2022 World Cup final could see its first referee from U.S.

Only eight living people have officiated a World Cup final. More people have orbited the moon.

So, statistically, Howard Webb had a better chance of becoming a Supreme Court Justice than an appeal to the final game of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

“I found out I was playing the finals on Thursday and the game was on Sunday,” Webb recalled. “I’m quite amazed that I managed to sleep at night because the game is so huge. You know everyone you know will be watching in the world. Everyone connected with you personally and professionally will be keeping an eye on this game.”

Another name will be added to this list next month when a referee is selected for the final of this year’s World Cup in Qatar. And this time, the selection could also be historic for another reason, as three of the 36 central judges selected for the tournament are women.

Salima Mukansanga of Rwanda, Yoshimi Yamashita of Japan and Stephanie Frappart of France, who officiated the final of the 2019 Women’s World Cup, are the first female referees ever invited to a Men’s World Cup. Three assistant referees, including American Kathryn Nesbitt and Mexican Karen Díaz Medina, will also work at the tournament, which begins on November 20.

For Webb, who has spent the past five years campaigning for women officials as general manager of the New York-based Professional Referee Organization (PRO), the news was almost as exciting as the call he received in South Africa.

“It’s fabulous, isn’t it?” he said. “And why not? Why can’t officials of both sexes officiate at the highest level? It wasn’t supposed to be a conversation, but because it hasn’t traditionally been the case, it’s actually still common practice. Luckily, it’s going in the right direction.”

Ismail Elfath is the only American center official invited to Qatar, and that too is notable given that it is the third consecutive World Cup where a US referee has been selected.

“The word honor is right at the top,” said Elfath about his first World Cup selection. “But also responsibility. It’s quite a platform that you get as a World Cup referee when it comes to passing the torch, teaching, educating, mentoring.

“It takes a whole village to get someone to this point. And for me, the best way to repay them is to be here at the World Cup.”

Referee Howard Webb gestures during an interview in 2020.

Former umpire Howard Webb gestures during an interview in 2020. Webb says he’s noticed a shift in perceptions of US umpires around the world.

(Richard Drew/Associated Press)

Webb, who is leaving PRO, the organization responsible for administering refereeing programs for professional leagues in the US and Canada, to take up a similar position in his native England, said he has seen a change in US officials, both in their work as well as in the way work is generally perceived in the football world. That’s why a record five Americans – Elfath, Nesbitt, assistant referees Kyle Atkins and Corey Parker, and video assistant referee Armando Villarreal – will be in Qatar.

“They showed the world just how good U.S. officials can be,” said Webb, 51. “I think it’s the legacy of investments that go back to 2012 when the Professional Referee Organization, with some forethought, on behalf of US Soccer and Major League Soccer was founded. [It] allowed officers to become professional or semi-professional and devote much more time and energy to that role. It’s just a higher level of professionalism.”

Elfath, 40, who was born in Morocco but moved to the US when he was 18, is an example of that growth. He has been an MLS referee since 2012 and this season was voted the league’s top official for the second time in three years. He then ended the campaign by working in last Saturday’s lively MLS Cup final between LAFC and the Philadelphia Union. However, he didn’t receive his FIFA badge until 2016, making his promotion to the World Cup a quick one.

World Cup officials who only get their first World Cup appearance 72 hours before kick-off are rated after each group game, and those who do well progress to the round of 16. And just like teams, if they continue to excel, they will keep moving forward, with the best official working in the finals, something no American has ever done.

Elfath wants to be the first.

Referee Ismail Elfath, left, discusses a conversation with Italy's Matteo Gabbia during their U20 World Cup qualifier.

Referee Ismail Elfath, left, discusses a conversation with Italy’s Matteo Gabbia during their U20 World Cup qualifier against Mali in June 2019.

(Sergei Grits/Associated Press)

“I would let myself and everyone who supported me down to just go there and say I’m going to attend,” he said. “My goal is to have the best World Cup I can have. I will make every effort to put myself in a position to be selected for the deepest game possible, the finals.”

Webb’s finale turned out to be bittersweet. He dealt a record 14 yellow cards, including two to Johnny Heitinga of the Netherlands, the second coming into overtime with nine minutes remaining. Seven minutes after Heitinga was kicked out, Andrés Iniesta scored the only goal in Spain’s 1-0 win.

But Webb also missed a red card for Netherlands midfielder Nigel de Jong, who drove his cleats into the chest of Spaniard Xavi Alonso midway through the first half. The more than 910 million television viewers watched the game repeatedly in their living rooms, but in the days leading up to the video review, Webb was among the few viewers who missed the game.

“You know that your career is defined by certain moments and certain games,” Webb said. “We’re a bit like goalkeepers in that respect, you can make a really good game, but you remember individual situations that are seen as mistakes.

“The unique position we have is that if we make a mistake, it will affect someone else. It affects one of the teams.”

In the end, the missed call didn’t decide the World Cup because Alonso and Spain won. But it made Webb, with his prominent bald head and fierce expression, one of the most recognized public servants in the world, recognition he never wanted. It’s a lesson he’s likely to share with the PRO referees in Qatar.

“You just want to come out of the game clean,” he said, “where ideally nobody talks about you as an official.”

https://www.latimes.com/sports/soccer/story/2022-11-08/referees-american-women-fifa-world-cup-2022 2022 World Cup final could see its first referee from U.S.

Emma Bowman

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