MOSCOW (AP) — Jair Murrufo remembers the first time he picked up a whistle and called a soccer match.
“My father kept saying, ‘Hey, you want to be a referee?’ And I’m 19 years old, and I’m like, ‘No, why would I want to do that?'” he recalled.
That was an under-8 contest filled with kids trying to learn the sport. Now the 41-year-old from El Paso, Texas, will be on the field for soccer’s pinnacle: the World Cup.
While the United States is missing from soccer’s showcase for the first time since 1986, it is the only nation with two referees working the tournament.
Mark Geiger is the second American to referee at two World Cups. The 43-year-old from Beachwood, New Jersey, worked two matches during the group stage in Brazil four years ago, and then became the first American to officiate a knockout stage match: France’s 2-0 win over Nigeria.
“It is an indication of the quality of the pool that we have here,” said Howard Webb, the English referee who worked the 2010 World Cup final and now heads the Professional Referee Organization, which supervises match officials in the U.S. and Canada.
Marrufo’s father, Antonio, was a referee in Mexico’s top division who was under consideration for the 1998 World Cup but wasn’t picked.
“Now he’s so excited for me and just living his dream through me,” Jair Murrufo said in New York before heading to Russia. “I want to fly him out there, but we’ll see.”
He remembers his first match, in an El Paso youth league. His father kept prodding.
“I just said, ‘OK, fine. So you could get off my back, I’ll do it,'” the son explained. “The first thing I do is I waved down my assistant referee and said, ‘No, I got this,’ and I felt like it was in my blood. And, obviously, it was, because from that day on I fell in love with it.”
Geiger started when he was 13, in the Jersey Coast Youth Soccer League. His motivation?
“Money,” he said with a smile. “It was the easiest, most enjoyable job that a teenager that young could have, going out and doing five, six games on a Saturday and then same thing on a Sunday.”
Marrufo worked for paint company Sherwin-Williams before he was among the first four full-time referees hired by the U.S. Soccer Federation in 2007. He was voted Major League Soccer’s Referee of the Year in 2008 and was the only American on the preliminary list of 2010 World Cup referees released by FIFA.
But Marrufo was suspended for two weeks early in the 2009 by the USSF for receiving a jersey from Chicago’s Cuauhtemoc Blanco after an MLS match, and he did not work ay Major League Soccer games after June 24 that year because of what the USSF said were poor performances.
It took nearly a decade for him to work his way back into contention.
“Things didn’t go my way, and I didn’t give up on it, and I was chasing it,” he said. “And it’s finally coming true.”
Geiger was an advanced placement math teacher in Lanoka Harbor, New Jersey, until PRO was established by the USSF and MLS in 2013. The history of American referees at World Cups was slim before his performances in Brazil.
David Socha was the first American to referee a World Cup match, whistling one match each in 1982 and 1986. Vincent Mauro worked in 1990 and Arturo Angeles followed in 1994.
Esse Baharmast became the first awarded two games at one tournament, in 1998, and Brian Hall was in charge of two matches in 2002. There were no American referees on the field during the 2006 and 2010 tournaments. Geiger refereed the final of the 2011 Under-20 World Cup, earning a spot in the big World Cup three years later.
“I think he was the single biggest success story from that tournament from an officiating point of view,” Webb said.
Geiger and Marrufo are among the officials at this World Cup who have had experience with Video Asssistant Referees, which will be used to review whether there are clear errors in goals, penalty-kick incidents, direct red cards, mistaken identity and serious missed incidents. MLS began using VAR last August.
“It’s a godsend,” Geiger said. “To be able to fix your mistake before the game ends is certainly something that’s advantageous to all of us.”