According to Werner Helsen, sports scientist at the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), referees typically cover six to eight miles in a 90-minute match. Working as a referee requires speed, endurance and the ability to change direction quickly, Emotional skills and judgmental stress to handle players’ temperaments. They have to keep up with some of the fastest athletes in the world for over 90 minutes while enforcing the rules of the game.
“There’s a lot of high-intensity racing that the referee has to do,” said Mark Geiger, who in 2014 became the first referee to referee a World Cup knockout match from the United States. “Working with international and professional players, it’s extremely demanding on the body, and that’s why they train the way they do.”
Aptitude test for refs
World Cup referees must pass fitness tests approved by FIFA that assess sprint speed and aerobic fitness.
“Fitness is your passport,” said Rick Eddy, director of referee development with U.S. Soccer. “If you don’t have a good fit, you’re not going to get ahead and you’re not going to pass the test, and tests are getting harder and harder in the last few years.”
The FIFA Referee Committee selected 36 referees, 69 assistant referees and 24 video match officials for this year’s World Cup.
At World Cup matches in Qatar, there are five on-field officials: one referee in charge of judging the match (sometimes called the center referee), two assistant referees on opposite sides of the field, and between the fourth and fifth officials. Benches perform administrative duties and assist the judge. Video assistant referees (VARs) monitor match footage and evaluate replays off the field.
To become a FIFA referee, a person needs to work in their country’s top league for at least two years, Eddy said. To get to the World Cup, US referees must first be recommended to FIFA through a process managed by the Professional Referees Organization (PRO) of North America, as well as US Soccer.
There is also a challenging test of speed and agility that all recommendations must pass. According to FIFA and Geiger, it includes:
- Six 40-meter sprints with no more than 60 seconds of recovery between each repetition. Each sprint must be completed in six seconds for male judges and 6.4 seconds for female judges.
- A grueling interval test, repeated 40 times non-stop, consisting of a 75-meter run (15 seconds or less for men; 17 seconds for women) and a brisk 25-meter walk (18 seconds or less for men; 20 seconds for women) – It is equivalent to 4,000 meters or 10 laps of a 400 meter track.
- A change of direction test called 7-7-7. Geiger, who retired from professional umpiring in 2019 and is now director of senior match officials with the PRO, said the test involves running seven meters fast, then turning 90 degrees to the left and running another seven meters fast, then turning 90 degrees right. And sprinting another seven meters. He said the drill had to be performed twice, and the judges had to do it in 4.9 seconds or faster each time.
“They’re trying to get the test to mimic the demands of a referee in a game,” Geiger said. “In a game, they don’t run constantly. They run some and then they take a little break. They can walk.”
Assistant referees have a slightly different test, which involves sprints and side transfers, to simulate what referees do in a side-by-side match.
The Washington Post asked 27-year-old American pro soccer player Drew Skundrich to try out tests at his former club DC United’s training ground in early November. Later, Skundrich said the tests gave him a better appreciation for the work of a judge.
“It was definitely tougher than I expected,” he said. “The refs have to travel a lot, which makes sense because they have to adapt to the pace of play. Some games can go back and forth very quickly, and refs have to cover the whole thing, unlike defenders or attackers who can stay on one side of the field, so it makes sense that they have to do these fitness tests. “
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Referees must be continuously trained to keep up with the demands of the game. For 34-year-old Joe Dickerson, who has been a full-time referee with the PRO since 2018 and officiates major league soccer games, that means year-round training.
“I think we have to be as fit as the players,” said Dickerson, who has not refereed a World Cup.
His training regime fluctuates throughout the year. During the MLS offseason, Dickerson focuses on light jumping and light lifting before turning to high-intensity interval training (HIIT) to prepare for the FIFA Referee Fitness Test. During the season, Dickerson does a lot of cross-training, including swimming, to help him recover as competition loads.
In addition to cycling, Eddy, who was a referee in MLS before his job with US Soccer, also advocates swimming to build aerobic strength. He advises the judges to mix it up during the exercise.
“You want to be fit to referee games. You don’t have to referee matches to be fit,” Eddie said. “It’s about balance. You know, one day it might be a sprint workout, the next day it might be a distance workout, the next day it might be in the pool recovering.
Training for the mental game
By understanding a team and a player’s style of play, a referee’s job can be done more smoothly. All good umpires, Eddie said, keep a notebook of players’ tendencies. Professional referees must anticipate where the ball will be and position themselves accordingly.
“It’s not far,” Dickerson said. It’s speed and being able to be explosive and dynamic. Then the other hardest part is reading the plays. We put a lot of work into watching film and trying to understand what the teams were going to do so we could anticipate where to be before we were there.
Staying a yard or two away The best angle to view the game can mean the difference between catching or missing a penalty call.
“There’s all these things we’re trying to balance,” Dickerson said. “We want to make the right decisions, so we have to do that with the physical challenges of being in the right place.”
World Cup in Qatar
Latest: Portugal cruised to a comfortable 6-1 win over Switzerland and will face Morocco in the quarter-finals on Saturday after the Atlas Lions stunned Spain on penalties earlier on Tuesday.
USMNT: The US Men’s National Team lost to the Netherlands, 3-1, in their opening round of 16 match on Saturday. The United States has not won a World Cup knockout game since 2002, when it defeated regional rivals Mexico in the round. 16 in South Korea.
Knockout Round Schedule: A World Cup group stage full of shocking upsets and dramatic twists will now lead to a knockout round that promises more surprises.
Today’s World View: The 2022 World Cup has been mired in controversy since Qatar was awarded the title more than a decade ago. Sometimes drowned in noise: Concerns about the tournament’s climate impact. Perhaps anticipating a backlash, Qatar made an ambitious pledge: to host the first carbon-neutral World Cup.