The Sporting Capital is a new series by Lachlan Roberts, who sits down and has intimate conversations with Canberra’s sports stars. For the third part of the series, Lachlan chatted with former World Cup referee and now Lyneham High School teacher Ben Williams about how he first became a referee, how he handled the criticism from the public and how he came to be the first Australian central referee to take charge of a second-round game at the World Cup.
“I played football at school and as most referees come to realise pretty early in life, they aren’t going to make it as a player. I had a teacher at school – and it’s funny how it has come full circle – that ran a referees course during activity week in the last week of the year. I had a couple of mates who encouraged me to come along and give it a go. So I did that and then started reffing local juniors in Kambah in the morning and the bigger kids in the arvo. I was around 15 when I started, so in total it has been 25 seasons refereeing.
“We view ourselves as athletes as well since we train just like them, full time, chasing the quickest players in the world and there is only one of us on the field. I remember when we first sat down at the World Cup program, and I was shown a clip and I think it was Greece, where the ball came out from the goalkeeper, who threw it out to his right back, who then knocked it down the wing to the byline down the other end and put it into the box with a penalty shout, in four seconds flat. So if I’m down near the goalkeeper when he gets the ball and when the striker goes down in the box because he has been pushed, no one is going to understand why I didn’t give that penalty. The expectation is for me to be there to give that penalty. Usain Bolt can’t run a length of a football field in four seconds, which is where anticipation comes into play.
“The further you go up the chain of refereeing, the more you need to read the game like a player. Look at Brazil, for example Marcelo is on halfway and he is going to whip the ball into Neymar directly from halfway and if I’m standing on halfway looking at Marcelo when Neymar goes down, what am I meant to give? It just takes a lot of video research to anticipate what different players are capable of.”
World Cup 2014
“At the World Cup, we all sit in the room and they announce the appointments for each round. So we waited and waited and eventually our name was called out. You beauty! This is the moment we have been waiting for. And I say ‘we’ because I was the referee but I had my two Aussie assistants and we went through as a trio. It was me, Matthew Cream and Hakan Anaz. I picked the two boys because FIFA asked me who did I want as my assistants, and I said: ‘I trust these two’. We live and die as a team. If we stuff up an offside, we are going home. It’s as cutthroat as that. So I need people I can trust and I wouldn’t have received the success that I have if it wasn’t for these guys.
“Every young footballer dreams of being at the World Cup, and as they read out our names our dreams came true. We were given Ecuador vs Honduras so we went straight out of the room, straight down to where the tapes were and started studying.
“And then six days later, I was in charge of Belgium vs the Korea Republic. During the game, I saw an incident on the far side near Haz, where one of the Belgians came in and stomped on someone’s leg. And I immediately thought ‘That’s a red card’. I could sense that nobody in the stadium thought it was a red card. None of the fans, none of the players, but I said to the boys across the comms ‘Boys, I’m going red here’, and all I heard was crickets. That was their opportunity to say that I had got it wrong, but no one said anything. So I went over there and gave it. Fellaini and Miralles and those boys came up and asked what was happening and I had to explain that he could have broken someone’s leg.
“It was just before halftime, and it was 0-0, and you hope that your decision is backed up by what’s on TV. But I never look at the replays at half-time. Because either way, it’s in the past and it can affect your mindset in the second half. Walking back out for the second half, Miralles comes up to me and said, ‘Benny, did you check the replay?’ I said ‘Kev, I never do. Because whether I’m right or wrong, I can’t change it. We still have another 45 minutes to go.’ He was just trying to play with my head, but then he came up to me and said, ‘You got it right’.
“Each game represents an opportunity and in that first game with Honduras and Ecuador, the ball came off the crossbar and bounced back to the striker of Honduras. They haven’t scored many goals in the World Cup. But it came off the striker’s hand, and then he slotted it home. And I have seen the handball, so I disallowed the goal. Absolute bedlam. But that was a moment, had I not got it right, that’s another ‘Hand of God’ moment at a World Cup. And you never know what history is going to say, and I had this one fleeting moment to get it right.”
The Ones That Stand Out
“There is no substitute to walking out in front of 100,000 people and just feeling the crowd, it gives me shivers just talking about it. There are probably two matches that stand out in my career, and one was in Iran during Iran vs Korea Republic. In a stadium where no women were allowed, in a World Cup qualifier in 2009. The last time an Aussie took control of a match in Iran was 2001, and it was absolute carnage. So there was a bit of political history and even back in 2009, they were talking about that match in 2001. Iranians don’t forget – just like the Asian Cup.
“So there was a lot of pressure, and Creamy was on the line back in the day during that 2001 match. So we knew how bad it was going to be. And as we are driving down the big boulevard into this massive colosseum, it was February, so people had stayed out in the snow for two days, just waiting for this game, it was chock-a-block. Iran scored first and the crowd went crazy. Then Park Ji-Sung scored in the 80th minute or thereabouts. And it just went silent.
“And the second one that stands out in my memory over the thousands of games that I refereed was Indonesia vs Turkmenistan, so hardly the powerhouses of world football. But that stadium was just heaving, absolutely heaving. There was smoke going off and you come out from underneath the stadium and walk up the stairs and it was deafening. That game I actually booked the wrong bloke because I couldn’t hear what they were saying to me on the communication system. We just couldn’t hear each other. I thought they were saying number five so I booked him. It was absolute mayhem.”
A-league in Canberra
“I would like to see an A-league team in Canberra but it’s going to be difficult to get one. Look at the Raiders and Brumbies, unless they have their best team on the paddock or the best team in the competition, people don’t get behind them and support them with bums on seats. At the end of the day, they are all vying for the same dollar and it is not cheap.
“They (FFA) haven’t killed it dead in the water, but if you can read between the lines on some of the comments, fish where the fish are. People also say that there are smaller franchises like Central Coast, who have a similar demographic in terms of population. But it is a difficult one.
“Bruce has been a great stadium for many years so it will be interesting to see if the new stadium gets legs. Maybe we will get that kind of culture like Melbourne where the MCG and AAMI Park form a sporting precinct, so that people finish work on a Friday, sink a couple of beers and head straight to the ground.”
Pressures of the Job
“I have always had confidence in my own ability. Do I get things wrong sometimes? Of course, because I’m human. But so do the players and coaches. And the funny thing is in all society, but especially in Australian society, fans don’t accept mistakes from the officials. They can accept that a striker puts one over the crossbar from six yards, but if the referee gives a penalty and it wasn’t right, they can’t accept that. There have been situations where I have got things correct and FIFA and AFC tell me that they are using that clip from an A-league game as a ‘what to do’ in that situation. But you are killed by the media here.
“There was one game where I sent a bloke off in a midweek FFA Cup game, and I was meant to do the Melbourne derby on the weekend, which I was pumped for because I love the derbies. But I copped a lot of criticism from the media and I got taken off the game.
“I was never popular because I never fitted into the style of keeping a low profile. If someone needed to be sent off, I sent them off. I don’t care if it was Kevin Muscat or anyone. And the coaches stand on the sidelines, barking at referees, but I never got intimidated. And that’s when they get frustrated and think, ‘We can’t control this bloke. We want to, but we can’t’. I have faith in my own abilities. I have refereed at a World Cup, I have done it at the Olympics and an AFC Champions League Final. I felt like I had the runs on the board and I have to back myself.
“I’m now ‘a has been’, but if there is any young kid in a Canberra school that thinks to himself that he wants to be a referee, and he sees me, a bloke from Canberra that went to the World Cup, that could spark something. I want people involved in the game and to be passionate about it and having a go.
“There has been a lot of negativity in Australia but does not overshadow the fact that football has provided me with so much, allowing me to go to nearly 50 countries. And to be in the box seat for some tip-top football. That feeling of walking out, hearing the FIFA anthem, standing there thinking ‘I’m at the World Cup’.
“Nothing can buy those memories.”