Protecting Referees at the Copa America Centenario

By Cali Nelson

One of the biggest officiating issues at the 2015 Copa America were certain players’ treatment of officials and the failure of tournament organizers to offer referees appropriate protection.  These issues were evident from the very beginning of the tournament. In Brazil’s opening match against Peru, Neymar removed the referee’s vanishing spray during a free kick, and was given a yellow card.1 While this seems like a small issue, it shows a lack of respect for the official, the job he is trying to do, and his authority to officiate the game.  Neymar followed this up with far worse behavior in Brazil’s next match against Columbia. After he was sent off for an attempted head-but in a large scrum at the conclusion of the match (which he started by blasting the ball into a Columbian player’s back after the whistle), Neymar waited in the tunnel for Referee Enrique Osses, grabbed him around the neck, then cursed at and insulted him.  Neymar was suspended for the rest of the Copa America, and fined $10,000. 2

This issue is not exclusive to the Copa America. At the 2015 Gold Cup semi-final between Mexico and Panama, a large number of Panamanian players rushed at Referee Mark Geiger after the final whistle,3 and Panamanian player Jamie Penedo pushed an Assistant Referee. 4 Yes, Geiger had an awful game, but as Grant Wahl writes: “No referee, including one that has had a brutally bad game, should ever feel in danger for his safety.” 5


While respect for officiating and referee safety is a sport-wide issue, there are steps CONMEBOL and CONCACAF can take at the Copa America Centenario to mitigate it.  Better and more alert security personnel would be a welcome change, as it would prevent officials from being mobbed and accosted by a large number of players after a game, and allow the officials to leave the field safely.  It would also prevent referees and players from being pelted by debris thrown by fans after controversial decisions, which has been a large issue in past CONCACAF games.6

Daily Mail Photos of Mexico-Panama Scrum

 Another possible change would be to provide referees with a different way to exit the field rather than the same tunnel the players use in order to prevent post game confrontations while tempers are still heated.  Or even simply not allowing players to loiter in the tunnel while the officials are leaving the field or placing more security personnel in the tunnel. Both of these options would have prevented or mitigated the Neymar incident in last year’s tournament. In addition, CONCACAF and CONMEBOL should place an emphasis on respect for and the safety of referees by continuing to suspend and fine players who act aggressively or extremely disrespectfully toward match officials or their assistants. While players may not agree with every call an official makes, they must respect the official’s decision, his authority, and the symbols of his authority.  The confederations must make clear that physically accosting a referee, invading his personal space, or attempting to intimidate him is not an appropriate response to a controversial call.  Poor, sub-par officiating will always be a part of the game as no referee is perfect, and players need to deal with poor or controversial decisions in a respectful and professional manner.  

These changes wouldn’t only help officials and their well being, but could also help to ensure a better product on the field this summer as well.  Referees are people too, and distractions such as fears for their safety or having to manage players who refuse to respect their authority detracts from their ability to officiate the rest of the game. It makes a hard job that much harder, and in no way helps to increase the standard of officiating. These incidents also often cause players to miss games, or possibly even the rest of the tournament, due to suspensions. They create controversies that become the story of the tournament, rather than the players and the play on the field.


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

  1.  MailOnline, James Andrew for. “Neymar Booked for Removing Referee’s Vanishing Spray as Barcelona Star Inspires Brazil to Copa America Victory.” Mail Online. June 15, 2015. Accessed April 25, 2016.
  2.  Mehrota, Aakriti. “Neymar Grabbed The Referee By The Neck In The Tunnel.” TheHardTacklecom. June 21, 2015. Accessed April 25, 2016.
  3.  Wahl, Grant. “Mexico-Panama Controversy Is Not Going Away for Flawed Gold Cup.” Gold Cup Controversy Reverts CONCACAF Back to Its Corrupt Ways. July 25, 2015. Accessed April 25, 2016.
  4.  “Soccer-Panama’s Penedo Banned for Pushing Official, Team Fined.” Yahoo Sports. July 24, 2015. Accessed April 25, 2016.–sow.html.
  5. Wahl, Grant. Mexico-Panama Controversy Is Not Going Away For Flawed Gold Cup.
  6. Ibid