I could’ve done to get that call correct,” Hall said. “Well, now you’re in the World Cup, you have three games or an elimination game and one bad decision costs a team, and I would say a nation.”
Many people find that routines make performing a job easier. Being in a rhythm and a typical surrounding help in making a person feel more comfortable. Events such as the World Cup can be challenging to adapt to, which is why Hall believes officiating at this high rank is psychologically and mentally stressful for referees.
“For four weeks, I’m not at home, I don’t have my normal routine,” Hall said. “I have to train my mind to adjust and be flexible enough to manage a different environment on a day to day basis.“
In mentally preparing for a big match, Hall said he would never watch any other games because he did not want to think or worry about what happened. He does this so he is able to visualize his upcoming game. Visualization is used as a relaxation mechanism, where officials are able to go through a situation in their mind before it even happens.
“You spend a lot of time thinking about calls, or if I’m refereeing Luis Suárez, how am I going to manage him as a player,” Hall said. “You go through these and you try to visualize solutions before they happen,”
Soccer is constantly changing. The speed of the game has increased with everything from the ball to the athleticism of players being different than what it used to be. Referees have to be able to adapt to the changes, especially moving to officiating at the World Cup level. Creating the best angle of vision to make calls is so important given the swiftness of play and the consequences of a questionable call.
“What you teach referees is that the optimal line of vision seen, having the best view, is sometimes better than being close to the play,” Hall said. “There can be some holding, pushing, shoving, and I’m not seeing it because I don’t have a good angle of vision, I only see his back.”
During the Brazil vs. Croatia game, a referee made a controversial call in the 83rd minute that disallowed Croatia striker Ivica Olić’s goal for a foul on Brazil goalkeeper Júlio César. Today, fans are able to watch a replay from multiple angles when referees are expected to make a decision from their own standpoint.
“It’s so tough for a referee when you have less than a split second to make a decision and you can show instant replays from six different angles and make the call,” Hall said.
Part of referee training to educate their eyes and mind is to repeatedly watch video clips of different characteristics of the game. Much like a player having to train physically to perfect their game, referees have to train their mind and body to be able to make calls with the mental and physical fatigue felt during a real game.
Hall feels what differentiates a World Cup referee from a professional referee is their ability to see things in slow motion. He explained that his mind and eyes are trained to see a play in a slower speed, even though it’s fast paced.
“Picture yourself sitting in front of the television watching that game, when that super slow motion comes up, you have a much better perspective of ‘was a foul committed or not, was there contact or wasn’t, did he play the ball or didn’t he,’” Hall said. “That’s why (Mark) Geiger is so good. One of the reasons is he seeing those things in that super slow motion that the rest of us don’t have to see on a regular basis.”
Just like the players, referees at the World Cup are faced with mental and psychological stress with a game that they constantly have to adapt to. When a single decision can change the entire outcome of a game, all that they can do is just hope that they get it right.