What’s With All the Violent Fouls?

A former referee has had enough of the rough play

Jose Roberto Wright has been predicting the worst since the early stages of this World Cup. Wright, who was 1990’s FIFA referee of the year, has been writing in a column in the newspaper Lance! that the rough play could lead injuries.

And although Wright approves of Marco Antonio Rodriguez for the Brazil-Germany match in Tuesday’s semifinal in Belo Horizonte—he’s “experienced and he’s not a referee who lets hard play go on”—his warnings have mostly gone unheeded.

First, there was Eddy Onazi’s broken ankle caused by a Blaise Matuidi tackle in a second-round match. Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi was also upset with a non-call on an Olivier Giroud elbow that John Obi Mikel said was delivered in front of American referee Mark Geiger. Then Neymar went down and was ruled out for the tournament with a fractured vertebra after being kneed in the back by Colombia’s Juan Camilo Zuñiga.

Both the Matuidi and Zuñiga challenges were observed by referees, but play was allowed to continue. The strangest non-call so far was Luis Suarez taking a chunk out of the shoulder of Giorgio Chiellini. Rodriguez was the referee in that Uruguay-Italy, though he (and his assistants) failed to see it.

Asked about Rodriguez during Monday’s press conference, Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari said referees miss a lot of things but their assistants “have to help.” Then it was Germany coach Joachim Löw’s turn. He pulled no punches, talking about a lot of “violent fouls, a lot of fouls from behind,” which weren’t being called. “We have to protect the Messis, the attackers,” he added.

In both the Onazi and Neymar cases, Matuidi and Zuñiga pleaded no malice. It is believable these challenges were not intended to injure; like many of the over-the-top fouls in this tournament, these were committed because the offending player was not in control.

Wright did not manage to avoid controversy in his own refereeing career. In Brazil, he’s infamous for his handling of an Atletico Mineiro-Flamengo match in the Copa Libertadores in 1981, in which he red-carded five Atletico players in the first half.

But Wright did attempt to lay down the law against violent play. In the Atletico-Flamengo match, he said he told the captains before the game that anyone who started kicking the opposition was going to be ejected. He followed through on his promise. And he has taken a stand against foul play in this World Cup. Now we will see if he is right about Rodriguez.