Copa America Centenario Referees

By Cali Nelson


Source: US Soccer

While most of the attention at this summer’s Copa America Centenario will be on the stars on the field such as Lionel Messi, David Luiz, and Chicharito, there will be a third team also hoping for a series of good performances: the referees.  Though most of the attention during a match is on the performance of the players, the performance of the official matters quite a bit as well, as the quality of an official can vastly affect the match.  A good one can make a great game even better by controlling the match enough to guarantee player safety without destroying the flow of the match, but a bad one can make even the most entertaining match unwatchable, or even dangerous for the players and himself. For referees the mark of a good performance is often the absence of coverage or conversations about the officiating.  A great referee is often a mostly invisible one, who manages to keep the attention mostly focused on the players and not himself.  Thus selecting the right referees the officiate games is crucially important. To read more about how FIFA officials are selected and how officials for the Copa America may be selected please check out the page: How are Officials Selected?

He is certainly right to cross himself when he first appears before the roaring crowd. His job is to make himself hated. The only universal sentiment in soccer: everybody hates him. He gets only catcalls, never applause. – Eduardo Galeano, Soccer in Sun and Shadow: The Referee 1

Soccer officials are also often held to an impossibly high standard. They are expected to be exactly right all the time, with no margin for error.  With the advent of video replay every call or non-call can be scrutinized in super slow motion to the nth degree, and the correct call determined by every fan in the stadium, at the bar, or in their living room.  Even players are usually given the benefit of the doubt if they mistime a pass or mis-hit a shot, but an official missing a handball is usually seen as inexcusable. If a player doesn’t have his best game, maybe it is mentioned in passing, but if a referee is not in top form it will usually feature prominently in social media and media coverage of the game.  There is no forgiveness for an off day or a bad game, even for otherwise excellent referees.  It is an impossible standard to live up to.



This standard seems even more unfair when you examine the unique challenges officiating soccer presents.  The field of play is larger than most other sports, and there are only 3 officials to cover that space and account for 22 players. Contrast that with American football which has 7 officials for 22 players or basketball and hockey which have 3 officials for 10 players. There is no instant replay: you can’t go back and review an offside, a foul, or an out of bounds call, so you have to get the call right the first time, every time. The games are long with no breaks or timeouts outside of half time. To top it all off, soccer’s international draw and appeal means that language barriers can often become an issue if a player does not speak French or English. 



All these factors place officials under enormous amounts of stress and pressure. So not only do referees have to be expert mediators, top-level athletes, and know The Laws of the Game, they must also be unflappable and thrive under pressure.  For the CONCACAF officials selected, this pressure is only augmented by the federation’s desperate need for a solid and uncontroversial officiating performance.  Last year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup 2015 was marred by poor officiating and officiating controversies that hijacked the narrative of the tournament.  CONCACAF needs its officials to prove that they can handle officiating a prestigious international tournament, and begin to repair their damaged reputation. For more information on this check out: Why the Copa America Centenario is Important for CONCACAF Officials.

One way CONCACAF and CONMEBOL could mitigate some of this pressure and stress is by doing a better job of protecting their referees on the field. Last year’s Copa America 2015 and Gold Cup 2015 were both marred by incidents which threatened the safety of match officials and demonstrated certain players’ lack of respect for officials. These issues and incidents only add to officials’ stress and make their jobs more difficult than they already are, but there are steps CONCACAF and CONMEBOL can take to address this. For more check out: Protecting Referees at the Copa America Centenario.

Once the Copa America kicks off in June we will know whether the 3rd team is up to the challenge. If they are, they will be almost invisible, rewarded by minimal media coverage and further assignments as the tournaments progress. They will be unnoticed and unmentioned by the fans and media. Yet if the officials are not up to the public’s and participating teams’ (often extremely high) standards, they can be assured that they won’t hear the end of it.

How to cite this page: “Copa America Centenario Referees”, Written by Cali Nelson(2016). Copa America Centenario 2016 Guide, Soccer Politics Blog, Duke University, (accessed on (date)). 

  1. Galeano, Eduardo. Soccer in Sun and Shadow. London: Verso, 1998.