Late in the second half of their Round of 16 game at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, England defender Harry Maguire and Colombia center back Davinson Sanchez intersected near the right of the penalty box in front of the Colombian goal. Maguire poked his right toe forward to play the ball back to a teammate. Sanchez put his right toe out in an attempt to deflect the pass. Maguire fell to the ground as though he’d been struck by lightning.
This was a tricky moment for Mark Geiger, the referee working this crucial game. Whether Maguire dove or slipped, he’d not been fouled. Geiger got it right, waving off all shouts for a penalty to be awarded to England and allowing play to continue.
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He also got the penalty call correct that gave England its second-half lead. And he got it right in the first half, when midfielder Jordan Henderson tried to draw a red card against Colombia’s Wilmar Barrios when they were aligning for a free kick and Barrios intentionally brushed his head against Henderson’s jaw. Henderson’s acting looked like something out of a middle-school production of “Death of a Salesman.” What Barrios had applied was more a snuggle than a head-butt, and Geiger read it properly.
For getting all these calls exactly right, one would imagine Geiger waking up on Independence Day as the world’s most celebrated New Jersey native since Bruce Springsteen. But that’s not how it went. Because Geiger is an American working in the world of soccer, and that always conveys a heavier burden.
Colombia striker Radamel Falcao said after the game that he “found it peculiar that they put an American referee in this instance. To tell you the truth, the process leaves us a lot of doubts. He spoke only English. Some bias was certain.”
Commenting on the decision not to present a red card to Barrios, having viewed the situation from directly behind Henderson, Maguire said, “If he has shown him a yellow card for it, it has to be a red. From my view, he moved his head toward Jordan’s face. He definitely made a connection and cut his lip.”
Former Premier League referee Mark Clattenburg, who never was chosen for a World Cup, criticized the decision not to disqualify Barrios, saying England “aren’t getting any justice” from the video assistant referee while working as an analyst for the UK’s ITV network.
Argentine soccer great Diego Maradona called Geiger’s performance a “monumental theft” of Colombia, asserting that if one were to do a Google search on the referee it would be clear he “shouldn’t be given a match of this magnitude.” Twice the Major League Soccer referee of the year, Geiger is working his second consecutive World Cup. He was presented an assignment in the 2014 Round of 16, a game between France and Nigeria. What Google also told Maradona: “Geiger, an American, what a coincidence.”
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When everyone’s unhappy, there’s a good chance the referee did OK.
The England-Colombia game was Geiger’s third assignment in Russia, and one could see from early in the game that he would not be accorded the respect customarily granted to a referee. This is most likely because, unlike Bjorn Kuipers of the Netherlands, who will work the England-Sweden quarterfinal, Geiger is not someone the key players will encounter in the UEFA Champions League or the European Championship.
Players on both sides tested Geiger’s patience early and often with behavior that ventured well beyond the bounds of the game’s rulebook, or even customary bad practices. They attacked each other more eagerly, confronted one another more aggressively and disputed unfavorable calls made by Geiger more assertively.
To regain control of the game, Geiger wound up showing a total of eight yellow cards to players, but never sent off a player — because none committed a genuine red-card offense. Thus, the game was decided properly, by the two full teams playing the game to its conclusion. He missed a deflection that should have resulted in a corner kick for Colombia late in the game. For the most part, though, he got the big calls correct.
Earlier in the tournament, Geiger was accused by a player from Morocco of asking for a Portugal player’s jersey at halftime of their game, which would constitute a severe breach of protocol. Geiger strongly denied the accusation, and FIFA “unequivocally condemned” the allegation and asserted Geiger “acted in an exemplary and professional manner.”
Being an MLS referee on the world stage has its challenges, obviously, which go beyond making as many correct calls as possible. Despite soccer’s growth here over the past three decades, the 100-year headstart much of the world enjoyed will always be in place, and even those Americans who embrace it will be regarded as novices or philistines by some who are entrenched in the sport.
Geiger was accused of being “American” by two of its great players. Against that charge, he has no defense.
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