Come game day, we forget that there are three teams, not two, on the field
He was Canada’s face at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. From his infamous handshake [which has several million social media hits] to the coverage he received in newspapers and on TV, Joe Fletcher has become a minor celebrity.
What could another profile possibly say, that has not already been written?
To find out, Canada Soccer caught up with Fletcher at his office in St. Catharines, ON. And what started as a conversation on refereeing and the FIFA World Cup™, quickly broadened to include one of his favourite interests—music.
For Fletcher, artists like Jay-Z and Drake are a source of relaxation as well as motivation. And, in some cases, their work, as well as that of others, have become life-teachers. These are the tracks that allow us to better understand Fletcher’s story, his thinking and the drive that has taken him from the bottom to the top of his profession.
Come game day, we forget that there are three teams, not two, on the field. And Fletcher, just like the players, listens to music prior to a match. But he prefers to avoid the flashy commercial earphones. “After all” he says, “we refs don’t’ want to draw too much attention.” What matters is getting into “the zone” and for this his smartphone ear buds will do.
Sean Hurd, Mark Geiger, Alireza Faghani, Joe Fletcher
He stays plugged-in from the hotel all way to the stadium. This is his time to focus. To think of all the various scenarios the match will bring. He begins by assessing the possible line-ups, tactics and formations. By this point he has already studied the players on tape, he knows their habits, so this is purely about visualization. One last run through, to make sure he’s ready to pick-up the cues that will help him make the correct calls.
It’s not until Fletcher is in the locker room that the earphones finally come out. Following the pre-game warm-up, his 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ teammates – referee Mark Geiger and assistant referee Sean Hurd – would get together prior to joining the players in the tunnel. During these huddles, Geiger would speak first, followed by Hurd. Fletcher, however, would remain silent. “It’s unusual, I’m usually not short on words, but I said nothing because there’s nothing left to say—let’s just go.”
Joe Fletcher: “Why? Namely because of the start which goes: ‘Eh, where you from? Canada.’ Okay, it talks about being from Toronto, which I’m NOT. But I like the opening, so I listen to that song every time [I’m on international assignment]. No joke.”
When you’re at the FIFA World Cup™, nationality matters. It’s inescapable. The teams. The games. The flags. The anthems. The fans. They’re everywhere. But even though Canada didn’t qualify for the tournament, Joe Fletcher refused to allow his Canadian pride to be drowned out by the noise.
Even at official meetings, he would add the phrase “and Canada,” whenever his trio was referred to as Team USA. “Look, I get it,” says Fletcher “when two of your members are American it’s easy to lump everyone together, but I won’t have it.”
No matter how often Geiger and Hurd teased him, Fletcher refused to submit. “I’m from Canada, and I made sure everyone knew – it was a point of pride.”
“Before going to the tournament, I swore the only way I would end up on TV for longer than two seconds was if something went wrong. Apparently, I was wrong”
And his teammates, despite the jabs, understood. Since first meeting back in 2008 through MLS, the trio have become good friends. They were selected for the FIFA U-20 World Cup Colombia in 2011, with the explicit intention of making a run for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
Only 25 crews from around the world were selected for the 2014 FIFA World Cup™: a 64 game tournament that sends officials home faster than competing nations. And, from all accounts, Fletcher, and his crew, put in a strong performance, landing three games—two in the group phase and one in the round-of-16.
It was the perfect number says Fletcher. “When we found out that each Team gets to keep one ball from each game they officiate we all looked at each other and said ‘guess this means we’re doing three,’ because we all wanted one.”
Geiger would keep the ball from the trio’s round-of-16 match – to commemorate his achievement of becoming the first American to officiate a game in the knockout round. Hurd chose the ball from their opening game: Colombia v Greece. This meant Fletcher, to his delight, got Spain v Chile played in the Estadio do Maracanã.
This was the game where Fletcher became an instant celebrity: raising his hand and running it across his shaven head, instead of lowering it back down after a missed handshake with an official. His smooth move, won him a pat on the back from Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas, and praise from viewers back home.
The attention caught Fletcher by surprise. “Before going to the tournament, I swore that the only way I would end up on TV for longer than two seconds was if something went wrong. Apparently, I was wrong (laughs).”
But the only attention that really matters, says Fletcher, is the recognition the trio received for their work on the field. “We knew we were doing a good job when they sent us right back out there —assigning us a game as soon as we got back to camp, following our first match. Even the other crews acknowledged that we were on a good run and congratulated us.”
Why the trio didn’t receive a fourth game, beyond their round-of-16 match, is unknown. “It’s not the kind of thing you ask,” says Fletcher” Nor does it concern him. “We got three games, not many can say this.” Plus, Geiger was named as a fourth official for one of the semi-finals and, all three members of the trio were invited to stay until the end of the tournament.
Which meant tickets to see Argentina versus Germany in the final, from nine rows up near midfield. “It was literally me, a security guy and [come the whistle] Bastian Schweinsteiger with the trophy—that’s how close I was.”
But not even some of the best seats in the house could prevent Fletcher from slipping in and out of referee mode. “I love watching the game, but I can’t help anticipating the calls.” It’s the same automatic impulse that takes over whenever he’s asked “Ah, where you from?”
For Fletcher it’s always, “Canada.”
Joe Fletcher: “Listen to the chorus and you’ll understand. Not every word in the song applies, but the chorus … man, it’s all there.”
This is ten per cent luck, twenty per cent skill
Fifteen per cent concentrated power of will
Five percent pleasure, fifty per cent pain
And a hundred per cent reason to remember the name!
10 per cent luck
Fletcher is the first to admit that he didn’t make it on his own. He had several mentors at various stages of his career. At the grassroots former national referees Mike Lambert and Dominic Rosetto are amongst those he credits for his development. “These guys let me tag along, allowing me to sit in on a whole lot of assessments that weren’t mine.”
“I understand there’s a stigma that assistant referees are second class citizens, but the majority of my decisions are critical.”
And even after obtaining his FIFA badge, Fletcher continued to look to others—namely Canadian international referees Mauricio Navarro and Héctor Vergara. “There isn’t a manual,” says Fletcher “once you become an international referee you’re suddenly dealing with a whole new set of obstacles: different countries, ethnicities, languages and these guys showed me the ropes.”
Fletcher also caught some early breaks. Like when he got invited to the FIFA U-20 World Cup Canada 2007 because a fellow referee failed a fitness test. This allowed him, in only his first year on the FIFA list, to participate in an elite competition, providing him with additional experience and recognition.
20 per cent skill
To be a FIFA referee you have to be able to run 40 meters in less than six seconds. Joe Fletcher can do it in five. “I used to be able to do it in less, but I’m getting old.”
This makes him one of FIFA’s fastest assistant referees. Speed is particularly important on the sidelines because you have to be able to chase down some of the world’s best players – on a moment of their choosing – to get into position to make the correct call.
“I understand there’s a stigma that assistant referees are second class citizens,” says Fletcher. “After all, for every five decisions I make per match, the referee makes about 50. But the majority of my decisions are critical. Imagine if I had gotten the offside against Nigeria wrong [disallowing their goal v France in the round-of-16 at Brazil 2014] I could have altered the course of the game; who knows what would have happened if Nigeria had scored first?”
Fletcher during the quarterfinal encounter between France v Nigeria – 30 June 2014
Still, it’s interesting that Fletcher chose to be an assistant referee. In his own estimation he was good in both positions (referee and assistant), but not necessarily elite in either. At least not back in 2006, when Canada Soccer approached him with the intention of promoting him to FIFA as an assistant.
Fletcher agreed because he cared more about being in “the big game” than he did about controlling the whistle. “I don’t have a need to be in the spotlight, but there is a need to feel respected by the guys on my team. The biggest compliment an assistant referee can get, and the only one that truly matters, is this…being asked to walk out with a referee on their biggest or most important match of their career.”
It has been nearly five years since Fletcher last officiated a match from the centre circle. And, today, he’s happy with his decision to remain on the sidelines. “Let’s take personality out of it; if I’m objective, my athletic make-up is better suited to being an assistant.” He says it’s because he’s a natural sprinter, good at start and stop motions, as opposed to long distance running, which is more akin to what referees do.
15 per cent will
But, perhaps, the main reason Fletcher is one of the world’s best assistant referees comes from something deeper. “I’m a goal oriented type of person. I know what I’m up against and, even if perfection doesn’t exist, I desire excellence.” He likes the challenge associated with being an assistant, because, “…despite knowing where you’re supposed to stand, and what you’re supposed to do, executing and doing it right, are completely different.”
“I simply don’t want to be the guy who, when the replay is shown, is caught three meters out of position making the call.”
Fletcher says the desire to improve has always been there—something that, at its core, started with his parents and was nurtured, over time, by others along the way. “It has just never been good enough to try and make the standard. Even in school, if I could get 80 per cent without trying, then I could have gotten 90 if I had worked harder. If I was likely to get 70 in another subject, then I would strive for 75.”
In soccer terms, says Fletcher, “I simply don’t want to be the guy, who, when the replay is shown, is caught three meters out of position making the call. I hate watching replays and finding that I’m a step behind. I’m too competitive to just punch the clock. I’ll quit first. If I’m going to go out and do a game then I’m going to put the effort in. It’s to the point where there is no turning back…it’s too late. It’s just the way I’m built.”
Five percent pleasure
Although a good athlete, Fletcher knew, early on, that he wasn’t going to make it as a professional soccer player. However, his passion for the sport was strong, fed in part by his parents as well as by his first cousin Kyle Fletcher, who played for Canada’s U-20 National Team.
While refereeing was a way for Fletcher to make money, it was also an alternate path – a side entrance – for him to stay involved in soccer at the elite level. And, more importantly, he enjoys it.
One of his favourite FIFA World Cup™ memories was a brief sideline exchange with French striker Karim Benzema. “He was stunned that I could speak French. And just for a moment – keep in mind, here’s a guy who is built like a tank – his face lit up and he goes, ‘great, how you doing?’ It was cool.”
Another memorable exchange took place with USA’s Landon Donovan. “I knew I had missed a call in their earlier CONCACAF Gold Cup match. No doubts about it, he was clearly fouled, but I didn’t want to talk about it during the game, so I turned away. Before kickoff in the tunnel, at USA’s next match, he approached and I said, “I know, I know, you don’t have to tell me. And he was like,’ then why didn’t you…?” I replied ‘I’m not going to argue with you. I’ve seen it, it was ugly’… and at that point we just had a good chuckle about it.”
Fletcher shaking hands with Mario Yepes prior to Colombia’s match v Greece – 14 June 2014
These little moments add up to lasting memories. They’re part of the perks, but not the reason Fletcher takes the field. What matters more is the camaraderie he feels with his fellow officials. “We all go through the same thing, we get it, and when we’re at tournaments we’re like family.”
Fletcher is happy about his performance in Brazil, not just for what he achieved for himself or his trio, but because he hopes it has raised the profile of North American officials. “Right or wrong, people equate how we did at this FIFA World Cup™ with the overall level of officiating in North America. The fact that we did well, hopefully, means that more guys from Canada and USA will get these kinds of opportunities. It’s humbling and satisfying to be a part of this.”
Fifty per cent pain …For this, it’s “On to the Next One.”
Joe Fletcher: “If I have a big decision go wrong I will literally think of that song in my head to remind myself to forget it and move forward … forget move forward. Even if I’m right, or if it’s close – which means someone is probably complaining – that’ fine, move on to the next one.
Following his success at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, Joe Fletcher returned home to find he had become a role model. It’s not a position he’s comfortable with. “I don’t think of myself this way, for me, role models are guys like Héctor Vergara, who referred at three FIFA World Cups, and Mike Lambert, who’s resume is also very impressive…and it’s strange to think young guys are now looking up to me.
“In all honesty, when I read things like that I go, ‘really, come on guys, you can do better than me.’” However, jokes aside, Fletcher feels the need to give back. “You don’t get better on your own…you can’t. And if I can help someone improve then I should. To not do so, goes against everything I believe in.”
So what advice does Fletcher have for young referees?
Well, it starts with being hungry. “You don’t necessarily know who’s in the crowd, so you never know, who’s watching, who matters, who cares or who counts.”
That’s why Fletcher encourages young referees to train, as if somebody is watching, even though more often than not nobody is. And, above all, when they take the field to always give their best.
Because, you’re building a reputation. In the early days, says Fletcher, “most people didn’t know who I was. I was simply known as the skinny, fast black guy.” But what people did remember was that he went, “stride for stride with anyone on the field.” Even when Fletcher was wrong, they cut him slack because they could tell he was up with the play and, eventually, the right people took notice. “But you never know, what whisper, in what ear, finally drew their attention, and that’s the point.”
“In four years’ time, if someone better than me gets picked to go to Russia 2018, then that’s the way it is and how it should be.”
The next piece of advice is to accept life’s learning’s. “As much as it pains me to say, I almost want to thank all those guys in the Niagara Veterans League, when I was 16 years-of-age, who gave me an earful, because they helped prepare me for the pros. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t condone this behaviour, but you have to get used to making big decisions and dealing with the emotions of those in disagreement. And that means going into the fire, and, possible, getting crispy.”
It’s all about experience says Fletcher, because, as a referee, you can’t lose the little battles. “You’re dealing with 22 personalities that don’t necessarily want to be told what to do, but accept that they need to be.” The trick, says Fletcher, is learning to live with your mistakes. “And, I don’t mean forgetting –if you figure that out let me know, because the errors still come home with me – I’m just talking about getting ready to make the next big call, which is only seconds away.”
So, it’s on to the next one, because learning is a continual process. Even for Fletcher, who, despite all he has achieved, knows there are no free rides. “In four years’ time, if someone better than me gets picked to go to Russia 2018, then that’s the way it is and how it should be. At this level, every inch counts, so I’m constantly looking for that extra one or two per cent that can make me better. The day I stop doing this will be the day I go downhill.”
Joe Fletcher’s Top Ten Tracks (in no particular order)
Canada Soccer outlines return to soccer guidelines. The return to soccer guidelines provide member organizations with a five-step process, including a checklist of weighted questions known as the Return to Soccer Assessment Tool.