Canadian assistant referee Joe Fletcher looks forward to second World Cup

Once again Joe Fletcher carries Canadian colours at the World Cup.

The 41-year-old chartered accountant from St. Catharines, Ont., by way of Niagara Falls, will serve as an assistant referee during soccer’s biggest showcase, working with referee Mark Geiger and fellow assistant Frank Anderson, both Americans.

Fletcher, Geiger and the now-retired Sean Hurd, who joined forces in 2011, also worked the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Anderson joined the trio in late 2017.

It’s been a busy four years for Fletcher.

He has officiated the 2014 and ‘16 MLS Cup finals, 2015 CONCACAF Olympic qualifiers, 2016 Copa America, 2017 CONCACAF Champions League final, 2017 Confederations Cup and the first leg of the 2017 intercontinental World Cup qualifying playoff in Wellington between Peru and New Zealand.

Fletcher expects to be away in Russia for 45 days this time, with wife Cathy and their 11-year-old and eight-year-old sons following his progress on TV.

He continues on with work from his day job at Wormald Masse Keen Lopinski while on the road.

“I don’t even go to an MLS game without my laptop,” he said in an interview.

The World Cup is a favourite tournament for Fletcher, who called his experience in Brazil “incredible.”

“I got an absolute appreciation for how much the world stops for soccer when that tournament is on,” he said. “Because news and stuff comes in from every part of the globe. Different to any other tournament I ever go to, the World Cup’s the one where it seems like everybody seems to notice, everybody reaches out, everybody seems to care.”

The World Cup draws hardcore fans as well as those who only tune into soccer every four years.

“All of a sudden the number of eyes moves from a million to a billion,” said the Canadian.

The spotlight doesn’t faze Fletcher,

“If you didn’t enjoy it, you wouldn’t do it,” he said prior to Brazil.

Fletcher showed he is fast on his feet prior to the game between Spain and Chile four years ago. Standing in the tunnel with his fellow officials, he watched as a FIFA official shook hands with Spanish captain Iker Casillas — who was to his immediate left.

Thinking he was next, Fletcher put out his hand — only to have the FIFA official bypass him and move over to shake hands with Chile’s captain. Fletcher recovered by running his right hand over his shaved head, getting a laugh and a pat on the shoulder from a sympathetic Casillas.

The World Cup officials are headquartered in Moscow, flying out for game duties and then returning. Fletcher has already got the lay of the land from time in Saint Petersburg, Moscow, Sochi and Kazan at last year’s Confederations Cup.

FIFA announces the officials’ assignments as the tournament progresses, depending on their performance.

Fletcher says once he gets his assignment, the research begins in earnest on the teams involved and how they play, studying games played earlier in the tournament or prior matches.

There’s a referee observer at every match to assess the officials’ performance, sharing his take them post-game. There are also collective debrief sessions for the officials to point out trends or problems.

The FIFA Referees Committee originally selected 36 referees and 63 assistant referees for the tournament.

Saudi referee Fahad Al Mirdasi was subsequently dropped after the Saudi Arabian Football Federation said he asked for money to help a team win a cup final. His two Saudi assistants were also left at home with assistant referees from the United Arab Emirates and Japan summoned in their place.

Argentina’s Nestor Pitana, one of South America’s most experienced referees, has been assigned Thursday’s tournament opener between host Russia and Saudi Arabia at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium. His assistant are fellow Argentines Juan Pablo Bellati and Hernan Maidana, with Brazil’s Sandro Ricci serving as the fourth official.

The video assistant referee team will be led by Italy’s Massimiliano Irrati, with the assistance of Argentina’s Mauro Vigliano, Chile’s Carlos Astroza and Italy’s Daniele Orsato.

As at the Confederations Cup, Fletcher expects to work as both an assistant referee and video assistant referee.

Fletcher, who has been on FIFA officiating list since 2007, was 15 when he took his first officiating course. He follows several other Canadian officials who have worked soccer’s biggest showcase.

Winnipeg’s Hector Vergara, who worked the 2002, 2006 and 2010 World Cups, is a former member of FIFA’s referees committee. Vergara was inducted in Canada’s Soccer Hall of Fame in 2014.

Werner Winsemann was the first Canadian referee at the World Cup, working the 1974 and ‘78 finals.

Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

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