When he realised he was not going to make the grade as a midfielder with tiny Montevideo club Rampla Juniors, Andres Cunha transferred his ambitions in football from those of a player to those of a referee.
And now his is close to achieving his dream. The 41 year old Cunha is one of six South Americans set up to officiate in the World Cup. And even before a ball has been kicked, the Uruguayan has had an effect on the tournament.
Two years ago Brazil were still suffering from the hangover of that astonishing 7-1 semi final defeat to the Germans in 2014. The bizarre decision to recall Dunga as coach was proving a predictable failure. With a third of the Russia 2018 campaign played, Brazil were down in 6th place, outside the qualification slots, and there were real fears that the country might lose its proud record of having appeared in every World Cup.
At the end of March only a late comeback avoided defeat away to Paraguay, and kept Dunga in his job. He was desperately clinging on. But he had one big hope. In August Rio de Janeiro would host the 2016 Olympics. Brazil had never won the football gold medal – the only title within their reach that they had failed to acquire. It had become something of an obsession. And not least because they took the tournament more seriously than anyone else (star player Neymar was called up), they were strong favourites. And so if Dunga could claim gold he would win a place in the history books and shore up his place for the next few rounds of World Cup qualifiers.
There was just one problem. Before the Olympics there was an extra version of the Copa America, held in the United States, to celebrate the centenary of the tournament. The price of making Neymar available for the Olymics was that he would have to sit out the Copa. Brazil, then were weakened. Dunga may have been feeling a little bit vulnerable. But even he could not have feared that Brazil would fail to make it out of their group.
They began with an unimpressive goalless draw against Ecuador. It could have been worse. An error from the linesman – prematurely flagging because he thought the ball had gone out of play – saved the from conceding a goal and possibly losing the match. A 7-1 thumping of Haiti restored morale. But then came the crunch final group game against Peru – with Andres Cunha officiating.
With 15 minutes to go, Peru got behind the Brazil defence and a cross was turned into the net by striker Raul Riudiaz – with the use of his arm. Cunha, though, had not seen the infringement. He was surrounded by protesting Brazilians, and spent over three minutes in consultation with his linesman. Then he pointed to the centre circle. The goal stood. Brazil were beaten, meaning that their tournament was over. And so was Dunga’s reign in charge. Had the match finished as a draw and Brazil made progress in the competition then the history of the 2018 World Cup could have been very different. Because in came Tite, the popular choice who had been overlooked in 2014, and suddenly Brazil started flying. In the remaining qualifiers they accumulated 10 wins and 2 draws, scoring 30 goals and conceding just 3, rediscovering their mojo and swaggering to Russia, with several rounds to spare, among the tournament favourites.
Should something like the Ruidiaz goal happen during the World Cup, then the official will have the advantage of the VAR system. Cunha has also had some controversial experience with this. He was the video referee on one of the occasions that VAR was first used in the Copa Libertadores – last year’s all Argentine semi final between Lanus and River Plate. Lanus needed 4 goals in just over 45 minutes and they scored them all – in a match full of controversial decisions in which a decisive penalty, given for an off the ball incident, was awarded by the video referee. Cunha gave it as he saw it and was probably right – but that did not save him from a hail of abuse afterwards.
Perhaps, then, Andres Cunha will be hoping that he can complete his World Cup dream by getting through the tournament in a way that gets him noticed as little as possible – which may be the best outcome for all the Russia 2018 referees.