They say that you have to be a bit mad to be a football referee. All that abuse, scrutiny and dissent is not worth it. And even when you get it completely right there is never a word of thanks. But boy, if you get a big decision wrong or lots of little ones slightly incorrect, the disadvantaged players, crowd and media crucify you.
Nevertheless, Cayman’s most experienced referee wishes he had begun being the man on the spot a lot earlier in his football career. Alfredo Whittaker has been a FIFA appointed ref for five years. Even though he refereed as a teenager primary school kids the lure of being a world class official wasn’t an abiding interest until much later.
Whittaker, 40, took charge in the recent match between a Cayman Select side against the Jamaican club team Sporting Central Academy. It was supposed to be a friendly but when tempers started fraying he had no choice but send off the Jamaican captain. ‘He had already been booked and I warned him for continuous dissent,’ said Whittaker. ‘I gave him a final warning and then I heard him say: ‘The referee’s a batty bwoy’. I had no option but to send him off.’
Whittaker enjoys refereeing now as much as when he kept goal for a variety of top pro clubs in Costa Rica, Mexico and Honduras. ‘I’m sorry I didn’t do it seriously earlier. What I really enjoy is being there in the thick of things and seeing all the emotions – frustration and joy – of the players. I like to calm things down when things get heated. And it’s great when nobody looks at you for 20, 30 minutes and then at a crucial point everyone looks at you for an important decision. I also enjoy spotting the tricky players who are up to no good and telling them I know what they’re up to.’
Whittaker is currently in the Bahamas refereeing at the women’s Under-20s World Cup qualifiers between Jamaica, Haiti and Bahamas. In September he’ll be in the Bahamas again, this time to officiate at the men’s Olympic qualifiers between Jamaica, Bahamas, US Virgin Islands, British Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. He feels that more youngsters should become refs.
‘We want to get people involved while playing, not after,’ said Jeffrey Webb, president of the Cayman Islands Football Association. ‘That’s why we’re introducing a girls program to train them to be assistant referees and to cover primary school games.’
Whittaker has 15 years senior referee level experience and plenty of anecdotes to boot. He is a Costa Rican-Caymanian so speaks fluent Spanish. While controlling a match between Jamaica and Peru in Kingston the Peruvian coach abused him in Spanish. Whittaker instantly replied: ‘I bet you don’t have the balls to say that again.’ The coach was so shocked he didn’t wait for the inevitable red card and walked away into the stands.
Most disturbing yet in hindsight funniest incident was when Whittaker was officiating at a village cup final in Ceiba, Honduras. It was the village custom for the local bus driver to blow his whistle to notify passengers that he was leaving to go back into town. During the match the home side shot and hit the crossbar. The ball bounced down without scoring but the bus driver blew his whistle at that precise moment. The crowd erupted thinking they had scored. When Whittaker announced that it was not a goal celebrations turned to anger. A pack of furious men advanced towards him menacingly. Like a cartoon character he started walking away quickly before needing to run for his life with 30 screaming villagers baying for his blood. Luckily, Whittaker was fit and his long legs outlasted even the fittest of his pursuers. The match was abandoned but every time the villagers saw him in town after that they shouted abuse. Needless to say, he never refereed a match in Honduras again.