Tuesday, June 29, 2010

"Just like a wavin' flag..."

WORLD Cup referees went back to school today – and not before time, you might well think.
All those not on match duty elsewhere were called to class at Pretoria's F H Odendaal school, to practice such fiendish tasks as running with a flag in hand or not getting hit by the ball.
Well, not quite everyone was there to answer the register – predictably enough, despite assurances to the contrary, two under-fire refs sent notes to excuse their absence.
Roberto Rossi and England’s villain Jorge Larrionda both opted to spend the day in their hotel rooms instead of facing colleagues – or, more understandably perhaps, the mouth-foaming Press.
While those two dunces stayed in bed, England’s last man standing Howard Webb could saunter around as school swot having achieved the remarkable feat of ... making no major blunders so far.
(While, admittedly, doing about as sensibly as could be when both Italy and Slovenia started playing silly beggars - resisting temptation to flash a red card or several, that might only have turned the closing moments even more chaotic.)
He even felt comfortable enough chatting about – while, of course, playing down – his chances of being given the final, the refereeing equivalent of being made head boy.
And there was a visit by former pupil Urs Meier, who might have offered Larrionda advice on being England’s public enemy number one – though there’s more competition this time from the coach and players.
Meier was the Euro 2004 official who had the audacity to disallow Sol Campbell’s late ‘winner’ against Portugal, merely because an opponent attacked the elbow of England’s Brave John Terry.
But despite suffering torment by tabloid in 2004 – with nuisance calls and death threats from England’s lunatic fringe – magnanimous Meier was yesterday surprisingly sympathetic.
He spoke out in favour of goal-line technology – and insisted serving officials all agreed, but were too frightened to speak out until safely retired.
Those running today’s lessons – including hapless headmaster figure, refs’ boss Jose Maria Aranda - had done their best to recreate match conditions.
The portable plastic goals and patchy training pitches, overlooked by stern redbrick school halls, looked more village green than Soccer City.
But some rickety speakers blared out a recording of incessant vuvuzelas, one to file on your shelves next to Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music.
Meanwhile, elsewhere Sepp Blatter was making an astonishing apology – and U-turn on video technology – in rather plusher surroundings, a swanky hotel in upmarket Sandton.
His words still got quickly back to refs’ school, however – printed on 200 sheets of A4 and rushed to Pretoria by police escort.
Over-reaction or otherwise, Sepp’s statement was weighty indeed, marking a ‘road to Damascus’ conversion – if, indeed, this proves more than just a time-stalling sop to be kicked back into long grass when – that is, if – the current fuss fades.
It could yet mean war with Uefa president Michel Platini, if his pet project of two extra assistant referees on the touchlines actually gets moved to the sidelines instead.
But then, Blatter is bidding for Fifa re-election next summer and might be vulnerable to someone promising populist reform.
And ven the folksy-talking, ‘Teflon Sepp’ must have felt embarrassed on Sunday, the afternoon that left English, Uruguayans and Swiss all for various reasons sent to the bottom of the class.

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