Interview: IHF's Christer Ahl on 2009 WC Officiating

Back from the 2009 Men’s World Championship, the IHF’s Playing Rules and Competition Commission President, Christer Ahl, took some time out of his busy schedule to reflect on the officiating in Croatia. This interview is a compilation of several emails back and forth between John Ryan (JR) and Christer Ahl (CA).

JR: Christer, there were some grumblings here and there, but relatively speaking there was a lot less discussion about the officiating during the WC. I assume less discussion is a good sign?

CA: You are right! I can’t remember when it was last so peaceful during a big event; and this confirms our own impressions that we really have reasons to be quite satisfied. In fact, the comments we have received from teams, media and internally within the IHF have overwhelmingly been in the positive direction.

JR: I think many people who saw the list of nominated referees were surprised to see so many relatively new names and perhaps wondered whether this group would have enough experience?

CA: Yes, this was probably overall the least experienced group ever for a men’s World Championship. It often happens that after the Olympics some older couples decide to call it quits, and we also weeded out some; but the main story is that we have in recent years been going through a ‘generation change’ that is likely to continue for a while.

JR: What is causing this situation?

CA: Well, particularly in Europe, apropos the issue of an excessive pressure on the top players, the abundance of matches also for the top referees creates a situation where so many assignments increasingly clash with careers and family life; this means that the referees get saturated at an earlier age, and virtually nobody stays on to the age limit.

JR: Were you not yourself a bit worried about how this young group would hold up?

CA: Perhaps, yes, but there were two main reasons why we still were relatively confident. First, we have changed the system of bringing up young referee couples, so that those who now might begin to be considered for a senior championship have been with us for several years, initially through a Global Referee Training Program, and then in some youth or junior world championships. This means that we know their talents and their personal strengths, and they have been taught a ‘common line’ over a considerable

JR: What is the other main reason?

CA: Knowing that we had a less experienced group to work with, we strengthened the preparations for this event. There was no time for a separate training camp following the Olympics, so instead we focused on an intensive 3-day program in Zagreb just before opening match. Here we used a lot of video material to ‘rub in’ the common line for a number of key observations and interpretations. But we also emphasized confidence-building and team spirit, so we even brought in a well-known psychologist, a former Bundesliga coach who has been part of the Icelandic team staff in recent years. Iceland, being absent in this championship, also made available their head coach to advice our referees from a different vantage point. The referees had also had a lot of homework and their fitness efforts had been monitored.

JR: Do you feel that these special efforts paid off?

CA: I really do; and you know what they say about “old dogs and new tricks”. In some ways it seems easier to get a less experienced group to ‘buy in’ and really adopt more fully what is being taught. We saw real improvements in some areas we had emphasized. For instance, early intervention is key to a better control of the struggle between pivot and defender at the 6-meter line; and the annoying increase in ‘Hollywood’ tactics was this time really handled well. By this I mean that players try to fool the referees, with a dramatic fall or stumbling, into thinking that there was a foul, or a more severe one than was the case. Many players got sent off for these ‘acting jobs’.

JR: Yeah, I noticed that. If only they would start doing the same thing for soccer. Are there any other areas where you want to see further progress?

CA: Yes, of course! More generally speaking, the ever-increasing pace of the game leads to more body contact and to situations that are really multi-faceted and tough to grasp. Fitness and visual perception are needed but are not enough. The ability to ‘read’ the game, to anticipate and to be in the right position is key. Here we must continue to improve, even though we will never be able to compete with ten TV camera angles and multiple slow-motion repetitions… Also, regrettably we see a tendency towards more cynical fouls that need to be detected. Pushing or grabbing a player who is defenseless while jumping is more in the focus of the referees, but detecting the ‘hidden’ elbow away from the play is not so easy. We don’t want our referees to be naïve about this.

JR: I noticed you are now following the example of FIFA and UEFA, equipping your referees with wireless communications system; did that provide any help?

CA: Yes, it was an instant hit! The referees were able to stay in more continuous contact with each other and it leads to a general sense of security and team-work. But it also helps with the anticipation of situations as they can alert each other from different positions. And important decisions can come more quickly and with more confidence.

JR: Can the match supervisor get involved through this system?

CA: Yes, but only in a very limited way, as the rules do not allow a supervisor to overrule the referees regarding judgment calls or ‘observations of fact’. Mostly we use it when there is an issue involving the clock, interventions from the table, and some very few other situations where it may be important to alert the referees.

JR: Any particular referee couples who deserve to be mentioned?

CA: Well, perhaps the most important thing was that we did not have any really weak performances. But I was especially happy with the emergence of two specific couples, the Danes (Olesen/Pedersen) who had the final, and the French (Lazaar/Reveret) who had the bronze match. The French had for many years been in the shadows of their compatriots Bord/Buy, but when they now got the chance, they just calmly did a very nice job match after match. And the Danes came in as reserves at a late stage, which is not an easy situation. They were in the first part of the 2007 Championships, so we know them as a strong couple, but here there were really solid throughout

JR: So overall a good tournament, but not entirely without controversy. In particular, the end of the Norway – Germany match had German Coach Heiner Brand literally shaking his fist at the referee. What exactly happened there in the closing seconds?

CA: The Norwegian player who had the ball fell and skidded out over the side line. The referees gave a throw-in, which seemed right from my position far away and also got acceptance from the Norwegians. But the Germans, who were in a great hurry, failed to see the clear and repeated referee signals for a throw-in on the side-line, so they instead took it as a free-throw inside the court. The referee corrected them, but they made the same mistake again before they got it right. The Germans wanted a time-out, but this would have been totally illogical and wrong, as they themselves caused the delays. And allowing them to take a free-throw instead of a throw-in would have been a rules violation. So the Germans really had no legitimate complaint at all. But the really amazing thing happened when we watched the video later on. It turned out that the [u]player[/u] skidded out of bounds, but he managed to keep the [u]ball[/u] inside the line and pass it to a teammate. So the correct call would have been to let the Norwegians stay in possession and be able to run out the clock.

JR: But what about Heiner Brand’s behavior?

CA: I was not on duty in this match so I had turned away and did not see it as it happened. Of course it looked a bit awkward in the photos I saw, but I know that while Heiner can get emotional as a coach, he is really a gentleman, so I cannot take it very seriously. More generally, I sense it was simply a bit much for many of the players, officials, and supporters of the defending champions to see that their team, just like in the Olympics, failed to qualify for the top positions. Then one looks for someone to blame it on….

(Editor’s note: video of the last 15 seconds of the Norway – Germany match, as well as Coach Brand’s antics are here:

JR: The Croatian fans and press didn’t seem too happy with the officiating in the Gold medal match. My own personal opinion is that the officiating was actually pretty good and had nothing to do with the loss. I’m guessing that you’ll agree with that assessment?

CA: Well, it was a very difficult match with some referees mistakes on both sides, but these Danes are just the kind of courageous guys who do not flinch even when 15.000 fanatic spectators want to pressure them to give the home team an unfair advantage. And apropos precisely that, as a final comment I might add that I am especially pleased that we managed to avoid having a negative trend after 2007, when some referees did not manage to handle this pressure so well in the late stages. The image of 2009 is the right one!