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Cup referees fail in task to stay in background

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Cup referees fail in task to stay in background
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Referee Yuichi Nishimura from Japan gives penalty kick against Croatia during the group A World Cup soccer …

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) -- World Cup refereeing boss Massimo Busacca had a simple wish before this World Cup.

''Our goal is for the referee to remain in the background during a match and for the players to be at the center,'' Busacca said in the run-up to the tournament.

Well, so far that's not quite working out.

After just two days of the World Cup, the match officials have planted themselves firmly at the center of most conversations about the tournament in Brazil.

The tournament started badly for the referees in the first match on Thursday, when the hosts Brazil were awarded a crucial penalty against Croatia that gave them a 2-1 lead.

Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura, an experienced official who usually runs games in the J-League, saw defender Dejan Lovren place a hand on the arm of Brazil's Fred and the striker reacted by hurling himself to the ground. Nishimura blew for a penalty and Neymar scored it, transforming the game.

There was no shirt pulling, no grabbing. Most top-level European referees are used to the antics of strikers but Nishimura, perhaps accustomed to the more sedate and, perhaps, more honest Japanese league, fell for the trick.

The Croatians were furious with the decision and said it helped decide the match. Coach Niko Kovac described it as ''a robbery'' and said the ''the whole world saw the big mistake'' by the referee. He said that ''if that was a penalty, we should be playing basketball. Those kinds of fouls are penalized there.''

Even more galling for Croatia was the fact that Neymar really shouldn't have been on the field at all after whacking a Croatian player on the chin early in the game.

The day before the tournament started, The Associated Press asked Busacca how his referees could spot the difference between genuine fouls and cheating.

''For the referees it can be difficult to distinguish a foul from a simulation as it is mostly a question of centimeters,'' said FIFA's head of refereeing. ''Nevertheless, match officials are trained to be in the best position on the pitch where they can take the right decision. We developed several exercises and we are training them every day to make sure the referees are as well prepared as possible.''

In the second game of the World Cup, Colombian linesman Humberto Clavijo drove the Mexican team to distraction by twice ruling out goals. The first was an offside call that was highly marginal, the second was plain inexplicable.

The big match on Friday was the repeat of the 2010 final between Spain and The Netherlands. Football dominated this game, which was refereed by one of Europe's top officials, Nicola Rizzoli of Italy.

Four years ago, this game was a brutal battle in Johannesburg that English ref Howard Webb simply could not control. He handed out 14 yellow cards and one red as both teams tried to slug their way to success.

Busacca said there was little referees could do to prevent players from spoiling a game. ''The referee is there to control the match, but he is not playing. It is our job to make the right interpretation and to ensure that the Laws of the Game are respected.''

Friday's game in Salvador was easier to handle for Rizzoli and he managed the game well.

The toughest decision he had to make was awarding a penalty to Spain, a close decision when Dutch defender Stefan de Vrij slid in and made contact with Diego Costa. The Spain striker hit the ground with the lightest of contacts. But the penalty was correctly given, with the defender paying the price for a risky challenge.

The referee remained firmly in the background in this game as the Dutch recorded a stunning 5-1 victory over the world champions.

The Ivory Coast's Noumandiez Doue presided over the least contentious game of the tournament so far later Friday, when Chile beat Australia 2-1.

Doue refereed with confidence, reacting firmly when necessary but frequently sharing a joke and a smile with players.

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