World Cup ref Geiger aims for American record

Associated Press
FILE - In this Tuesday Sept. 10, 2013 file photo, referee Mark Geiger signals a call at a 2014 World Cup qualifier soccer match between Honduras and Panama in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Mark Geiger aims to become the first American referee to advance from the group stage in the World Cup in Brazil. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo, File)
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ZURICH (AP) — Mark Geiger and Jurgen Klinsmann share a goal as they prepare for the World Cup.

Both will lead United States teams in Brazil needing a good opening match if they want to progress to the knockout rounds.

Geiger aims to become the first American referee to advance from a World Cup group stage.

U.S. coach Klinsmann knows his first challenge is June 16 against Ghana in Natal. Their Group G is completed by Germany and Portugal, currently Nos. 2 and 3 in FIFA's world rankings.

Geiger's assignment — the first World Cup duty for an American official since 2002 — could be any match from the seven groups not involving the U.S. team. FIFA won't tell him until a few days before kickoff.

"If you don't do well there, the tournament is done," Geiger said Thursday after a training seminar at FIFA for World Cup referees and assistants. "We need to focus on that first game wholeheartedly, make sure we nail that and get it right."

If that test is passed, the former high school math teacher from New Jersey acknowledges his World Cup ambition.

"It's like any team, any player, any coach, you want to be in the final," Geiger said.

Aged 39, Geiger will go to his first World Cup in his seventh year on FIFA's international list of officials approved for national team matches.

FIFA has monitored Geiger on a candidates list for two years, and midway through the process he made refereeing in Major League Soccer his full-time job.

"Timing-wise, it couldn't have been more perfect," he said. "I've seen improvements in myself. I don't have that stress while I'm at the tournament worrying about what my students are doing back home."

Geiger's commitment chimes with FIFA President Sepp Blatter's long-held wish that all World Cup referees would be free of day-job distractions.

Four years ago in South Africa, World Cup final referee Howard Webb was one of few professionals, having left his career as a policeman in northern England. Not all the 25 doing duty in Brazil will be full-time referees.

Still, Geiger had admirers at FIFA even when he worked at Lacey Township High School in Lanoka Harbor.

In 2011, at the Under-20 World Cup played in Colombia, Geiger and his regular assistants Sean Hurd and Canadian Joe Fletcher were rewarded with the final.

"Up to this point it's the highlight of my career," Geiger said of Brazil's 3-2 extra-time win over Portugal, featuring three goals from playmaker Oscar, now starring for Chelsea.

"There was a lot of emotions coming out of the teams," said the referee who showed eight yellow cards, including six to the losing team. "You had two Portuguese speaking countries. It was there and it was a tough match for us."

FIFA confirmed its good impression by taking Geiger's team to the 2012 London Olympics, and the Club World Cup last December in Morocco.

A few weeks later, Geiger was picked for the World Cup in Zurich while he slept at home.

"The email came at 2:24 a.m.," he said. "I woke up to an email and a couple of text messages from friends. An outstanding experience just to wake up and see that email."

A four-day training event this week with colleagues from Africa and South America was their last session before reporting for duty June 1 in Rio de Janeiro. Officials from Europe, Asia and Oceania met in Zurich last month.

"It's a great group, a lot of humility. We don't have guys with super egos which is good," Geiger said.

FIFA director of refereeing Massimo Busacca urges his teams to study how the game is played.

"If we understand the team tactics and where they're going to put the ball next, we start moving in that direction and we increase our chances of having a good match," said Geiger, who avidly watches games from across the world. "YouTube is a great tool for us."

Geiger still has time for school work, helping his brother Steven coach track and cross-country, between twice-monthly trips to Dallas for training and briefings with other MLS officials.

The spotlight is about to burn brighter, with fans and media often unforgiving of World Cup errors and controversies. Mali referee Koman Coulibaly is notorious in the U.S. for disallowing a late goal in a 2-2 draw with Slovenia in 2010.

"We're reminded of how many cameras there are and we're reminded of how much scrutiny there is on every decision we make," Geiger acknowledged. "We need to go in there with the confidence and the physical ability to be in the right place, at the right angle to see the play properly and then have the confidence to make that decision."

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