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June 2021

Why some refs rise to the top, and what they lick on the way


Walter recently wrote an excellent piece about the PGMOL and the imbalances seen in that organizations’ handling of their members. As you may know, I am a retired professional referee who spent his career trying to be the best referee he could be and also hoping to make the FIFA list, I succeeded in the former and came close in the latter. Here is what I saw and experienced first-hand in this process and also was told by fellow FIFA referees, including many senior ones from the UK:

1)Rising past the basic levels of officiating to a national rank depends on whose posterior or boots you are willing to lick. Merit has little to do with anything once you are at a national level as most of your colleagues are as good as you.

2) Decisions about who does or does not get on the ¨list¨, whether as a national or FIFA referee are made mostly by politically-minded, retired officials and national association bureaucrats. This means that each one, as we say here in French, ¨chacun  prêche pour sa paroisse¨ or as we say in English, ¨everyone looks after his own/himself¨, also known as cover your ass mode.

3) The end objective of most assessments is the instruction of referees so that next time they’ll improve their performances. There is a token nod to these assessments when a referee is considered for promotion at a high level but it usually assumed that if he or she got to the high level they are at, they must be good….usually true but not always so.

4) I was warned by many experienced and retired national and FIFA referees that having a bad game once in awhile was not seen as a roadblock to one’s advancement BUT pissing off one or more of the decision-makers could be a death sentence to your career. I learnt this the hard way.

5) The competition for the top spots between different provincial referee associations was intense and was dominated by the biggest provinces. The Canadian Soccer Association was well aware of the shenanigans going on in each province and chose to ignore them, in the interests of football harmony, as I was told.

6) When I spoke to Sir Stanley Rous during the Montreal Olympics, he said that the greatest bane of officiating was not the stress on the field as much as the constant pressure and manipulation of officials from every governing body or big club who knew that an intimidated referee was a useful one.

7) In my experience, referees are their own worst enemies because of this willingness to be influenced to advance their careers. I was literally betrayed by my colleagues on a number of occasions out of jealousy and envy because I was ahead of them. Of all the saddest memories and experiences I have had in officiating, this is,by far, the hardest to swallow.

8) At the national level and even at the provincial level, we were warned NOT to air our dirty linen in public and also NOT to be seen giving one’s opinion or ideas after a match in any of the media. The consequences of infringing this ¨unwritten¨ law were severe, even if it was done before fellow referees. Most referees don’t like to be the focus of attention and it makes sense not to have them become such a focus in the media or elsewhere. We also don’t like to be publicly criticized or judged by our colleagues unless they are doing an assessment.

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9) I do not know what it is like in the UK to get people to work as volunteers in football but in Canada it is very difficult to keep people in the game and to find enough competent volunteers to do the tough jobs like coordinating referees, etc. It comes as no surprise therefore when I see many bizarre and inexplicable management decisions being made at the PGMOL level. Management is NOT akin to good officiating, it is an art form in itself. Why then is an amateur in charge of such an important function as coordinating professional referees in the EPL?

10) Finally, because of this tendency for top officials to be ¨supple¨ in their values when it comes to advancing their careers, it brings into question whether that ¨flexibility¨ can turn into outright obedience to the needs of those in power, at the risk of influencing the outcome of a match. It is impossible to prove but my suspicions are that too many officials have abandoned their neutrality at the expense of their ethics and values.

Having watched every match in the recent WC and every officials’ performances therein, it seems to me that things have begun to visibly deteriorate at that level and that outside forces appear to be hurting the officials ability to officiate a top match in a firm and fair manner. I know we are all human and prone to error but if pilots had as many bad flights as some officials do Football matches, I doubt amny of us would want to board a plane!

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24 comments to Why some refs rise to the top, and what they lick on the way

  • oldgroover

    English referees now earn on average £70 thousand per annum (Webb gets well over £100 thousand). So the incentive to arse lick to get to this top level must be difficult to resist. It goes on everywhere though, even on internationally read football blogs.

  • oldgroover

    That’s English PREMIER LEAGUE referees.

  • ClockEndRider

    Thank you very much for taking the time to explain to us the inner workings and machinations. It is quite incredible that bodies in charge of officiating the most popular game on the planet are quite so institutionally retarded. This really ought to be tackled at a governmental level as clearly the football authorities at every level are just not capable of doing it themselves. Not just incapable but actively disinterested which is even worse…..

  • oldgroover


    I’m not sure if it applies, but FIFA bans any government involvement in national football associations.

  • bjtgooner

    Don, a well written and well presented insight. I have a lot of empathy with your experiences.

    Corruption, greed, jealousy etc all lead to degradation of performance, morale, esprit de corps and effectively block any attempt to improve.

    Usually in such circumstances the problem stems from the very top, with an incompetent incumbent having created a rotten hierarchy as a means of self protection.

  • jayramfootball

    Its quite amusing really when, at the very mention of referees being corrupt, so many jump in an claim it is impossible in England and throw abuse linked to ‘conspiracy theories’. Its a reflex attack it seems.

    The reason I find it amusing is that corruption is the NORM in life and more so now than ever perhaps. Our entire western culture is built on ‘me me me’. Self interest, with money being the one true god, prevails. In a world like we have today it is totally ridiculous to think there is NOT corruption in football. There is too much money, too much political and media influence for the game to ever be above board. Quite what form and level the corruption goes to is another matter, but be assured the sport is most certainly played on more than just the football field.

  • Mandy Dodd

    A very interesting read Don, especially given your own personal experiences in such matters. All quite depressing really, we see some of these refs and can only really come to one conclusion. Yes with arsenal, rose tinted specs may be worn but not in the case of Brazil vs Croatia in the recent WC. I am sure there has always been corruption and bias but these days, it doesn’t even seem subtle. I regularly read another blogger who has some pretty extreme views on corruption in football. Of course he may be wrong, know little about the guy, may be just another internet attention seeker, but he says some clubs and managers are involved in the corruption, others know all about it and try strategies to help them despite it, some even buy information, others seek detailed knowledge on refs. This guy says arsenal have nothing to do with corruption, but he also believes wenger is a purist and myopic towards it. If so, may be a shame, and possibly to our detriment, untold ref analysis should be part of their team talk and preparation. A biased or bent ref with an agenda is a fearsome opponent, as we know all too well

  • menace

    There is hope in this greedy corrupt world –

    The officials in the EPL are very noticeably white. The way Uriah Rennie was treated after his red card to an England captain is an example of racism and licking at work. Racism is alive and well and ‘kick it out’ is a face saving load of bollocks.

  • bjtgooner

    On reflection, this article helps explain why the PGMOL refuse to introduce technology to help the refs – they are desperate to avoid anything which will the impinge on the sense of insecurity they presently dwell in.

    (Anyone living a life based on crime, corruption, deception or favoritism is usually insecure – unless they have sociopath tendencies.)

  • oldgroover


    Don’t they usually have to take a directive from FIFA before introducing any new technology etc, or can they just do it unilaterally?

  • Mike T

    Referees and assistants are recruited wherever and whenever they are foolish enough to ask about officiating. Generally our top officials are quite good and when they make the FIFA list, they have earned it.

  • bjtgooner


    It would be better to direct that question to Walter.

    However, my comments about the PGMOL are equally valid re FIFA.

  • Nekuhan

    Good reading Don and Mandy Dodd,
    What are your respective opinions on Japanese referee in Brazil vs Croatia, his history with Brazil in South Africa, not speaking English and his appearances (for merit?) in the later stages of the World Cup.
    Keep the good work going Untold! And …, well … Keep the good work the readers of Untold!! COYG!

  • Gerry

    Top post Don. It is a sad thought that if we get a half decent and competent referee, we are also witnessing the decline of his career?

    I would love to know how Rugby League refs are organised, selected, etc. The never seem to be short of an endless supply of very good officials who are respected by all clubs?
    Bring on the video referee I say. Let the on-field official keep the game flowing within the laws of the game, but let the 4th official decide when mistakes occur. More importantly, let him prove it on the big screen for all to see, players, fans, and on-field officials alike. If such a dedicated media centre was set up, with technicians on hand to recover the right screen shots, it need not be any longer than 30 seconds behind the run of play. Which is usually less than some throw-ins take. If you want to go the whole hog, you could have several 4th officials housed in the same technical centre without them having to pass each other as they travel up and down the country?
    May be in another twenty years, eh, given how long it has taken ‘goal line’ technology to arrive?

  • oldgroover


    Yes, probably more so considering your final bracket sentence.

  • Mandy Dodd

    This guy explains Brazil Croatia. Nekuhan….see bullet point three …the demands of the brand. Have a feeling that ref was specifically chosen due to worries about the strength, or lack of it of the Brazil team….and the risk of riots if they went out at the first hurdle. Brazil were allowed to kick their way to the latter stages, when sadly, but perhaps inevitably a Colombian had had enough of their fouling and preferential treatment and took out Brazils one creative player, risking very serious long term injury in doing so.
    Ultimately , refs just reflect life in general I guess, some good, some bad, some in the middle, but most ambitious and wanting to get on….by whatever means.

  • finsbury

    Thanks Don


    Field Hockey is the one, the closest sport to football according to those Dutch coaches who revolutionised the game. And they already use interactive video technology during games. For years. We all saw it here in London during the Olympic’s in 2012. The ref and 4th official were even miked up to the broadcast so that everyone watching at home could hear their conversations! No wonder FUFA ain’t ‘avin’ it! Of course it would have been a mercy for Brazil if they’d gone out when they deserved to and been spar the humiliation but, well, I think the poor FUFA mandarins were terrified by all those protests. The progress of that poor football team was sadly as predictable before the tournament as a performance by Probert or one of the other blatant ones before certain games (I refer the reader to the Untold preview archive).

    In Hockey the technology and fourth official only support the on field official (they get so many of the calls right!), with any ambiguous replays simply called by the on field official same as in every other sport these days. It’s not rocket science.

    The simple fact of the matter is that there is not one single rational or reasonable explanation that can be given to explain the lack of technical aid for the officials in the sport of association football these past several years.

  • menace

    The difference in sports with officials and use of technology comes down to the authorities view. In football the view was that all levels of the game should have the same officiating. That has changed now that goal line technology is used in EPL. Officiating should be miked up and the spectator should be kept up to date with the play on the field. That is more important than technology assistance. Ultimately it is the spectator that can make the difference by chants or demos at games. The impact of this will be financial as advertisers do not want discord in sport effecting product. Teams must force officials to broadcast the pitch conversations live for open clear governance. Not all spectators will want to hear what the officials say, but it is important for sport to be open.

  • omgarsenal

    Oldgroover……any national association can, with FIFA’s approval, implement what FIFA calls a trial use of new ideas (Law changes,technology, etc.) In fact the Laws are governed by the FIFA board and are quite flexible depending on national circumstances. Here in Canada for instance, at the amateur level we can substitute as many players as our local FA agree to butMUSt not allow them to return to play once substituted. Canada tried the 2 referee system in one tournament a few years back with FIFA’s approval but dropped it and hasn’t tried it again. We recently has a real scandal in my province where the local provincial FA refused to permit a Sikh man to wear his turban while playing and a Muslim woman from wearing an hijab. The Canadian Association threatened to suspend and ban all players and referees from my province from ANY participation in organized Football. I personally know the president of our provincial association and she was forced to back down….it was all very embarrassing for Football in general and my province in particular. It became news worldwide and FIFA had to intervene to get this lady to rescind her decision!
    IMHO video replay technology is on the verge of being adopted as there is tremendous support for it worldwide and from all National Associations but the FIFA dinosaurs are afraid that it will ¨reduce¨ the officials decision-making power! What rubbish…it will enhance it and avoid serious errors but then according to FIFA, the mystique of ¨errors¨ (corruption,match-fixing, bribes?) is part of the game?!!!! I am sure Walter can regal you with similar stories from his country.

  • Micheal Ram


    I disagree with your statement of “The reason I find it amusing is that corruption is the NORM in life and more so now than ever perhaps. Our entire western culture is built on ‘me me me’. Self interest, with money being the one true god, prevails.” No culture and civilization is built upon corruption and evil. It actually ends with corruption and evil. Eastern cultures and civilization is no better. A culture and civilization is built upon togetherness and moral values and is progressed by innovation and sacrifice. However, all of us whether west or east, north or south, white or black, yellow or brown, short or tall should take responsibility for ruining the world built by people like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Mohandas Gandhi, Arsene Wenger and the Equals.

  • Ray from Norfolk, Virginia

    This is not the first time that we read articles linked on this site that pertain to betting, match-fixing, and corruption among referees. How can we, simple watchers / readers, get access to trusted sources about the amount of money bet on a specific game? I am more particularly interested in NUFC-AFC 4-4 and AFC-AVFC 1-3.
    PS: I have been told that bets within the UK / Europe may be determined prior to a game, but bets in other locations can only be determined after the fact, making anti-corruption measures impossible to put in.

  • oldgroover

    Michael Ram

    It’s worth noting that the Equals are probably Gooners, as they come from Essex Road area.

  • Micheal Ram


    Hey, I meant exactly that as I had long lost friends in Essax. Pure gentlemen and fine ladies. Glad that someone smelling what I’m smoking.

  • oldgroover

    Michael Ram

    I was fortunate enough to meet Eddie (but without knowing who he was) when I was cabbing around Islington in the late ’70’s & a few years later his brother (non band member) Alpine when I went to his house to do some carpet cleaning. Really nice friendly & generous bloke, but Eddie was a bit uncommunicative, or perhaps he just didn’t like me.