MLS referee Mark Geiger would have done a fine job officiating the final match. (Ben Keller)
There is no arguing against the fact that this was the most watched World Cup among American viewers in history. Sunday’s crowning of Germany as World Cup champion over Argentina was watched by 26.5 million American households on ABC and Univision combined. This, of course, doesn’t account for the number of people who streamed the game online (something soccer fans do at a higher rate than fans of other sports) and the countless viewing parties, bars and restaurants that showed the game to large audiences.
But in a world in which public relations is the name of the game, FIFA balked at a fortuitous opportunity that fell into their lap to help boost American interest in soccer.
One of the most difficult things for FIFA is picking a referee for a World Cup Final. There are so many negative narratives and conspiracy theories that could arise if they aren’t careful with their selection.
FIFA decided to go with Italian referee Nicola Rizzoli to referee the final. On face value, that’s a fine choice because Rizzoli is an experienced and accomplished referee. He was in charge of refereeing the 2013 UEFA Champion League Final, has officiated Serie A soccer in Italy for years and officiated several matches in the Eurocup, making Rizzoli no stranger to the biggest stages in world soccer.
But a little conflict of interest arose prior to the game because FIFA’s appointment of the 42-year-old Italian for the final meant he would be refereeing his third Argentina match of the tournament. Aside from the fact that this had never occurred before, Rizzoli was the target of Belgium manager Marc Wilmots’ criticism after Belgium was ousted by the Argentines in the quarterfinals. Wilmots accused Rizzoli of favoring Lionel Messi and Argentina throughout the game. Add to that the fact that there is a long history of emigration from Italy to Argentina, and the stage was set for conspiracy theories prior to the game.
In terms of other possible officials to referee the final, renowned English referee Howard Webb was out of the question because he refereed the 2010 World Cup Final, Cüneyt Çakır and Marco Antonio Rodríguez had officiated the semi-finals and Ravshan Irmatov from Uzbekistan was thought to be a front runner for the final, but because he didn’t have a crew of linesmen working alongside him on a consistent basis, he was ultimately left out. Of all the possible choices to officiate the final, one of the only referees that met all the tedious criteria and would’ve caused the least amount of controversy was American MLS referee Mark Geiger.
Geiger had not officiated any matches for Germany or Argentina, he wasn’t from Europe or South America; he wasn’t from a country that would infer he might have any sort of bias for or against either country; and he hadn’t officiated any controversial games in his three assignments of the tournament. But above all, Geiger is good.
The 39-year-old from New Jersey had a fine performance officiating the Colombia vs. Greece game on June 14, following two days of shaky and suspicious officiating (most notably Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura’s highly questionable call of awarding Brazil’s Fred a vital penalty against Croatia in the opening match of the tournament and linesman Humberto Clavijo of Colombia denying Mexico of two legitimate goals by raising his offside flag. (Note: Clavijo was replaced for the rest of the tournament days later following a FIFA investigation into his performance.)
FIFA rewarded Geiger’s performance by giving him and his crew the marquee matchup between Chile and Spain, in which Geiger again did a commendable job. Then, Geiger became the first American to referee in the knockout stages of a World Cup after officiating the France-Nigeria Round of 16 match, another controversy-free match officiated by him.
So, although this fortuitous opportunity for FIFA to legitimize American soccer and its MLS officials could’ve worked as a convenient marketing ploy, it’s also something Geiger earned. Talk about the best of both worlds.
Luckily for FIFA, the final was a game largely free from controversy, and conspiracy theories weren’t one of the main talking points following the match. But whether people care to admit that American viewership and interest is important in soccer’s big picture, the numbers don’t lie. The United States is a country with more than 300 million people and, on average, has one of the highest rates of disposable income in the world. More importantly, the increasing success and growth of the MLS shows American interest in soccer is rising, but yet somewhat untapped.
Call it American arrogance or exceptionalism, but American interest in soccer matters. FIFA had the perfect opportunity to capitalize on that interest sitting in its lap, and it balked at the opportunity.