MOSCOW — As World Cup in Russia nears more league games are being played in flashy new stadiums, but an old problem remains.
The season so far has been dogged by dubious refereeing calls and the disputes that follow have eroded trust to such an extent that Russia’s top football official has flirted with the notion of inviting foreigners to oversee big games instead of Russia’s much-maligned referees, who are already rarely picked to oversee major international games.
Russia’s history of match-fixing meant that when referee Sergei Ivanov made a string of disputed decisions during a game earlier this month between league leader Spartak Moscow and Zenit St. Petersburg, one hot topic of discussion among fans was whether his errors were the result of incompetence or corruption. Spartak, which lost 4-2 thanks in part to two Zenit penalties, demanded Ivanov be suspended.
Both clubs published compilations of supposed errors in favour of the opposition, and the Russian Football Union’s top referee Valentin Ivanov (no relation to Sergei Ivanov) suddenly resigned with no explanation. Zenit coach Mircea Lucescu followed up by suggesting that "hysterics" over refereeing meant Spartak lacked the focus to win the title.
On Saturday, the shoe was on the other foot as Spartak won 1-0 against FC Rostov, which finished with nine men and immediately blasted referee Vladislav Bezborodov. Rostov captain Alexandru Gatcan suggested Bezborodov had been pressured to favour Spartak because of its earlier complaints about the refereeing in the Zenit game. "Spartak cried and received a result," echoed his teammates Timofei Kalachev.
In the years leading up to hosting the 2018 World Cup, Russia has pushed to make its referees more professional, an effort led by veteran Italian referee Roberto Rosetti, who ran the RFU’s refereeing department between 2011 and 2013.
RFU president Vitaly Mutko went one step further and proposed importing foreign referees in the aftermath of the Zenit-Spartak dispute, but withdrew the plan a week later in possible acknowledgement that it would be seen as giving up on Russian officials altogether, as Russia pushes to get a home referee on the list for the 2018 World Cup.
The main candidate is Sergei Karasyov, who took charge of two European Championship group stage games in June, the first assignment for a Russian at a major international tournament for a decade.
The last Russian to do so was Valentin Ivanov – the embattled ex-national refereeing head – who was pilloried at the 2006 World Cup for showing four red and 16 yellow cards in a game between Portugal and the Netherlands. Russian football bosses are likely hoping the next Russian referee on the world’s biggest stage will be rather less memorable.