To make the most accurate calls during a football match, a referee is told to stay no more than 20 yards from the ball at all times. The only way to do this when the ball whizzes from player to player through 90 minutes of nearly non-stop motion? Run.
When the World Cup starts tomorrow in Brazil, players representing 32 countries won’t be the only ones performing impressive feats of athleticism. In each game, the referees will cover six to eight miles while scrutinising every move of the action. Players average an estimated seven miles per game, but typically stay within assigned zones, which can allow for short rests. Referees are in constant motion, tracking the ball all over the field. (Football players and refs log more mileage per game than athletes in other non-running sports.)
“The closer we are to the ball, the more credibility we have in our decisions,” says 39-year-old Mark Geiger, a veteran professional referee from Beachwood, New Jersey. “The game is so fast, so we have a lot of sprinting and pretty long runs that we have to do in order to give ourselves that credibility.”
Geiger, who has officiated professionally since 2004, will be the first American referee to participate in the World Cup since 2002. Geiger is guaranteed to referee only one game; which one won’t be decided until a few days in advance. On the basis of that initial performance, he may be invited to continue working as the tournament progresses. He partially attributes the honour to a fitness regimen designed to help him keep up with the world’s best players.
For the past six months he has ramped up his training, using tempo, sprint and fartlek workouts to prepare his body to shuffle, jog and sprint at least a 10K during each game in the tournament.
“When I started refereeing as a kid, I was hoping to just make a few extra bucks. I wasn’t really expecting to have to train for games,” Geiger, whose refereeing debut came at age 13, says. “I did run track in high school so that training was keeping me fit, but as I got older I grew my fitness training to prepare me for my matches.”
If you think you can match the physical stamina of a football referee, Hawkey suggests trying FIFA’s referee fitness test, which is one of many requirements to work matches at the international level.
The test requires you to complete six 40-meter sprints with 90 seconds of rest in between. Each sprint has to be faster than six seconds. After another 10-minute recovery, you are then required to complete 10 laps on the track, running 150 meters in 30 seconds and walking 50 meters in 35 seconds—a 2.5-mile fartlek in 21:30 with an average running pace of 5:20 per mile.
“But for me, that’s just your minimum requirement to be a referee,” Hawkey says. “Our standards are quite a bit higher than that.” Those standards include completing the same set of six 40-meter sprints, but with only 10 seconds of recovery instead of the 90 that FIFA requires. Hawkey also emphasises strength and explosiveness, putting the referees through weight training and plyometrics in addition to the 20 to 25 weekly miles of sprint, fartlek and tempo workouts.
Which is why Geiger passed FIFA’s test easily and now feels physically ready to handle the demands of the World Cup.
“There certainly is a lot of pressure. There are more cameras in these games so every decision that we make is going to be scrutinized and put under a microscope,” he says. “We are looking to just stay focused and trust in our physical and technical training, and have faith that we are going to make the right decision out there.
“The players deserve a quality referee,” Geiger says. “If we want to do a service to this sport then we need to step up and meet their expectations. It’s so important for us to be in that top physical form.”