By Robson Sharuko
Harare - Twenty years after the first African referee handled the FIFA World Cup final, there is a possibility another match official from the continent could be running the show from the centre in Moscow, Russia, on Sunday.
But, in the event that happens, he will not be someone from this part of the continent.
Malang Diedhou, the Senegalese referee who has been impressive at this FIFA World Cup, was the only African match official retained by FIFA for the final stages of the tournament in Russia, which includes the semi-finals, the third-place play-off and the final.
Janny Sikazwe, the rising Zambian referee, had been expected to be the first Southern African referee to be handed the ultimate responsibility in this trade – handling the FIFA World Cup – at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday.
The Zambian school teacher’s profile has been rising in leaps and bounds and the only referee from this part of the world to be selected to handle matches at the World Cup impress many observers did with his fine show in the group match between Belgium and Panama.
However, Sikazwe was not retained for the final four matches when FIFA selected the match officials for the semi-finals and finals of the World Cup.
Only Diedhou was the African retained for the assignments in a field that also features Mark Geiger of the United States, Cesar Arturo Ramos Palazuelos of Mexico, Andres Kuhn of Uruguay, Nestor Supply of Argentina, Sandro Ricci of Brazil, Matthew Conger of New Zealand, Cuneyt Cakir of Turkey, Bjorn Kuipers of the Netherlands, Milorad Magic of Serbia and Gianluca Rocchi of Italy.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the first FIFA World Cup final to be handled by an African referee when Said Belqola of Morocco took charge of the match between hosts France and Brazil, which the French won 3-0 for their first and only World Cup triumph to date.
Achmat Salie of South Africa ran the lines in that match, as one of the assistant referees, with Mark Warren of England on the other side.
It was a massive leap of faith for African referees given that, 12 years earlier, one of them, Ali Bennaceur of Tunisia, had caused a huge uproar when he failed to spot the foul by Diego Maradona who used his hand to score Argentina’s first goal in an explosive opener against England in a quarter-final showdown in Mexico.
Argentina went on to win that match 2-1 en-route to winning the tournament.
About 20 years later, Maradona – who scored twice in that game, including a goal widely acknowledged as the finest World Cup goal ever – paid Bennaceur a visit in Tunisia and kissed and hugged him as they posed for a number of pictures.
The Tunisian official has always maintained that his Bulgarian assistant Bogdan Dotchev was in a better position to spot that foul when Maradona punched the ball past goalkeeper Peter Shilton in what was later known as “The Hand of God”.
"Before the game, FIFA gave us clear guidelines: 'If your colleague is better placed than you are, his decision should take precedence.' That's what I did: my assistant did not raise his flag," he told a French football magazine, So Foot.
So far, the World Cup finals have been handled by John Langenus (Belgium, 1930), Ivan Eklind (Sweden, 1934), Georges Capdeville (France, 1938), William Ling (England, 1954), Maurice Guigue (France, 158), Nikolay Lalyshev (Russia, 1962), Gottfried Dienst (Switzerland, 1966) and Rudi Glockner (Germany, 1970).
Jack Talyor (England, 1974), Sergio Gonella (Italy, 1978), Arnaldo Coelho (Brazil, 19820, Romualdo Filho (Brazil, 1986), Edgardo Mendez (Mexico, 1990), Saidi Belqola (Morocco, 1986), Pierluigi Collina (Italy, 2002), Horacio Elizondo (Argentina, 2006), Howard Webb (England, 2010) and Nicola Rizzoli (Italy, 2014), have also handled the World Cup finals.
Expectations had been high that Sikazwe, who handled the FIFA Club World Cup final two years ago and the AFCON final last year, was set to be the man who could become Africa’s only second referee to handle a FIFA World Cup in Moscow on Sunday.
But, the region will have to wait a little longer for that to happen even though the man who groomed the Zambian referee believes he has all the qualities to take charge of the biggest game in the world.
“Janny is a teacher by profession, so he is someone who is a leader already," FIFA instructor, Felix Tangawarima, who won the Zimbabwe Referee of the Year seven times during his time handling matches in his native country, told KweséESPN.
"He came into the limelight by accident. In 2008 we had the CAF Under-20 Championships in South Africa and one of the referees failed a fitness test.
"I knew Janny from my work in COSAFA, but the rest of the CAF people didn't know him. He came into the tournament and did very well. The rest is history; he has kept on developing and kept on working hard at his refereeing.
"I was talking to Janny before he left [for the World Cup] and I said to him, 'You have already done the final of the FIFA Club World Cup, and that is a stepping stone to another higher level final'.
"I told him I would not be surprised if he does the World Cup final because of his ability and his vast experience in CAF. Everybody in Africa would be hopeful that he can represent us in the latter stages of the tournament."
Tangawarima says Sikazwe’s strength is his endurance and game awareness even though the Zambian was heavily criticised around the world for not showing Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos the red card during the 2016 FIFA Club World Cup final.
"He has great physical fitness; he is one of our fittest referees on the continent. He has an ability to move the way we want on the field of play,” said Tangawarima.
"A referee should not just move in a random manner, positioning is very important. If the ball is at point A, then he should be at point B. If it is at point C, then he should make sure he is at point D.
"Janny has the ability to anticipate what could happen in the next phase of play. He can also talk to everybody in the right way. He has handled matches with more pressure.
“The final of the African Nations Cup ... games between Algeria and Egypt, for example. Those are very difficult games to referee, in front of big crowds with difficult players, but he has managed them very well."
While Sikazwe will certainly get another chance, the same cannot be said about a number of match officials who were slapped with suspensions by the Confederation of African Football for conduct likely to have aided the manipulation of matches. Zimbabwean referee Norman Matemera and his South African counterpart Victor Gomez recently rejected approaches from some people for them to fix matches in the CAF inter-club competitions, something which Tangawarima has been praising.
"When I am working for FIFA as my full-time job, the first presentation I do to referees is about integrity. I tell them that they will be approached at some stage ... it is almost certain," Tangawarima said.
"But I am proud that a stand has been taken by the referees in my region [Southern Africa] that their integrity is unquestionable. Even after they were approached they went on to officiate to the best of their ability."