Pressure cooking on the pitch

Forget Messi. When millions watch the World Cup, they'll be watching Joe Fletcher.

When he first steps on the pitch this month in Brazil at the granddaddy of all sporting events, the FIFA World Cup, assistant referee Joe Fletcher admits he'll be feeling some pressure. After all, with worldwide audiences expected to be in the hundreds of millions, every officiating decision will receive extra-special scrutiny. But Fletcher, due to his extensive experience, including officiating at two games at the 2012 London Olympics, feels he's ready. "I've felt this pressure before," says the 37-year-old, who received his assistant referee's badge in 2007 and was an official for the 2011 FIFA Under-20 World Cup final in Colombia. "I know the job I have to do, so it's just a matter of executing it."

Still, it's a long way from his teens when he was refereeing house league soccer in Niagara Falls, Ont. "Instead of doing a paper route, I refereed," he jokes. Today Fletcher, a partner at Wormald Masse Keen Lopinski in St. Catharines, Ont., works between 20 to 25 games a year, primarily for Major League Soccer, North America's premier professional league, as well as FIFA-sponsored competitions. In 2012 his squad was long-listed for a coveted World Cup spot: there were 52 officiating teams of three to fill 25 spots. While he figured they had a shot at being selected for the big show, he didn't allow his expectations to run too high. "It's not really about giving them a reason to select you," he says, "it's making sure you don't give them a reason not to pick you. "His job description, as he sees it, is simple: avoid making critical mistakes. In other words, don't raise any flags by raising, say, an offside flag in error during an important game.

He received the official word on his selection in mid-January at 2:30 a.m. "When I woke up that morning there were all these voicemails from friends congratulating me," says Fletcher.

While FIFA does not offer any guarantees on how many games its officials will be a part of in Brazil, Fletcher will be patrolling the sidelines for at least one during the group stage and, if all goes well, has a chance of being chosen for the knockout stage. "I'm looking forward to the pressure," he says. "It's why I continue to do this."