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Here’s what it takes to be a World Cup referee

Referees, who must pass a fitness test, typically cover a distance of 6 to 8 miles during a 90-minute match

Referee Ismail Elfath during last week's World Cup match between Cameroon and Brazil in Lusail, Qatar. (Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

They’ve trained their whole careers to perform at the World Cup — building endurance, strength and agility, and developing the mental toughness to handle the pressures of the game.

It’s not easy being an elite soccer referee.

While the attention of fans and viewers has been focused on the athletic prowess of the players at the FIFA men’s World Cup tournament in Qatar, the soccer officials overseeing the event also need to exhibit a world-class level of fitness.

Referees typically cover a distance six to eight miles during a 90-minute match, according to Werner Helsen, a sports scientist with the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA). Working as a referee requires sprinting, endurance and the ability to change direction quickly, as well as the emotional skills to handle the players’ temperaments and the stress of officiating. They have to keep up with some of the quickest athletes in the world for 90-plus minutes, all while enforcing the rules of the game.

“There is a lot of high-intensity running that the referee is going to need to make,” said Mark Geiger, who in 2014 became the first referee from the United States to officiate a World Cup knockout match. “Keeping up with international and professional players, it’s extremely demanding on the body, and that’s why they train the way they do.”

A fitness test for the 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, the director of referee development with U.S. Soccer. “If you don’t have good fitness, you’re not going to advance and you won’t pass the test, and the tests have been getting increasingly difficult in the past few years.”

The FIFA Referees Committee chose 36 referees, 69 assistant referees and 24 video match officials to work at this year’s World Cup.

At the World Cup matches in Qatar, there are five officials on the field: one referee (sometimes known as the center referee) who is in charge of officiating the match, two assistant referees on opposite halves of the field and fourth and fifth officials between the benches performing administrative duties and assisting the referee. Video assistant referees (VARs) monitor match footage and evaluate replays off the field.

To become a FIFA referee, an individual is required to work in their country’s top league for at least two years, Eddy said. To make it to the World Cup, U.S. referees first must be recommended to FIFA through a process that includes the Professional Referee Organization (PRO), which manages professional soccer referees in North America, as well as U.S. Soccer.

There’s also a challenging test of speed and agility that all refs 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 finished within six seconds for male referees and 6.4 seconds for female referees.
  • A grueling interval test, repeated 40 times without stopping, that consists of 75-meter runs (15 seconds or less for men; 17 seconds for women) followed by a brisk 25-meter walk (18 or less seconds for men; 20 seconds for women) — which equates to 4,000 meters, or 10 laps of a 400-meter track.
  • A change-in-direction test known as the 7-7-7. Geiger, who retired from professional refereeing in 2019 and now works as the director of senior match officials with PRO, said the test requires sprinting seven meters, then turning 90 degrees to the left and sprinting another seven meters, then turning 90 degrees to the right and sprinting another seven meters. The drill has to be done twice, he said, and referees must do it in 4.9 seconds or faster each time.

“They are trying to get the test to mimic what demands there are for a referee in a game,” Geiger said. “In a game, they’re not constantly running. They’re running some and then they take a small break. They may walk.”

Assistant referees have a slightly different test that involves sprints and side shuffles, to mimic what the referees do during a match along the sidelines.

The Washington Post asked American pro soccer player Drew Skundrich, 27, to attempt the tests in early November on a practice field of his former club, D.C. United. Afterward, Skundrich said the tests gave him a better appreciation for a referee’s job.

“It was definitely tougher than I expected,” he said. “The refs have to move a lot, which makes sense because they have to keep up with the speed of play. Some games can go back and forth really quickly, and unlike defenders or attackers, who can kind of stay on one side of the field, the refs have to cover the entire thing, so it makes sense that they have to do these fitness tests.”

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Training is year-round

Referees need to train consistently to keep up with the demands of the game. For 34-year-old Joe Dickerson, who has been a full-time referee with PRO since 2018 and works Major League Soccer matches, that means training year-round.

“I think we have to be just as fit as the players are,” said Dickerson, who has not officiated at a World Cup.

His training regime fluctuates throughout the year. During the MLS offseason, Dickerson focuses on light jogging 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, for recovery when the match load is high.

Eddy, who worked as a referee in MLS before his job with U.S. Soccer, also advocates for swimming, in addition to cycling, to build aerobic strength. He advises that referees mix it up when it comes to workouts.

“You want to get fit to referee games. You don’t want to referee games to get fit,” Eddy 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 might be in the pool recovering.”

Training for the mental game

Understanding a team and player’s style of play can make a referee’s job go more smoothly. All good referees, Eddy said, keep a notebook on players’ tendencies. Professional referees need to anticipate where the ball will be and position themselves accordingly.

Dickerson said: “It’s not the distance. It’s the speed and just being able to be explosive and dynamic. Then the other difficult part is reading plays. We put a lot of work into watching film and trying to understand what teams are going to do so that we can anticipate where to be before we have to be there.”

Being one or two yards off the best angle to see the play can mean the difference between catching or missing a penalty call.

“There’s all these things that we’re trying to balance,” Dickerson said. “We just want to make the right decisions, so we need to take that with the physical challenges of being in the right place.”

World Cup in Qatar

The latest: Portugal cruised to an easy 6-1 win over Switzerland and will face Morocco in the quarterfinals on Saturday after the Atlas Lions stunned Spain in a penalty shootout earlier Tuesday.

USMNT: The U.S. men’s national team fell to the Netherlands, 3-1, on Saturday in the opening match of the round of 16. The United States has not won a World Cup knockout match since 2002, when it beat regional rival Mexico in the round of 16 in South Korea.

Knock out round schedule: A World Cup group stage filled with shocking upsets and dramatic turnarounds will now give way to a knockout round that promises more surprises.

Today’s WorldView: The 2022 World Cup has faced a cascade of controversies since Qatar won the right to host it more than a decade ago. Sometimes drowned out in the din: Concern over the tournament’s climate impact. Perhaps anticipating blowback, Qatar laid out an ambitious pledge: to hold the first carbon-neutral World Cup.