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Being a referee: what it’s like, part two

By Walter Broeckx

This is part two of the article on being a referee, by Walter.  Part one can be found here.

To follow up on what’s it like of being a ref I will start to tell you that being a ref is being the loneliest man on earth at times. This only changes when you go out with two assistants but before that it is a lonely job.

When you arrive at the ground it really varies from club to club. Sometimes you got clubs that really want to do their best. Sometimes you feel lucky if they show you were the dressing room is or even let you know on which pitch you have to do the game!

You mostly sit alone in your dressing room and before the game you see the responsible people a few times but sometimes you have to get him out of the canteen and search for everything yourselves. The friendly ones before the game can turn into nasty people after the game. This is just the way it is. If you are very lucky you have a team that has a special person who takes care of the ref. This is mostly an ex ref who does this because he knows what it’s like. When you come at such a team you will find everything in order and this really is nice for once.

But otherwise the responsibility of the home team, and they can give you the feeling that you are a pain in the bum from the first moment you arrive. I always go out with the expectation that I will have to take care of myself and everything so I never will be disappointed if this is the case. And after the game you can have it that the responsible people are hostile towards you. Some people cannot stand to lose the game and well I take it as part of the game as long as they don’t threaten me or abuse me I just let it go. Not all people can take defeat with grace. Never take it personal.

One of the biggest reasons for refs to stop their hobby is violence against the ref. It once happened to me in fact when I was doing a game a local derby between two teams that are only separated by a few hundred meters distance and a canal. As those teams were located in two different villages I didn’t realised the local rivalry until it was too late. I should have known it in my match preparation but I missed it.

When I started the game from the first seconds the two teams behaved like madmen and every decision I took was greeted with loud protest and contested by everyone. My wife who never comes to see me but who had to pick up one of my sons who had done a match on that same ground playing for another team of that club watched the first 10 minutes and when I came home she asked me what all that fuss was about and if this was normal such a bunch of shouting adult men against me, against each other. Well in fact it wasn’t normal and it was the only time in my career I have witnessed such a thing.

After half an hour playing I had some 5 or 6 players booked for different reasons and still they were not calmed down. Just before half time I had some 9 people booked from both teams. And when in the final minute I gave a penalty to the visiting team and after it was converted in a goal one of the players of the home team, who was already booked for contesting my decisions on many occasions,  came running up to me to tell me what he thought about me. And then he came to me and began to clap in his hands in a cynical way and carried on to shout at me. So I gave him a second yellow card, and then the red card. He then looked to be going to the dressing room and I was writing it down in my note book when he turned around and came back to me.

I decided to ignore him and kept on writing with one eye focused on him. And suddenly the fear of every ref happened as he suddenly swung his arm to hit me on the head. I saw it coming and so I had the good reaction of not waiting for the punch and moved along with the motion of his arm but he did hit me on my jaw. I went down and felt a bit lucky that the other players dragged him away from the scene.

I got up and went to the dressing room and that was the most critical moment in my career as a ref. I had to make some decisions. First of all what would I do with this game? Stop it and give in to those thugs or go back out and let them know that I will not run away from them? Meanwhile both teams responsible walked on eggs and did not know how to react to the whole scenery from the first half.

I decided to do the brave, maybe foolish,  thing and to not let them win it and to continue the game. I called over the two captains and I told them what I was going to do: continue the game. I warned them that if needed I would send all of them off the field with a red card and would tolerate not one word against me for the rest of the game. Even just looking at me would get them a yellow card. I also demanded that they had to make sure that the person who had attacked me would leave the ground before I started the game again. In the second half I had to give one yellow card to one player for a foul.

Now I’m not telling this because I am proud of this, in fact I still feel bad about it, because being attacked for just being a ref and doing your job,  is unacceptable in my eyes, but I tell this to let you know that those things happen to many refs. The Wednesday after that game when I told this story to others at our training, the others who have faced the same thing shared their experiences and supported me. Because after that game I really have been considering stopping. This time I was not really hurt physically because I saw the punch coming but would I be lucky a next time? Well it is some 6 years behind me now and this was a once in a lifetime, I hope.

But I share this to let people who want to start as a ref know that it can happen and that it is no fun at all but at the end of the day it only made me more determined to get those thugs out of football. You can imagine that I was satisfied that the FA in my county gave him the maximum punishment : a 3 year ban. I knew his age and I knew it would mean the end in football for that player.

If you ever are physically attacked by a player I cannot tell you to carry on. That is a decision that every ref has to make for his own. I did carry on and I feel glad about it. I must say that this was the only time I really was attacked in my career of some 10 years now. But then again for many refs the first attack was also the last as many choose to stop after such an event. I can understand them.

But I must say that you must not think that it is all misery and blood and tears being a ref. No in fact I can win the league each game. Because when you have a good game and you have 22 players that come to you at the end of the game and thank you for your good match and mean it, (and believe me I know when they mean it and when they don’t mean it after all those years), and when both coaches and those responsible for looking after you come over to you and also congratulate you with your game it feels as if you have won the game. This is a feeling that gives you one of the best feelings that you can experience. I could compare it with something that we experience in our private life at home but as I don’t know if there are children reading I will not tell you what feeling I mean but I think you can paint the picture a bit.

And when I get in your dressing room it happens that I put my arms in the air and make a fist like a striker does when he scored the winning goal in the last minute to win the game. But still you will be the loneliest man in the ground (if you do the game on your own) but the feeling of satisfaction you can feel in those first minutes is one of the best you can get.

In my career I had the luck to do a few games when the title was decided between two teams and that both teams were very happy with my performance, even the players of the team that lost  came to me with great respect and thanked me for the good game and this is why you keep on doing it.

A last thing I would like to add is make sure you are in a good physical condition. We sometimes use the expression in our country and say that the ref never leaves the centre circle and I promised myself that the day they would say this of me that I would stop being a referee. And try to do some running in the week as I can promise you that you will feel the reward when you do your game. A ref that gives a decision when he is only a few feet away from the place where the foul took place will get no arguments. But if you stand at the other side of the field some 40 meters away people will question you. The harder you sweat during the week, the easier the game will be.

So for those out there who think of becoming a ref I can only wish them success and hope they can have great moments in their career as a ref. And remember: don’t give up with the first setback that will come your way. And believe me it will come one day.

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3 comments to Being a referee: what it’s like, part two

  • Phil

    Great read Walter, very insightful. What sort of level are you reffing at in Belgium currently?

  • WalterBroeckx

    For the moment I am doing reserves (from nation wide reserves to local county wide teams), all youth teams (from first division youth teams to county teams). And I also do on a regular basis some games as an assistant with first teams. I think you can compare that with conference leagues I guess? I find this important to do those things both as it helps me a lot.

    I declined the offer to try to go higher up as a ref starting at that conference level because doing so would get me involved in a lot of extra things (more trainings, more lessons, …) and less freedom in telling the FA when I don’t want to do games. I now let them know when I cannot do games (that is whenever Arsenal plays) and that would be impossible if I go higher. I also have a wife and some children to give a bit of my time so I didn’t have the burning desire and ambition to go further.
    Also at my age I rally didn’t need to go up, let the youth try to get higher but not me as an aging person…

  • Team Spirit

    You? Aging..? You sound 30 LOL