World Cup referee ‘bias’ and how women can end the curse

Friday June 29 2018


Slovenian referee Joel Aguilar (L) gestures to the VAR replay during the Russia 2018 World Cup Group F football match between Sweden and South Korea at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium in Nizhny Novgorod on June 18, 2018. AFP PHOTO 

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After the Monday Group B World Cup matches, many fans felt biased use (or non-use) of the video assistant referee (VAR) had allowed Spain to rob Morocco in their 2-2 draw and Portugal to pick-pocket in their 1-1 tie, allowing both European teams to advance to the Last 16 stage of the competition.

Things are being said about the Fifa World Cup being “rigged” to favour the big European teams and cheat the “Third World” countries and so forth. I am more generous. I didn’t see the bias, perhaps because I am more enthusiastic than knowledgeable about football.

But I also I think the things in sports like football, which lead to accusations of bias against non-European teams, are partly structural and deeply political (which is a separate issue from when an African team will win the World Cup — or why they haven’t yet).

Consider, for example, basketball. The United States has, by far, the world’s most competitive basketball league, the National Basketball Association (NBA).

A report notes that in the professional era, the US men’s basketball team has won the Olympic gold medal in 1992, 1996, 2000, 2008, 2012 and 2016, missing out only in 2004 when it got the bronze.

Basketball has evolved to favour tall, very physical players, driven in part by the necessity to make it more dramatic for television.


On height alone, the average NBA player is at 6 feet, 7 inches, and the US has a large pool of men over six feet tall to choose from.

It means countries like Bolivia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and The Philippines, which the World Atlas lists as having among the shortest people in the world, just don’t have a chance at Olympic basketball — until the way the game is played today is changed fundamentally.

Powerful athletes

In athletics, the introduction of starting blocks quickly gave advantage to powerful athletes with strong leg muscles, who can turbo-charge out of the start line.

Populations where such folks are fewer will find little success in the 100 metres and 200 metres races.

The high jump is a very interesting one. If you’ve been watching the sport over the past 30 or so years, you will probably have seen jumpers do only the backward flip (the Fosbury flop). Go back a few years and it was the Western roll, face down, in a scissors kind of move.

It’s remarkable the rule changes, including the positioning of the bar, and outcomes these style preferences led to.

Needless to say, the Fosbury flop has evolved to favour waiflike tallish figures like Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim and Russia’s Maria Lasitskene.

Africans, who are allegedly “big-boned”, are not about to prosper in the high jump — though the occasional outlier will always come along.

Men’s football is a sanitised blood sport. A wonderful article on the sports website Bleacher Report 10 years ago said it.

Entitled Football and War: The Warlike Origins of the Game, it remarked: “Football and many combative team sports are really just modern expressions of warfare and ritualistic rites of passage.…

“Great warriors were the highly paid stars of days past and enjoyed the admiration of the people, not to mention their kings and the ruling classes.…

“Great generals were superstars who could rise to control vast empires and large groups of people. An outstanding example of someone like this is Julius Caesar....

“Imagine him as manager of a club like Manchester United or Real Madrid.…

“It is in ancient Rome that we get a great comparison between the warfare of times past and the warfare we see on pitches across earth today. The Romans were warlike and organised, and they were used to winning.…

“There was also something that the Romans and other large ancient civilisations did to herald the coming of football in large stadiums before large crowds of people. They built large stadiums in order to watch their blood sports.…

“Cup finals are, in a lot of ways, an almost perfect illustration of the way that football is similar to ancient war.”

It’s hard to referee war, a contest in which sometimes even those who surrender are still slaughtered. And there will always be the big versus small powers, and anti-colonial subtext to football, and especially the World Cup, which, from our point of view, will approach the “coloniser” with suspicion.

Female referees

But then, someone gave me an idea.

“VAR will not solve the problems male fans have with football. What the sport needs is female referees,” she said. “Women will see and cut through the hyper masculinity and testosterone spill better than VAR.

“How do you introduce VAR, then get a bunch of men to sit around the screens to make the calls?”

She has a point. For now, though, there’s a war to win.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of and explainer Twitter: @cobbo3.