Looking Back: Nicola Rizzoli in the 2014 FIFA World Cup Final

Image credit: Il Napolista

It’s been six years since the World Cup Final took place at the Maracana in Rio, Germany emerging 1-0 winners over Argentina after extra time. In stark contrast to the two previous Finals in 2006 and 2010, this one thankfully wasn’t marred by individual (Zidane) or collective (the Netherlands) violence on the pitch. Nonetheless, that’s not to say Italian referee Nicola Rizzoli had a cakewalk of a day. Let’s take a trip down memory lane. (Videos at the end of the post!)

Pressure? What pressure?

On the whole, the 2014 tournament wasn’t a horribly-officiated one by any means. Compared to the 2010 edition, which had a number of significant, match-defining errors (Lampard’s ghost goal, Tevez’s offside goal, etc.), the World Cup in Brazil doesn’t fare too badly. But Rizzoli had the unfortunate pressure of being assigned to two matches directly following other referees’ really poor performances: he was on Netherlands v Spain right after Yuichi Nishimura’s phantom PK in Brazil v Croatia, and then took charge of Argentina v Belgium right after Carlos Velasco Carballo’s Brazil v Colombia horror show, where Neymar broke his back without so much as a foul given on the play.

Both times, Rizzoli responded with aplomb. He handled the much-anticipated 2010 World Cup Final rematch pretty damn well, even giving Spain an early penalty without hesitation despite the pressure he must have felt not to after Nishimura’s ill-fated call the day prior. The quarterfinal passed without any notable incidents, the Italian once again stepping up precisely when FIFA needed him to.

And, of course, if we cast an eye back to 2010, he was now also following Howard Webb’s footsteps as the World Cup Final referee. That match in Johannesburg certainly did not go according to plan – and so, four years down the line, Rizzoli was picked to right the ship again.

Setting the tone

The first card of the final

The first yellow card of the final came on 29 minutes, administered to Germany’s Bastian Schweinsteiger for stopping a promising attack. Now, to me, this is right on the border of SPA and no card. Ezequiel Lavezzi takes a really heavy touch and is probably about to be dispossessed anyways – it’s a debatable card.

However, you get the sense Rizzoli was trying to make a point here. Midway through the first half is a pretty optimal time to pull the cards out for the first time, as it tends to be when the players start settling into the game. This was a good line to draw in the sand.

That Höwedes challenge

The point of contact

Let’s be honest here: this was an absolutely horrific tackle. Late, high, hard, studs showing, straight leg. On paper, it has all the markings of a red card.

Luckily for Rizzoli, he seems to have gotten a free pass on the yellow he did show, though I can understand why. In real time, it looks late, and definitely reckless, but you can’t really judge the true impact until you see the replay. (Of course, this was before the age of VAR.)

Rizzoli helps his cause with good urgency to get himself over to the situation to prevent any retaliation, and none of the Argentines were really asking for anything more than a yellow anyways. Höwedes knows he’s getting booked, and there are no complaints. In short, as far as practical refereeing goes, the pertinent question is: did the game want/need this to be a red card?

I’d say probably not.

Offside, offside, and offside again

A quick note on Rizzoli’s ARs, Renato Faverani and Andrea Stefani. They were utterly SPECTACULAR in this match. Stefani flagged Higuaín offside and disallowed what the striker thought was the game’s opening goal in the first half, and both assistants came up with a string of really tight correct offside decisions throughout the game.

The Neuer-Higuaín incident

Perhaps the biggest talking point of this match from a refereeing point of view was when the German keeper and Argentine striker collided on the corner of the penalty area early in the second half. Now, I’ve seen a fair bit of pushback on Rizzoli’s decision to give a German FK here. To me, Neuer doesn’t do anything wrong.

Neuer is in his own penalty area, and is jumping to punch the ball away. He gets to the ball first, and is then upended by the onrushing Higuaín. You cannot penalize goalkeepers for making attempts at the ball (successful ones, at that) in their own penalty area. You just can’t. The contact between him and Higuaín is not a deliberate, separate action from Neuer – it’s not like he punches the ball and then decides to swing a leg at his opponent. In fact, if anyone is being dangerous here, it’s the Argentine – I don’t doubt he has no clue Neuer is there, but he catches him in mid-air whether he meant it or not.

Could Agüero have been sent off?

On 108′, Schweinsteiger and Agüero went up for a header and the German got a knock to the face from his counterpart. Now, this clip is not very black-and-white to analyze. Hands and arms to the face, quite simply, are acts that really don’t belong in the game. Frequently, especially here where Agüero’s arms are all over the place, there should be a card attached as well.

The tricky part on this play is that Agüero is already on a yellow card. This is where that sixth sense, the ‘feel of the game,’ comes into play. Think back to the 2010 final in South Africa. If a Dutch player on a yellow commits this very same foul in the second period of extra time, he walks. No question. The temperature of that match alone would have necessitated it, and few would have questioned Howard Webb for doing it.

However, the feel of the 2014 final was much different. Of course, if Agüero had cocked an elbow, or made a much more explicit movement of the arm to catch Schweinsteiger, then you give him a second yellow card. But a second yellow for this…in the 108th minute of a 0-0 World Cup Final that had been, on the whole, pretty respectful…it would have ruined it. Rizzoli was wise to manage the situation verbally. There’s something to be said about taking a player’s stupidity onto your shoulders as a referee, but there’s also something to be said about the so-called “Law 18”.


Lastly, here are a few videos on the performances of Rizzoli and co. so you can make your mind up for yourself. What are your decisions on Schweinsteiger, Höwedes, Neuer, Higuain, and Agüero?

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