Our man in South Africa

A Canadian linesman at the World Cup

Martin Rickett/PA

Héctor Vergara is calling from a South African safe house. Per instructions, he must be vague: the location is “about an hour” outside of Johannesburg. The former country estate has lots of green space, a library, chapel, restaurant, and a pool—although it’s far too chilly to swim in the southern hemisphere at this time of year. The rooms are cabin-style, but luxurious. And the complex is “totally secured,” with a single entrance and guards stationed around the perimeter.

FIFA has spared little expense to keep Vergara and its 83 other officials for the World Cup of soccer in splendid isolation for the next month. The unidentified resort has been equipped with everything the linesmen and referees might need. Conference rooms have state-of-the-art video equipment for reviewing matches and breaking down contentious plays. Its wellness centre is staffed 24 hours a day with physiotherapists and masseuses. Psychologists are on standby. There are no other guests.

Why go to such lengths? Take your pick of reasons: to protect officials from terrorists, or irate fans, to limit their contact with players, and to keep them away from anyone who might seek to influence the decisions that are made on the field. FIFA’s ethics committee has already probed—and dismissed—allegations from the former chairman of England’s Football Association that Spain and Russia were colluding to bribe this year’s referees. And with tens of billions set to be wagered across the globe, the temptation to tamper for financial gain is hardly hypothetical.

“At the end of the day, it’s protection for everyone,” Vergara says, his voice crackling over a Skype connection. “It’s to be sure that we’re focused and concentrated on what we have to do.”

To be at the centre of the globe’s largest sporting event is therefore to stand apart. It’s an enforced state of loneliness that Vergara knows well, this being his third consecutive mundial. But of all the men who share the burden, his alienation is arguably the most profound. The 43-year-old assistant referee hails from the soccer coldbed of Winnipeg, and with the absence of Canada’s national team, and in all likelihood any Canuck-born players (Daniel Fernandez of Vancouver, named as Portugal’s third-string goalie probably won’t see any action) is this country’s sole on-field representative at South Africa 2010.

For the past four years, Vergara has trained relentlessly to make it back to the world stage: two to three hours a day, by himself at the University of Manitoba track, following a program designed by FIFA to push the limits of both his speed and endurance. (The other two members of his officiating “trio”—referee Benito Armando Archundia and assistant Marvin Cesar Torrentera—are part of a five-strong Mexican contingent.)

Carrying a flag up and down the sidelines is not as easy as it sounds: in the course of a match, Vergara will run more than 15 km, changing directions on average every five to six seconds. The fitness standard is brutal. In March, all prospective World Cup officials were flown to Zurich, Switzerland, for batteries of lung-busting cardio tests. Upon arrival in South Africa, they were given a make-or-break final exam—six 40-m wind sprints in a time of 5.8 seconds or less, with just a minute’s recovery between them. Then a 150-m, high-intensity run in under 30 seconds, followed by a 40-second/50-m recovery walk, repeated 24 times. Two trios were sent packing.

But all that pales in comparison to the emphasis placed on performance. After being scrutinized through a series of FIFA events over the past three years, Vergara and his two colleagues have earned the right to just one match—the Group F opener between defending champs Italy and Paraguay on June 14. From the stands, an evaluator will watch their every move, flag and whistle, and assign a mark out of 100. An 80, or higher, will probably ensure another game. A big error will earn a humiliating early ticket home. “Nobody gets 100, and nothing’s guaranteed,” says Vergara.

Really, the only certainty is that the outcome of each game, no matter how well-officiated, will disappoint, dispirit and perhaps even enrage players, coaches and fans. The nightmare scenario is to be called out in front of the whole planet. At the last two World Cups, FIFA president Sepp Blatter has made it something of a tradition to publicly pin the blame on his officials. But on both occasions, the much-publicized failings of colleagues ended up benefiting Vergara. In 2002, he worked six matches, including the high-profile England vs. Brazil quarter-final, and the third-place game between South Korea and Turkey. Four years later in Germany, another steady performance resulted in five matches, including the semifinal between the hosts and Italy. “I’ve been very fortunate—I’ve never had a situation where I really regretted something that happened in a match,” says Vergara. “To a certain degree you need a bit of luck.”

That doesn’t mean the Winnipegger has never been buffeted by the passions surrounding the “beautiful game.” Working with Archundia at the 2005 FIFA Club World Championship, Vergara provided Liverpool fans a night that will live in infamy—calling back two goals as offside, and another as out of bounds. When the English side lost 1-0 to São Paulo, their then-manager Rafa Benítez made it clear whom he blamed: “You wouldn’t get a Mexican referee and a Canadian linesman in the final of the World Cup.” The British dailies derided Vergara as “Mr. Magoo.” Visitors to his blog were far less polite. Afterwards, Vergara went over the video frame by frame and remains convinced he made the right calls. “As a referee, you have to have pretty thick skin,” he says. “I know it’s part of the territory, and I also know that some of it isn’t fair.”

During the hoopla in South Africa, Héctor’s wife of nine years, Joanne, will be back home in Winnipeg, caring for their three young children. If all goes well, her husband will be away for as many as 50 days. In 2006, officials were paid a US$40,000 stipend. Joanne, a double amputee who won five gold medals swimming for Canada at the 1992 Paralympics in Barcelona, understands what drives him, but it doesn’t make the absences any easier. “There’s been a lot of sacrifices. There’s been a lot of personal events he’s had to miss,” she says. This year it will be the birthdays of their eldest daughter, soon to be seven, and their youngest son, turning three. During the tournament, they video-chat over the Net, and she tries to get them to watch daddy’s matches, but they really don’t understand. No one does. “These guys put in as much time, effort and sacrifice as players do, but there’s none of the recognition and rewards,” says Joanne. “And it’s not like I’ll be going down to Little Italy to watch the games and say, ‘I know the ref!’ ”

This will be Vergara’s last World Cup, and perhaps final elite matches. He’ll turn 44 in December, and FIFA’s mandatory retirement age is 45. So far he’s overseen 130 internationals, 11 of them at the mundial. The World Cup record is 14. Like almost all of his colleagues, this is a part-time dream. (Vergara’s day job is executive director of the Manitoba Soccer Association.) The fantasy ending would be the Cup final on July 11. But Vergara’s under no illusions about what such an accomplishment would mean to anybody else. “I’ll leave it to others to determine whether I represent the country or not,” he says. “I just want to make my family and friends proud.”