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His Country Has Never Made it to the World Cup, But Uzbekistan's Ravshan Irmatov is a FIFA Legend

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Ravshan Irmatov, Asian Football Confederation referee of the year four times in a row (2008, 2009, 2010, 2011). Wikipedia image.

Johan Cruyff, Ravshan Irmatov, Diego Maradona, Pele. Only three of this quartet are football World Cup record holders, and only one of them has never appeared in a World Cup final.  

For trivia junkies, Johan Cruyff is the only of those four World Cup legends not to hold a World Cup record of some sort. Brazilian idol Pele has won more World Cups than anyone else, although football's governing body FIFA only awarded him his third World Cup winner's medal — for his two appearances in the 1962 tournament — retroactively in 2007. Argentina's former No.10 Diego Maradona has made more appearances as a captain — 16 — than any other player in World Cup history, although he used one of those appearances to handle a ball into the net in 1986 and was under the influence of performance enhancing drugs for a further two appearances in 1994.

Twitter image uploaded by @kainbek July 3

Irmatovs junor and senior. Twitter image uploaded by @kainbek 

Perhaps the most deserving record holder of that trio, then, is Uzbekistan's Ravshan Irmatov, who now holds the record for refereeing the most World Cup matches in the history of the competition, having displaced previous joint-record-holders Joël Quiniou (France), Benito Archundia (Mexico) and Jorge Larrionda (Uruguay) on July 5 following the ninth World Cup game of his career.

To be sure, Uzbekistan is not known as a footballing nation, having never featured at a World Cup despite a couple of near misses in qualification. Nor is it a country known for fair play and impartial justice. To quote Human Rights Watch's report on the country this year:

Uzbekistan’s human rights record remained abysmal across a wide spectrum of violations. The country is virtually closed to independent scrutiny. Freedom of expression is severely limited. Authorities continue to crack down on rights activists, harass activists living in exile, and persecute those who practice their religion outside strict state controls. Forced labor of adults and children continues.

But Irmatov comes from different stock to the regime in Tashkent — literally — his father, with whom he is pictured above in the Uzbek capital in 1982, was a well-regarded referee at club level during Soviet times. Since starting out as an Uzbek league referee in 2000, Irmatov junior has been recognized as the best referee in Asia four times, in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011. 

No Final for Irmatov

Having refereed four World Cup games in Brazil this year, including his magic ninth, the quarter-final nailbiter between Holland and Costa Rica, Irmatov was a shoe-in to referee the July 13 final between Argentina and Germany. In fact, as Irmatov-mania — embodied by the #Irmatovbest hashtag — swept across Central Asian networks, so did a false rumour that he had already got the gig. One tweet, retweeted 58 times read:

Irmatov appointed as the referee for the World Cup Final Germany-Argentina!! #IrmatovBest #GERvsARG

This apparent “victory” led to a burst of national pride among Uzbeks on Twitter:

Unfortunately for football-lovers in Uzbekistan and, to a lesser extent, elsewhere in Central Asia, it was not to be. Despite Irmatov's impeccable credentials and the fact that his not being from either South America or Europe was viewed as an advantage, Italy's Nicola Rizzoli was selected by FIFA to referee the World Cup Final instead. This caused one distraught Uzbek fan to label the governing body a “sell-out whore” on Twitter.

Nevertheless, as Irmatov makes his way back from Brazil he will have something more important than World Cup gold: the love of his country. Moreover, at 40 years of age he will still be comfortably eligible to referee the final of the 2018 tournament, to be held in Russia, where up to 2.5 million of his compatriots earn a living as migrant laborers. Now that would be a special World Cup moment.

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