SEVERAL months before the 1999 Women's World Cup, I accompanied the United States national team to Brazil for a series of exhibition matches. One afternoon, at a training facility outside São Paulo, I was pressed into service to help officiate an intra-squad scrimmage. The team's coach, Tony DiCicco, handed me a red flag and told me to raise it if I detected any infractions.
The field was about 30 yards shorter than the regulation size, which is about 80 yards by 120 yards, and I was to patrol the left sideline. I was confident I could handle the assignment — I played soccer in college and have reported on the sport for more than two decades — but I was quickly proven wrong.
Within the first 10 minutes, the feisty American striker Tiffeny Milbrett stormed past me and hissed out of the side of her mouth: "You've already blown two offside calls. What game are you watching?"
She was right. I had missed those calls and who knows how many more. I realized I was watching world-class athletes with world-class speed and, not least, world-class guile. At this level, policing 90 yards of sideline was about 80 yards too many for me.
My brief but inglorious officiating career has been on my mind lately while watching the current men's World Cup, which culminates in Berlin tomorrow in the championship match between France and Italy. For the last three weeks, no player or coach has had as much of an impact on the tournament as have the referees. Instructed by FIFA, the world's governing soccer body, to crack down on divers, divas, cheap-shot artists, shirt-pullers, time-wasters and telegenic crybabies, they have responded, some might say overenthusiastically, by issuing a staggering total of 336 yellow cards (a caution that the player's next infraction will result in ejection) and 27 red cards ("your excellence is no longer required on the pitch, Mr. Rooney"). Depending on how you look at it, this issuing of cards either restored control to a noble sport that had been defiled by cheaters or ruined the World Cup.
Some would say that the fans have paid the price for this farcical parade of grown men wearing shorts and whistles running up to millionaires and waving cards in their faces. But what about the referees themselves? Many were ordered to turn in their little black notebooks before the Cup was over, and two suffered the sports equivalent of deportation.
A Russian referee, Valentin Ivanov, left Germany in a self-created yellow and red blizzard after handing out a record number of cards in the tempestuous Netherlands-Portugal match. An Englishman, Graham Poll, was sent home in disgrace after losing count of the yellow cards he had handed out to a Croatian defender.
What we need is a second set of eyes on the field. Even taking into account that Ivanov, like all top-level referees, was as fit as many of the players, how is it possible for one middle-aged man to monitor all of the eye-blurring chicanery that transpires among 22 players spread out across nearly 10,000 square yards? In the 59th minute of the Portugal-Netherlands debacle, for instance, Ivanov brandished a yellow card to a Dutch defender for a dangerous tackle and while recording the foul in his notebook, missed the Portuguese star Luís Figo head-butting Dutch midfielder Mark van Bommel. Had Ivanov seen what had happenned he would have given Figo a red card and ejected him from the game.
After all, we're talking about split-second decisions by men who are not even full-time referees — Ivanov is a teacher — and who for reasons known only to their loved ones, subject themselves to more than 90 minutes of physical and mental stress normally associated with a lion tamer. Wouldn't it be more humane if FIFA assigned two referees to every game — one fewer than the N.B.A. employs to oversee a playing surface roughly 6 percent the size of a soccer field? The individual responsibilities could be divided by territory — one half of the field to each — or by players' conduct, where one official focuses on "simulation" or playacting and the other on reckless fouling.
For years, though, FIFA has argued that soccer needs — to paraphrase President Bush — a lone decider. It insists that what differentiates soccer from other sports is the fluidity of its play. It points to the greatest aesthetically pleasing moment of this World Cup — Argentina's 24-pass goal against Serbia and Montenegro — and asks, what if some vigilant second ref had spotted a minor obstruction by one of the players downfield? The entire symphonic movement would have been whistled to a halt, denying soccer fans everywhere this indelible moment of the beautiful game. The more referees, goes the thinking, the more breaks in play. Far be it from me to reduce soccer to a staccato rhythm, but why shouldn't justice trump human error?
FIFA has steadfastly rejected the idea of using video replays to overturn a referee's decision during the game. Consider how fortunate France is not to have been eliminated early in the tournament when an official disallowed a goal against South Korea that video replays incontrovertibly showed had crossed the line. If a second referee had been properly situated to make the correct call, he could have consulted with his fellow arbiter and they would have gotten it right.
Having two referees is not a panacea but it might yield some surprising benefits. FIFA referees are required to retire at age 45 on the theory that their fitness and reflexes can no longer keep up with the speed of play. But by covering only half of the field, the best referees might be able to extend their careers five more years so that exceptional ones, like Italy's legendary Pierluigi Collina, would not be forced to hang up their whistles at the top of their games.
But to my mind, the best argument for the second referee is that when the fans and the players, unhappy with your call, look ready to vault the barricade and chase you to your car, it gives you someone to shift the blame to. Alas, I didn't have that luxury in Brazil.