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World Cup referees must meet rigorous fitness standards

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Reaching the World Cup is the pinnacle of soccer. Put on that uniform, run up, down and all around that field while the world watches every move. And no, it's not the players that we're talking about here. It's the refs. And yeah, I know and we know that fans love to hate them refs (laughter). But being a World Cup referee can be one of the most difficult jobs in all of sports. Kelyn Soong reports on sports and fitness for The Washington Post. And he's just done an investigation of sorts into what it takes to be an elite ref. Welcome to the show.

KELYN SOONG: Hi, how are you doing?

RASCOE: OK. So it's something that I hadn't really thought about until now. But, like, how fit do these referees have to be in the World Cup?

SOONG: They have to be really fit. I talked to a referee who said that they have to be not quite as athletic as the players, but they have to be just as fit. They have to train year round, and they have these fitness tests that they have to pass to be chosen for the World Cup.

RASCOE: So tell me about these fitness tests.

SOONG: So FIFA has these fitness tests for different levels. And one of the levels is international referees, so including the World Cup. There are two tests. There's a repeated sprint ability test, and there's, like, an interval test. And they're pretty difficult. I actually had a chance to try it myself, and I couldn't even do one repetition. Not that I'm comparing myself to a league referee.

RASCOE: So what is the repetition like? What do you have to do?

SOONG: So the first test is called a repeated sprint ability test, and it is six repetitions of 40-meter sprints. And the standards for international referees is six seconds or faster for male referees, and 6.4 seconds or faster for female referees.

RASCOE: OK, 40 meters - so now for the people who are in the U.S. and use the - don't use the metric system, like, how far is that?

SOONG: (Laughter) Let me see. I mean, if you watch the Olympics, you know, the 100-meter sprint - so it's like a little less than half of that.

RASCOE: And you're doing that six times, and you only get six seconds to recover.

SOONG: You only get 60 seconds to recover. But you had to do those repetitions in six seconds or faster. Yes.

RASCOE: That doesn't sound easy at all. And the reason why they have to do this is because they cover so much ground during the match. So they have to, like, run with the soccer players. They can't just stand on the side, right?

SOONG: That's correct. And so referees cover a distance of six to eight miles per match. And so they need to be able to be in position. If you're kind of slightly out of position, you might miss a call. You might miss a penalty. These referees have - really need to be at peak fitness.

RASCOE: Talk about the mental aspect of this, like, of how you have to deal with all these people maybe yelling and screaming at you and, like, how you can deal with that.

SOONG: One of the referees or former referees I spoke to mentioned that, you know, players have egos, referees have egos. And, you know, especially maybe at the biggest stage, you know, they sometimes work with sports psychologists. There's a lot of training involved, mental-type training. But one of the things I think is most important is that they work their way up. So it's not like you start refereeing, and then a year later you become a World Cup referee. You work in your domestic leagues, you maybe work some youth games, you work some, you know, lower-level professional games. And then the requirements - you need to work at least two years in your country top domestically. You really go through a lot of different training and experience before you're kind of in the World Cup stage.

RASCOE: Kelyn Soong, reporter for The Washington Post. Thank you so much for being with us.

SOONG: Yeah, thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF PETER BJORN AND JOHN SONG, "YOUNG FOLKS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.