Football referees: are they biased or are they just incompetent?

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By Walter Broeckx

Having spent a lot of time on writing my articles about the problems that are real and existing in the world of refereeing I would like to talk a bit about the excuse that is generally given to explain this problem.

It comes with a throw-away line, a line said so often that these days it passes without people noticing.   A phrase that is so commonplace that we come to believe it because we hear it so often.

The phrase is: “All team suffer from the bad decisions and it evens out at the end of the season, it is just that the refs are incompetent.

The first part of the sentence  is just an assumption. As far as I know no one except me is trying to see if, by the end of the season this really has evened out. So we will all have to wait another few months to see if this is true or not.

But the second part about the refs being incompetent is something I could say a few things about.

Because this is the difference between saying on the one hand, “refs are bent” and on the other, “refs are incompetent.”   About the notion of the refs being bent I have had my say. So let me try to investigate if the refs are competent or not.

Would I be a great Formula 1 driver? If you would put me in such a car do you think I would win a race? Well I sure know I would simply be happy to stay alive and get out of the car. I am incompetent to drive a race car.

Would I get a Michelin star if I would open a restaurant and be the master chef? Well I know I wouldn’t kill the people coming over to dinner but I also know that I will not get a Michelin star. I can cook but I am not competent enough to say that I am a real master chef.

Of course any F1 driver has years of practice and climbing up through the ranks. From carting to formula whatever number it is, they work their way up, and so the driver climbs the ladder until he reaches the top.

Would a person like me have a chance to reach the top? No I don’t have the required skills and talents needed to get to the top.  I can drive and after driving some 30 years now never had a speeding ticket or had an accident so I can say that I am good driver and a safe driver. But I never will be able to drive in a F1 race.

The same goes for a master chef. They also mostly start at the bottom in their kitchen doing dish washing and then climb the ladder to become chef over the various stations you have to do before becoming a real cook and master chef.

Well the same goes for refereeing. No ref who would get his license to ref today will get a game in the EPL this weekend. I think this is rather understandable.

I don’t know how the system works in England but I do think (and hope!) that it will be a bit the same like in Belgium. Over here you have to start at the bottom of the ladder by doing youth games and then you are assessed every now and then and when you have a few good games in a row you can go higher. And then again they look at your performances and if okay for a number of games you go higher again.  And so it continues.

I think that before a ref ends up in the Jupiler League in Belgium he will have had something between 100 and 150 games in which he was assessed. Meaning 100-150 games in which he should have got a score around 90%. An excellent score. Because if not excellent you will not go up and you have to stay at your level.

So let us presume that the situation in the EPL is about the same. Let us presume that every ref in the EPL has had 150 games in which an assessor has said to the FA: This ref has done an excellent job and I give him 90%.  You can promote him.

Again I compare to the situation in Belgium where a ref is assessed by as many people as possible – it is certainly not the case that you always have the same assessor for the same ref.  So let us presume once again that in your career before you go to the EPL (or Jupiler league in Belgium) some 50 different people have watched you and given you the highest score.

One person can be blind to your errors, another one can be a good friend of your father, another one can be a good friend of a friend of your father. But it speaks for itself that those 50 assessors not all have been blind or have been good friends of you. A few could have been biased in your favour. But not all of those 50 will have been of that kind.

But even if 10 of those 50 would have been a bit kind for you this still would mean that 40 others have seen a good ref, no I correct myself: seen an excellent ref in you.

This just to show you that it is not that easy go up in the ranks as a ref. And maybe one can be given a helping hand by some family relations but not all of them I would say (and think and hope).

So to end up in the EPL you must have been a competent ref along the long road to the EPL.

So excuse me but saying about a poor performance of a ref: “he is not competent” is not a very sensible argument in my eyes.

Unless of course you are arguing that every assessor  and every ref is not competent. If you think both assessors and refs are not capable of doing their job, then you could be right by saying: the refs are not competent.

I know how difficult the road to the top is, so forgive me for not buying this “not competent” argument.  There must be another explanation for poor refereeing.

The shocking figures that prove that the Premier League is bent

We’ve proven that the quality of refereeing is poor – but what is the cause Part 1?

Poor refereeing in the Premier League Part 2:  How do we improve the situation?

Childhood dreams – part 3 of the series on poor refereeing

Poor refereeing part 4  Gambling and prejudice – two problems that refs and football face

Why refereeing is so poor – Part 5 – instructions and rewards

17 Replies to “Football referees: are they biased or are they just incompetent?”

  1. Good article as usual Walter.

    Something I feel worthy of mention.

    In their wisdom the PGMO, under the management of Mike Riley, have appointed one Mr Peter Walton to officiate our home against Stoke City on Wednesday.

    Talk about adding insult to injury.

    Bunch of Incompetent morons.

  2. @Tasos – Hmm.. well – I think you had better wait until I’ve crunched his numbers, you may be surprised.

    Good article Walter – I am of the same opinion. If you look at Howard Webb’s data in the season before the world cup there is a distinct [alarming] change in that all his games look pretty much spot on. One wonders if he was being ‘assessed’ by different bodies at that time and he was aware of it – after the world cuo, of course, his numbers all go to shit again. This would indicate that there is more of an issue with ‘agenda’ over ‘incompetance’ I would say.

  3. Off topic

    Is nasri being stupid or what??? Or is this another case of another media fiction to sell their copies??? Can anyone give the source of his quotes?

    He will leave if arsenal win the title, cesc will leave if arsenal don’t win the title, arshavin has already signed contract with russian mafia….etc. It’s getting ridiculous.

  4. Article is great, as usual. Just I have my own “theory of conspiracy” which is a bit like calciopoli, but I don’t dare to say it is aimed against someone, rather it is favoring.
    I do believe there is certain number of referees and linesmans who are incompetent. And how they get to top flight of English football is something FA should think about. But for sure there is, example is Stephen Child, who in two games in roll make same mistake (offside goal from Everton to us, and Carew for Stoke vs Black Cats).
    As I have too much free time in my life I see weekly about 10 different EPL games I tend to see same mistakes done by same referees. Week by week. But such mistakes rare or never happen on Old Trafford.
    Now question is, does referees became wiser once they step on grass of OT? No they don’t, thing is “mistake-prone” ones rarely step on that grass.
    It mean FA is aware of incompetence of referees under their command and trying to protect influential teams. So at Old Trafford you ll see only the best ones, Webb, Clattenburg etc, while Dowd did only 3 games in last 3 years.
    For me it is prove FA is aware how low standards they have and thus they pay attention whom they send where.
    I would really love to see how many times Stephen Child was linesman on Theater of Dreams.

  5. I think there certainly is incompetence that seems to rear its ugly head on a regular basis.
    But then again, certain teams seem to get the same favours again and again from certain refs.
    I do feel a bit for the refs, for instance how do you even begin to keep up with say an Arsenal counter attack, or how do you spot those little Fletcher centre circle fouls – easy to see on TV but not always at pitch level. Refs are not born with ten sets of eyes. Then there is the pressure factor – just say for the purpose of this post and in all seriousness – that Webb really is an unbiased ref – imagine the pressure on him next time he refs at OT after recent events, although I have to say with Webb, he has bought it on himself.
    But a degree of ref sympathy aside, I have seen nothing that explains the recent actions of Dowd – that is either incompetence or bias on a massive scale. Notice he was removed from the following weeks fixtures after that game – not sure what that really means but hope it was a very strong warning to him.
    Walton against Stoke worries me – the ref Fergie said was not fit enough – so he goes and lets Utd off the hook recently at Blackpool! But look forward to the Dog Face account of him.

  6. How can Webb be regarded as the best ref surely hes in someones pocket to get the champions league final and worldcup final??

    I think certainly reputations/perceptions refs have of teams causes a percentage of bias. any ref at old trafford knows the power SAF yields so you better not make tough calls against man U this man controls half the league. Arsenal have been given the tag of light weight so when a challenge goes in its a case of not being up to the physical challenge

    as you mentioned in your BBC piece walter that familiarity is a cause of these bad decisions. IMO a pro ref should only make a mistake that is very minor every now and then. I have read studies stating that refs are harsher on the home teams but the is a very noticeable bias to the home side esp at old trafford.

    correct me if Im wrong but has a ref ever really faced any REAL punishment for bad decisions, if they can give players red cards from tv evidence surely the Fa and fifa/uefa should be able to review a refs performance and dish out some punishment. without improvements to the standard and without punishment the standard will remain poor, I mean they earn good money the top ones and I am sure there is many fit young people who are not going to make it as a footballer who would jump at the chance, I can only assume there is some huge barriers to entry for the average joe

    ALSO has anyone else noticed how many times refs get in the way of arsenal players passing the ball, they always get in the way of WENGER BALL and on some occasions have even given the ball to the other side

  7. Walter

    As I have posted earlier, I was a grade 1 ref, so I can provide some insight into how it worked 10 years ago.

    You qualify, you register with a your local FA, you register with whatever leagues you want, and your local RA (Referees Association) as a grade 3. You get Sunday and Saturday park football, and a mark assessing you is sent every game to the league organiser. The assessors at this stage are the team officials; you are often reffing without linesman. It is a bit of a lottery. You are marked on the usual, how you control the game, application of rules, and appearance.

    You attend RA meetings (optional), where rules and problems are discussed, when you want to be assessed to grade 2, you request the RA training officer to come to one of your matches. He assesses you in more detail, also considering your position, running your diagonal, communication with players, communication with assistants etc.

    And this way you go from grade 3,2,1.

    At any stage the local FA can call you to run a senior men’s game under their jurisdiction (County Cup), initially as an assistant, but once you are a grade 1 you may get a middle.

    Other senior men’s games are at the discretion of the appropriate league, I was doing middles for Saturday leagues as a grade 3 because my assessments were so good, and in my first year did a cup final as a grade 3, with 2 grade 1 assistants.

    The route once a grade 1, from senior men’s to professional is via the semi professional game. In the UK we have an enormous number of semi pro teams playing highly competitive football in front of paying crowds. You start at the bottom and work your way up, line, middle div 4 takes2 years, up to div3 and so on till you get to professional level. So the journey takes 8 years, from being a grade 1 to entering the professional game. Then you start again, line, middle div2, line, middle div 1, line, middle championship, etc. Another 8 years.

    So when I became a grade 1 it would have been 16 years to the premier league. Assuming 40ish games a year including midweek, you are looking at about 650 games as a grade 1 before reffing at the highest level. Being assessed all the way by managers and club officials, until the professional level, then assessments by refs are also added to the equation.

    I believe the system is now different, with 7 levels of ref, maybe 8, and young potential is fast tracked and mentored. This explains why we are now starting to see a younger generation of refs; they are fresh faced and have not yet been contaminated by the shady side of the professional game. It will be interesting to see how they progress.

    But I can tell you all now, the system that produced Riley, Dowd, Webb, Bennett, et al was not fit for purpose, and was in need of change. If they have got the changes right, the next generation will be an improvement. With Riley in charge, we wait with baited breath!!

  8. Laundryender, I must say that the system you talk about is a bit astonishing to be honest. In Belgium you get assessors from the KBVB (Belgium FA) who come to see you and who decide over your future. And they also make sure you the people who look at your performances are always changing. So in a way they should be very neutral towards the ref as they don’t have anything to do with both clubs.

    Thanks for your information about this. I really had no idea.

  9. Excellent article Walter. I must say, I didn’t realise the trials that referees go through to reach the ‘big’ stage. Thanks to Laundryender for that too..

    But what wasn’t expressly said in your post, though it was implied, was that even if they are ONLY incompetent, why is that any more acceptable? Everyone should be demanding a change in that case.

  10. @Laundryender

    very interesting

    it sounds like the Fa needs to send scouts out earlier like with football and get them training with colina.

    Football is the biggest sport in the world and england is one of the best leagues and should have better standards

  11. DogFace seems to be suggesting that, with a World Cup coming up, Webb decided he was what we in the U.S. would call “in a contract year,” and stepped it up, hoping to get the benefits. As a similarly hateful figure from my country would say, “Mission Accomplished.” And, having gotten rewarded, he went right back to his old habits, i.e. bowing before The Great and Powerful Alex.

    Which is worse, a referee who constantly favors one team over all others, or one who constantly disfavors one team? From an Arsenal standpoint, it doesn’t matter, because in that case it appears that Webb fits both categories.

  12. In some countries, the excuse is that refs don’t make nearly enough money and therefore it’s only natural for them to be incompetent. When this line of thought is brushed aside, the next excuse is that refs are only human!

    In other countries, I’ve seen them in Germany & Iran, there are weekly TV shows analyzing each major ref decision for every game in their highest league. Isn’t there a show like that in England?

    I reiterate my call for an independent study of ref mistakes, to show rate of favorable & unfavorable ref mistakes for every team in PL.

  13. Good point Sammy we have same shows here, and we had them in former Yugoslavia in time when teams from this forsaken place have mean something on European Football Map. And I don’t see why it cant take part in ..I don’t know let me say Match of the Day, if they can put all those retired (and some retarded) players to comment tactic, why they cant bring some retired referees who would discus about mistakes made in each round.
    Or they maybe don’t want do it because it can reveal something what they don’t want admit exist?

  14. Let’s integrate refs with the rest of EU and form a pool. In this way, much of the bias would be eliminated and one would be able to concentrate on incompetency.

  15. Walter, Excellent article. I think the majority of people will feel that Ref’s are corrupt.
    The incompetent part wont wash with many readers. If Refs were not competent then we would expect the necessary punishment demoted to the championship etc.
    The fact that nothing ever happens to these clowns who probably rate as the worst Refs in Europe suggests there is another agenda.
    Once Reillys nest is feathered nothing changes BUT why is he in charge when he allows the poor standards/cheating to continue.
    Someone higher has a lot to answer for.

  16. @Critic,

    I’ll respond to your off topic post about Nasri because it relates to something that’s been driving me crazy as well, and I’m looking for a forum to discuss it. I would love to see a detailed post on this topic on Untold (or ANYWHERE, for that matter, outside of Barcelona fansites). I’m not familiar with the specific Nasri quotes you’re referencing, but I have no hesitation in saying that they’re likely 100% fabricated. It’s just a continuation of a trend.

    In way of background, I’m a Barcelona fan who has recently become more and more of an Arsenal fan. Since I started following this blog, I’ve become increasingly suspicious of the reporting in the whole Cesc transfer saga/”tapping up” controversy of the summmer, to the point where I recently undertook a detailed analysis of all alleged “tapping up” interviews w/ Barca players, w/ Cesc, etc., and their sourcing and so forth. What I found was nothing short of astonishing. My conclusion is that 99% of those comments were fabricated in the British media. I wish I could post my research to back that claim up, but it’s more the length of a full post (or several) than a comment. But I would like to draw your attention to an official statement that was released by FC Barcelona on way back in October (surprise surprise, this statement wasn’t covered much by the English media):

    “In recent weeks a number of invented interviews with the club’s players have appeared in the Daily Star and the Daily Star Sunday. FC Barcelona wish to make it known that none of these interviews are attributable to the players therein cited and also to explain to our supporters throughout the world that the information and declarations made in these articles are totally and absolutely false.

    FC Barcelona has officially sent the media outlets concerned a formal complaint and warned them that it will not allow any further situations like this to be repeated. Should this happen, the club will not hesitate to act in defence of its own image and the honour of its players.”

    I would also point out that Untold Arsenal has also previously called out the British press for fabricating quotes related to transfer rumors. See: (calling out Sky Sports for fabricating quotes from Cesc re Barce) (where the media actually tried to attribute those stupid “Barcelona DNA” comments to Vermaelen)

    And I can tell you from my research that this is only the tip of the iceberg. Sorry for the lengthy off-topic post here, but since I did this research, I’ve been absolutely furious at what I see as an attempt by the media to slander and defame BOTH of my favorite clubs in one go, and I can’t stand that no one is calling them out on it! I had to say something somewhere. Thanks for your patience. 🙂

  17. @Anne

    what do you make of the alleged tapping up of the young Miguel Harper??????? (forgive the spelling)

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