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Refereeing a game of the team you support

By Walter Broeckx

Earlier on this site appeared an article from Pete where he gave a very well written summary of things that might influence refs.  In case you didn’t read it, you should and it can be found here

One of his points, in fact the first point he made was the point about Favouring a Team the Referee Supports.

So how difficult is doing a game of the team you support as a ref? By accident I have had the chance to experience it myself only a few months ago.

In my own country I have supported my local team since I was about 6 or 7 year I think. In those days my local team (Berchem Sport) was a team in the highest division. Having missed out on two titles at the start of the sixties (under very suspicious circumstances) it had lost a bit of his flow as a result and was somehow a team going up and down between the two highest levels of football. But eventually it all went wrong later and now they find themselves in the 3rd tier of football in Belgium.

In my home town Antwerp there are 3 traditional big clubs: Antwerp, Beerschot and Berchem (my club). Antwerp has been in the second tier of football for some 10 years now. Beerschot was the only club in the highest division till may last year. Then they went bankrupt and collapsed completely. They then merged with a club from the first regional league (5th tier of football one could say).  As a result they are now doing a Glasgow Rangers. Winning their division with a big big advantage over the rest. And will be back in the national league next season for sure.

So in the summer my local team Berchem played a pre-season match against Beerschot (now known as Wilrijk-Beerschot).  And to my great astonishment and excitement I was assigned to do this match as assistant referee. Together with my son with whom I formed a partnership in being assistant referee for a few years now.

In a way this was a dream come true for me. Running out with the first team and that in a pre-season match that wasn’t just a pre-season match at all. Would a pre-season match against Tottenham be the same as playing against a Signapore XI? It sure wouldn’t be. In fact this was for local supporters of my own team a bit like an Arsenal-Tottenham match.

After the first joy of seeing the assignment came the thinking. Would I be able to do this game in the way I had been refereeing for all those years.  Would I be as impartial as I have done all those years? In a way this would be the most important match of my referee career.

I must admit that when I ran up the field with the team of Berchem Sport running behind me (you can see images of this in this video on facebook  about this match if you want  ) I never felt anything like that in my referee career.  A big crowd for Belgium matches certainly for friendly matches added to the pressure.

I never have felt such nerves before. And also the determination to not let any of my bias get in the way of my decisions. As the game developed my local team took the lead from a penalty.  And standing there on the touchline waiting for the penalty to be taken I felt like a supporter hoping that we would score. And when the ball went in I had to make sure I didn’t show my real feelings about us taking the lead. Or do a Dean-dance….

Then Beerschot equalised with a thundering shot and again I had to not show my (f*ck) feelings about the goal. A great goal indeed. But then my team scored 2 more goals before half time and when going in to the dressing room the lead was comfortable.

In the second half Berchem attacked on my side of the field. And now my real test would come. Would I let myself down and make wrong decisions? I’m rather proud to say I didn’t. In fact I ruled out two goals from my local team. One time when the ball did just cross the line when a cross was made and a wonderful volley goal was scored. But I raised my flag despite my heart said : you can’t rule that great goal out. I did.

And a bit later I raised my flag for offside when a Berchem player was to score. The offside might have been marginal, he might even have been level but I had promised myself in case of doubt I would go against my team.

After the match when I returned to the dressing room with a great feeling as my local team had won the match 4-1 and we had beaten our rivals I felt a strange set of emotions. Happy for my team has won. Happy for myself as I didn’t do anything that might have give the impression that my favourite team was out there.

But completely empty and exhausted because of all those emotions and not being able to express these emotions. I am still proud of myself for having done this match in such a way.  A Beerschot supporter who knows I am a ref and whom I saw the week after the match congratulated me for my decisions as some of them were very close and difficult. He didn’t know and still doesn’t that I am a Berchem supporter.

So it can be done. It can be done refereeing a game when you support one of the teams. But it is oh so very difficult to do. And really not advisable to do. I must say that I have had the experience now and have enjoyed it very much. But I really would consider phoning the football association if they would give me this match again and ask them to remove me from it.  Most of my colleagues would have taken the game and would have started a fight to decide who could take my place I think.  But believe me it is oh so difficult to not show your bias when doing your own team.

Not impossible but I could have influenced the final result without people noticing it like with those two disallowed goals I could have kept my flag down but didn’t.  If I would have said if they argued: for me the ball didn’t cross the line completely and said for me he was level then it would have been 6-1.  That is what fills me most with pride when thinking back at that match (and I do rather often) that despite me wanting to trash them I didn’t let that get in the way of my officiating the game.

But I know that not all people are like that. And even when they want to be like that they still could have kept the flag down when I raised it.

A ref can influence a game. An assistant can influence a game and the result. And I know how easy it can be. And how difficult it is when doing your favourite team, or not to do it.  A dream came through and it is a good memory but I could have turned it in to a referee nightmare because of my bias. And it should not be allowed to happen. This was a friendly match but in a league…no, it shouldn’t happen at all.

Next we will be turning our eyes to the next match… stay tuned

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17 comments to Refereeing a game of the team you support

  • The font

    Walter
    What about if it were arsenal v. Tots and the prem title depended on it last game of the season we are leading 1-0 last minute of the game the same ball over the goal line. Scenario you describe gives tots the draw which gives them the title

  • WalterBroeckx

    The font,
    that is why it should never be allowed that you have refs who support any of the involved teams.

    I must say that when I turned ref I had told the football authorities that I support Berchem Sport and that I never would like to do their matches as a ref. Maybe the authorities don’t think this is the same when you are an assistant but I don’t agree with that. An assistant can influence a game very much

  • The font

    Sitting here I would like to say I would do the right thing but looking back at occasions that we were desperate to score and a ball to hand in the box occurred
    I always scream penalty . You just get caught. Up in the moment if your a fan

  • Cesc

    Never had that experience. But hey, why don’t we ask Howard webb and Mike Deen about their feelings when they referee a Game for Manchester United, eh?

  • Ian

    I thought you were supposed to favour the attacker if unsure about an offside. So are you admitting you were biased having already decided not to apply the rules correctly?

    Just saying!

  • WalterBroeckx

    Ian,
    yes. That is what happens to a person who wants to give no favours because you do the team you support. But would all and everyone do the same? Just saying 😉

  • JohnW

    Atleast it was a friendly. But even then, as it is in Africa, fans could fight if the slightest bias was detected for the ref. or his assistants.

  • Gord

    I never officiated at the level Walter has. For many years I volunteered at an amateur club at the highest level in Canada, mostly doing athletic first aid. But, for a while, I also did officiate. I much preferred to be a linesman (the transition to assistant referee was about the time I am talking about) than to be in the middle. Canada did have or had just lost a pro league (transportation costs are huge here), and at the highest amateur level they were attempting a province wide league.

    One day, I had come out to the club to watch one of these province wide games. The referee knew me well, and when he seen I had come out to watch, he approached me. One of the assistant referees had failed to show up. Did I have my referee kit with me, and would I run line? For this league game? And so, I ran line. And all of the officials for the home team knew who I was, and probably most of the visiting team knew as well. And nobody had a problem, because they all knew I do all jobs professionally. I told the referee I would not accept being paid, it was just an honour to run line at that high a level. A few weeks later, a cheque arrived in the mail for $25 (I believe). I never did cash it, it is stuffed away in some box somewhere.

  • soglorious

    Thank God i am not a ref nor an assistant to one cos if I were opportune to officiate a match involving Arsenal, how to control my emotion will be a great battle.

  • I guess what you so feelingly explore about the team you love can can be replicated by the team you dislike. Consider the swell of media poison spewed forth daily and the possibility of intensely and irrationally disliking a club may be quite considerable. Wonder if ‘dislike’ is required to be declared as a conflict of interest.

  • Ian

    Thanks for the honesty re bias. Maybe this demonstrates that we get so many bad decisions because all the Epl referees secretly support Arsenal. 🙂

  • Arvind

    A very nice article Walter. Thank you for that unique perspective about how one is caught between the devil and the deep sea, despite wanting to do the right thing.

  • Shakabula Gooner

    Ian,
    Upon thinking of Walter’s reply to your initial question, your follow up of 4:12pm was my exact thought!
    So, thanks to Walter, we have discovered why Arsenal gets no favors from most EPL referees

  • WalterBroeckx

    LOL 😉

  • Gord

    OT:

    Carroll’s card is upheld by the tribunal.

    > It is thought to be the first time in Premier League history that a rejected red-card appeal has then been referred to an independent arbitrator.

    —-

    Sanogo played 60 minutes for the U21s (another 0-0 tie), Ryo played the entire game. So, another injured is almost back.

    Nice interview of Giroud by Alan Smith at the Telegraph.

  • Brickfields Gunners

    Nice story Walter , a very good read .And well done. It is never easy but your head will always win out in the end .I’ve had a few occasions where fair play and common sense were called for .
    As a college player , I once scored what seemed to be a good goal early in the 2nd half( 2-0 !)when the keeper couldn’t hold a hard high shot which went over and behind him and over the line. The crowd around the goal started to cheer and clap and the referee blew for it.
    The keeper had held his head in his hands ,but suddenly the other players started to protest to the referee and the keeper took the cue and joined in and crowded around the ref .
    The referee was adamant that it was a goal, but the opposition threatened to walk out if it stood.
    They also demanded to see his referee’s certificate and just about called him a cheat and biased ( this despite the same person having had refereed their previous game which they won 7-0 !).
    Our team by this time had moved aside and our Physical Director approached us and asked if we were would considered letting that goal go ; and we as host should
    show ‘consideration ‘ to our guests .
    The rest of the team immediately agreed to it as a just sporting gesture , but I refused as this would be an admission that the ref is not only competent but bent as well.
    I informed them on principle that I have to object , but will continue to play if need be.At the same time I took a swipe at them ,asking them if they would have been so generous if we were not ahead by a goal at that time. Silence !
    The other team refused our offer ,smiled (cheerfully!) thank us , shook our hands , packed their bags and left for home the very same night .In truth they were very worried that we would trash them as we were overrunning them up to that point.
    Rather than play the game as sportsmen , they chickened
    out and opted to take the ‘we were wronged (cheated)’
    attitude and took the easy way out !

  • OMGArsenal

    Ian………there are NO rules in the Laws that specifically state the referee has to give the attacker preferential decisions. That would go against both the spirit and letter of the Laws on scoring, referee’s powers, fair play etc. Basically each official tends to decide for themselves, based on each circumstance, what to do, within the Laws. So Walter was doing what he knew best….and that’s all we can do as officials.