It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these posts. The England-Belgium game is going to be one hell of a refereeing challenge. Both England and Belgium will be advancing to the knock-out round. The problem is one side of the bracket is far scarier than the other side. The winner of the group goes into the scary bracket.
Here is the situation per the Ringer:
each side has a goal differential of plus-6, and each has scored eight goals, tied for the most of any team in the World Cup. The next tiebreaker is head-to-head performance, so if England and Belgium were to play to a draw in their final game, the winner of the group would be determined by “fair play”—based on how many yellow and red cards the teams accumulated over the course of the group stage.
England has two cautions and Belgium has three cautions.
Let’s assume that each team desires to go to the weak bracket.
England’s preference order is therefore:
Lose, draw with at least 2 more yellow cards than Belgium, draw with 1 more yellow card than Belgium (to equalize yellow card count and go to drawn lots), draw with same or fewer yellow cards or win outright.
Belgium’s preference order is:
Lose, draw with same or more yellow card count as England, draw with 1 less yellow card in the game, draw with 2 or less yellow cards in the game or win outright.
No one wants to win which means each team’s first choice of losing is highly unlikely.
England really needs to get at least one more yellow card than Belgium. Belgium knows that England has a strong incentive to get one more caution.
All of these players are highly skilled professionals. They all know how to go into challenges in ways that will almost guarantee cautionable contact. Thankfully, there is enough of a shadow of a future that bone breaking, tournament ending tackles are not incentivized. Enough of them are skilled enough assholes who will talk their way into cautions.
So what do you do as a referee?
The primary purpose of a referee is to facilitate a safe and fair game by using the laws of the game as interpreted by FIFA and applied with expert judgement. Referees at the highest levels will scout their teams just like the teams will scout their referees. Everyone involved has a book on them. Some referees have a history of allowing players to talk more than other referees, other referees will caution fast even if other referees won’t card until there is are multiple bones poking through the skin.
The referee team knows that this match has some fairly odd incentives. They know that their decisions (commission and omission) regarding cautions have significant future implications. Some actions are automatic yellows, and these referees won’t miss those. Most actions that could lead to cautions could also just be direct free kick fouls. The challenge will be that once the referee team establishes the discretionary yellow card threshold, they will need to hold that line while keeping players safe.
Personally, I would caution more aggressively with challenges than dissent. If I had the whistle and a player quietly “motherfucks” me where no one else is hearing it, I’m not giving him the caution. If the player is publicly histrionic about his dissent, my hands are tied as he brings the game into disrepute, but quiet dissent that does not raise the temperature of the game so that it endangers other players will have a long amount of rope before I would reach for my front pocket.
I think that the objective of the referees is to get every player out of the game safely without too much concern for the caution count while not giving cheap cautions. That sounds slightly contradictory and it is, but that is the tension, in my mind, for this crew.