Referee Caleb Wales returning home after dream World Cup debut

TT match official Caleb Wales -
TT match official Caleb Wales -

DAVID SCARLETT

TT’s very own FIFA match official, Caleb Wales, is returning home after his first FIFA World Cup experience in Qatar.

This prestigious feat makes him the fifth Trinidadian match official (fourth TT assistant referee) to officiate at a World Cup. He was preceded by Douglas James (assistant referee, USA 1994), Ramesh Ramdhan (referee, France 1998), Merere Gonzales (assistant referee, France 1998) and Michael Ragoonath (assistant referee, South Korea and Japan 2002).

Wales followed in the footsteps of his father, Gregory Wales, who was also a national referee.

Twenty years since the last Trinidadian appearance on the world’s greatest stage, Caleb Wales was selected for the tournament on May 19 on the basis of his performances in Concacaf and FIFA competitions over the past few years – most notably the 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup semifinal and the 2021 Concacaf Nations League final.

Before he landed in Qatar for the tournament, he told Newsday, “It means a lot to be at the FIFA World Cup. It is the realisation of a lifelong goal to be a part of one of the biggest events in the world. It is also a big deal for my family, friends, colleagues, country, and wider region. I intend to do my best and make everyone proud.”

Appointed assistant referee one on his debut in Qatar, he was part of the officiating team that took charge of the Group B fixture between Wales and Iran on November 25, which Iran dramatically won 2-0.

He was accompanied on the field by Mario Escobar (referee), Juan Carlos Mora (assistant referee) and Maguette Ndiaye (fourth official) and was virtually partnered by the video assistant referee (VAR) team of five in the video operation room (VOR) in Doha.

Leading up to the match, British newspaper The Sun published a satirical story about fans’ dismay over “Wales reffing Wales.”

Part of the article read, “(A fan) said: ‘Caleb Wales running one of the lines. Come on FIFA, where’s the neutrality?’ One added: ‘One of the linesmen is called Caleb Wales! It’s a fix!’”

Wales displayed his expertise with the flag, making two correct offside decisions in the game – one against Wales’s Gareth Bale in the 44th minute and the other against Iran’s Alireza Jahanbakhsh in the second minute of stoppage time after the regular 90 minutes played.

The sending-off of Welsh goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey, in the 86th minute made Wales the first TT referee to be involved in a match that featured the VAR at a World Cup.

Hennessey was initially cautioned by referee Escobar for stopping a promising attack (SPA) just outside of the penalty area. However, Drew Fisher – the VAR – advised Escobar to review the incident and send him off for serious foul play, as his foot was in a position that endangered the safety of the opponent when the challenge was made.

Referee Wales was also required to manage the feisty players and coaches on the touchline, who were at boiling point in the latter stages of the match, in the understandable heat of the moment.

Although he was not appointed to matches with women, Wales is also the first Trinidadian to be involved in a World Cup that included female referees. In his pre-World Cup interview with Newsday, he expressed that “If the referee is of high enough quality, then it doesn’t matter the gender of the official.”

He also believes that breaking the glass ceiling and bridging the gap for female officials is important for the game and its inclusivity.

Two weeks after his debut match, he announced his return from Qatar.

On December 8, Wales told the TT Football Association (TTFA) Refereeing Department, “My World Cup 2022 journey has come to an end. I was released and will be heading home on the 9th (of December). I really love and appreciate the support shown and will resume to the best of my abilities in 2023.”

He also expressed his desire to “come home, disconnect, press the reset button and go back at it again.”

In addition to his message to his fellow local referees, he confirmed his farewell on his social media accounts.

Wales was given an official FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 match ball as well as a Qatar 2022 token by the FIFA Referees Committee for his performance and participation in this year’s tournament.

Douglas James and Michael Ragoonath remain the TT match officials with the most World Cup appearances, having tallied four matches at the 1994 and 2002 tournaments respectively.

James – TT’s and the Caribbean’s first match official at a World Cup – ran the line for Romania’s 3-1 victory against Colombia, Sweden’s 2-2 draw with Cameroon, Brazil’s comfortable 3-0 defeat of Cameroon, and Colombia’s 2-0 win over Switzerland in the group stage.

Ragoonath officiated over Germany’s 8-0 mauling of Saudi Arabia, Russia’s 2-0 win against Tunisia, a 1-1 stalemate between Sweden and Argentina, and South Korea’s controversial 5-3 quarterfinal match victory over Spain via kicks from the penalty mark – which made him the first and only TT national so far, to officiate in a World Cup knockout match.

Merere Gonzales officiated two games at France ’98, which included the hosts’ 3-0 demolition of South Africa. His World Cup debut came alongside compatriot Ramesh Ramdhan, overseeing Croatia’s 1-0 win over Japan. This was Ramdhan’s only appearance, but he made history by being the first centre referee from the Caribbean to take charge of a FIFA World Cup match.

Wales follows Ramdhan with one appearance. He is determined to come back onto the world stage in 2026.

He is highly likely to return to local action for the upcoming TTFA Elite League, amongst other experienced and top-level referees in the country. An official start date is yet to be named, but TTFA’s FIFA Normalization Committee chairman, Robert Hadad says it will kick off in “early 2023.”

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