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August 2021

Referees are increasingly ignoring the laws of the game. One wonders why they are there.


By Don McMahon

As you may know, if you’ve read any of my pieces on Untold in the past, I’m a retired professional referee whose observations and viewpoints about officiating do not always coincide with what the UA espouses but who also acknowledges that something is not quite right with the PGMOL and other authorities.

This article is about how the officials can consciously and unconsciously influence the run of a game and in some cases, its outcome or can be influenced by 3rd parties to consider doing so.

The Laws provide officials with a considerable degree of latitude in interpreting and deciding whether what occurs has infringed the letter or spirit of the Game. Intent is no longer taken into consideration for punishing an infringement, it is the end result that counts.

This is an essential element of officiating because without it we would be constantly stopping the flow of the game and wasting a lot of time as well, or worse still, punishing actions unfairly.  Here are a few examples, which we often see, of how an official can innocuously influence a game, :

1) At throw-ins, the player throwing the ball must do so from outside the touch line and from where the ball left the field of play as indicated by the officials. 90% of the time, the player will move closer to the opponent’s goal than permitted (often taking 5-6 yards) and the officials often tolerate this. If you have a player with a very long throw, this gives them a significant advantage and puts the defenders at a disadvantage as they tend to be squeezed into their own penalty area in order to defend against the long throw.

2)At free kicks, the ball is usually placed by the referee but many refs turn their back to the ball and march off the 10 yards (9 metres) allowing the kicker to move the ball a few feet forward. While this may not seem to be overly problematic, since the game of football is a game of inches, it can make a difference.

3) At a penalty kick, the keeper is not supposed to move off his goal line until the ball has been kicked but at least 30% of the time they are off their line before the kick is taken. The referee is there to control this but quite a few will not order the kick retaken.

4) Blatant fouls in the penalty area committed by defenders and attackers are becoming so common that referees are ignoring them and permitting play to continue. It is hard to believe that a defender can hug an attacker like he was his long lost brother, tug his jersey like a crazed fan wanting a souvenir or obstruct the player, long before the ball has even been kicked, with impunity. This is true at all levels of professional Football and yet are regularly punished at the amateur level.

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5) The duty of keeping time is restricted to the officials but it is becoming evident that many of them don’t seem to keep it accurately. It is perhaps time that an off-field (4th) official be given that job since the existence of Fergie time has had a significant impact on some results at the professional level.

6) The decision of the referee to punish a player with a caution or an ejection is often very controversial and, from personal experience, can be motivated as much by an historical dislike of the player or the team as it can be due to the actual infringement. Is it time that ejections be automatically reviewed after the match and obvious errors corrected?

7) The refusal of the referee to recognize advantage is a common theme in the professional game and is his prerogative since it is one of the most challenging decisions to make in Football. That said, many referees are hesitant to apply advantage and prefer to stop play, often denying a clear scoring opportunity to the attacking team. Taking the ¨safe¨ option is only human nature but it is not a sign of skilful and equitable officiating.

8) So-called ¨50-50¨ fouls don’t exist. What does, is the commission of two infringements happening more or less simultaneously. Many officials will give the ¨benefit¨of the doubt in such situations and pretend that there were no instigators or victims. Regardless, the Laws are very clear about this event and state that the most serious foul must be punished a priori. What often happens is that the referee punishes one player because he saw only one clear infringement or only wanted to see one. This is, again, the ¨safe¨ option and really swings the game on its axis if it happens too often.

9) Offside is the most difficult Law to apply equitably in football. Most referees shudder at the prospect of allowing an offside goal or refusing a legitimate onside one and amateur referees shudder at being alone to make the offside call. At the professional level, the fundamental application of the Law lies solely with the assistants. The referee is rarely if ever in a position to make the call on his own and would be a fool to try and do so. As well, the positioning of the referee (running diagonally to his assistants)renders offside decisions extremely difficult. It is far easier to let the assistant take the ¨blame¨ and if an error is made, they can be the culprits, not the referee. This is where video technology can make a huge difference.

10) Finally the most controversial and shameful habit of professional officials is to award a direct free kick in the penalty area (a penalty) in lieu of awarding an indirect free kick. This means that around 40% of the fouls committed in the penalty area are not recognized or punished as being indirect free kicks but either ignored totally or awarded as direct free kicks. I have even seen officials award a penalty for dangerous play!

I am sure there are more subtleties that can be recognized for what they are, forms of self-protection, being ¨safe¨ or downright cowardice on the part of our officials. There should always be a presumption of innocence before accusing anyone of bias or incompetence but it is becoming more and more clear that professional officials need to tighten up their standards if the game is to be properly protected and promoted.

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19 comments to Referees are increasingly ignoring the laws of the game. One wonders why they are there.

  • Silentstan

    re 4) any pushing, hugging pulling in the penalty area prior to free kicks and corners is not a foul because the ball is dead according to the refs spokeman

  • OMGArsenal

    Silentstan……I must correct you, since any violent conduct/abusive or serious foul play is punishable regardless of whether the ball is in play or not. No free kick can be awarded before the ball is in play, but a foul can be committed by either team and punished.

  • Micheal Ram

    I saw the match and not heart broken at all. I simply think the whole team and tactics picked by wenger was deliberately weak. I think he intented for these kind of performance and thus the result. I think he meant for this and im pretty sure he got his reasons. I think he is simply giving hints to other teams on how to beat arsenal by certain tactics. Probably trying to diffuse the grand overhype on the team these past few months. Then when the time is right, hammer all of them with something out of the book. Arsene has been coy and unpredictable before and had major success because of that. Maybe his way of teaching his over confidence players a hard hit lesson without tearing into them. Maturity is the key word. Maturity made the ‘invincibles’. Once the team is grounded from the overhype, they will work harder then before if they really love the club. Arsene is genius!!!

  • Mandy Dodd

    Agree, what is the point of some of these refs? On that note, can anyone explain why lewandowski stayed on the pitch, and why we had a goal disallowed ? Did not look a foul to me?

  • Mandy Dodd

    I am surprised more has not been made of this refereeing performance against Dortmund, including wengers reaction, or lack of it….ok we know he cannot win by now…. maybe we are becoming so used to this sort of stuff it does not register any more?

  • bjtgooner

    I have looked at our disallowed goal twice & I can’t see the foul, maybe Walter can have another look.

    There was a free kick given to Dortmund about 30secs later in the Arsenal half which also looked suspect.

  • Mandy Dodd

    I cannot see any foul other. Ok my eye is not trained, but that and the booking of lewandowski for an elbow (a booking prevents the Dortmund player from retrospective action) , I really think there has been more going on with this ref than reported. And not for the first time with arsenal in Europe.

  • Gunz

    The Ref blew the whistle far too easily for Dortmund around our penalty area and we got sweet FA at the other end. Lewandowski played dirty, backed into our defenders and play acted for a foul. Which the ref happily blew for!

  • OMGArsenal

    Mandy…..IF the referee judged that the elbow into Koscielny’s face was ¨accidental¨ he has to caution the player for dangerous play and award an indirect free kick. IF on the other hand he determined it to be violent conduct, he must eject the player and award a direct free kick. One is an accident but careless, the other is deliberate and violent….and that is where we separate the real referees from the cowards.
    The disallowed goal was what we call a ¨soft¨foul awarded to Hummels and against Per. These are more common in Europe from FIFA referees than in the EPL since European officials tend to apply the Laws more strictly. We have to take them as they come since each official has his or her tolerance point and style.
    Its a tough loss but we will use that as a trampoline to reach new heights of success.

  • OMGArsenal

    Don’t forget fellow Gooners that professional players are the best actors in the world and can make an accident look like a brutal assault by skinheads in Naples. Lewandowski is far taller than Kos and had his back to him so maybe it was more a block than a vrutal elbow but the referee is the final arbiter.

  • Mandy Dodd

    Thanks OMG, just felt we were a bit hard done by

  • ARSENAL 13

    Did any one see the clips of Vidal (juve) dive…..

    After the dive he was pointing at Alonso. But why??

  • Brickfields Gunners

    Would the EPL refrees act in similar firm manner to the ref in the Porto vs Zenit game , in sending off Porto’s Herrera for two quick offences ?

  • jambug

    If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a thousand times, referees in the PL referee, by and large, to an agenda set by the media.

    What lies at the heart of almost everything they do is how they will be treated in the media. In my mind it has very little to do with a desire to apply the laws of the game in a fair and impartial way.

    They are far more concerned about how they will be praised or mauled on Talkshite, MOTD or goals on Sunday than what the PGMOL might say. In fact I would go as far as to say the PGMOL are more bothered about what the media say rather than whether or not the referee actually refereed the game well.

    I know I’m like broken record but until this intimate, unheathly, agenda ladden relationship is broken nothing will change.

  • jambug

    Regarding our ref on Tues I did’nt think he was THAT bad.

    I could see what he saw when he dissallowed the goal. Soft but I would of wanted a foul if it was against us. Cant have it both ways.

    As for the elbow. Did’nt look accidental to me so I think it should of been Red. Alas, as OMG said, if the ref saw it as unintentional then he could only give a Yellow. Frustrateing but what can you do.

    Personaly I didn’t see him do too much else wrong.

  • Stuart

    I agree with you on Tuesdays ref. a couple of points either way but on the whole, fairly good and even in my view.

  • jambug

    Regarding the game on Tues.

    First 20/25 minutes I thought Dortmund looked very good. Impresive work rate. Solid. Composed on the ball. For all that we limited them to long range efforts…..until Rambos error and then they showed just why you cant take liberties at this level. Rambo will get no stick from me. Guilty of overconfidence thats all. He’ll learn from it I’m sure. I for one just hope it doesn’t knock his confidence, just a silly error, learn, move on.

    From 25 onwards we was at least a match for the rest of the half and deserved our leveler.

    They started the 2nd half well but it soon settled and we took alsmost complete control. And I think that was what undid us.

    I dreaded even thinking it but I was sat there thinking, here we are playing last years CL runners up and we are comfortable, really comfortable. Only one team looked like scoreing and it wasn’t them. I saw somewhere they had run 10K more than us, which is impressive, but they looked like they had. I had just said to the wife, “the’re gone” !!

    Wish I’d kept my big mouth shut coz we all know what happened next.

    Still, very pleased with the overall performance if not the result. I also think Theo and Flamini are big misses and if they are back for the return I think we can get a result over there so all is not lost.

    So it’s take the positives, ignore the media crap, roll your sleeves up and make it happen.


  • para

    I love all of these points in the article. I have often wondered at the inconsistencies of ref decisions during a match. I see two exactly the same offences where one is commented by the commentator as “a strong tackle” and the other as “a weak player couldn’t hold the ball”, yet they were both the same. The ref plays one on and gives a yellow for the other. Some form of order needs to be implemented now before it gets too late, even if the “free flowing” game suffers a little in the beginning, but that would only be for a little while until the players realise that a tight ship is being run.
    Maybe jambug has a point too.

  • Florian

    What’s interesting about the Kos-Lewandowski incident is the short look the BD player threw over his shoulder as if he wanted to make sure Kos is by his side. Them boom! elbow in his face. At least that’s what I remember from the replays on the Internet stream. I’ll look again Saturday when they put the game up on Arsenal Player. I’ve seen Totti being sent off for exactly the same kind of action. To me, this was no accident.