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April 2021

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE? The power of the referee.

The beautiful game is one of the easiest competitions to manipulate because of the absolute power the referee and his assistants enjoy.

It is also one of the hardest games to police because of the difficulty in interpreting an official’s decision, except when it is obviously wrong according to the Laws.

So we might ask: is it mission impossible to prevent some officials from negatively influencing the game? For example (and in these examples “he” meaning the ref, refers to “he or she”

1) He does NOT have to explain his decisions to anyone including the players, their captain, the managers or even his assessor. Nor is he obliged to talk to anyone other than his assessor and the governing body for officials.

2) He is the ONLY official timekeeper, not even his assistant can overrule his decisions as to adding time or when to stop time.

3) Once play has been restarted he CANNOT ever return to change his decision nor can he be overruled after the fact UNLESS he has committed a direct error with regards to the LAWS, regardless of all the video evidence in the world. That is why they don’t show replays on the big screen.

4) Most players and many managers have a very limited knowledge and understanding of the LAWS and therefore cannot argue intelligently with the official about a call. Therefore he can call what he likes and easily outwit the other stakeholders by using his ¨superior ¨ knowledge of the LAWS.

5) He is the final arbitrator on points of fact and that is what prevents the FIFA, EUFA and FA dinosaurs from implementing video referees….they fear the consequences of taking this status away. Many officials don’t want to be scrutinized by video recording and assessing because they fear for their privileged status being reviewed.

6) He does not need to judge INTENT anymore before rendering a decision but rather must consider the end result of a player’s actions regardless of whether it was intentional or not. That does NOT mean that he must always punish an action but it does mean that he doesn’t have to justify his decision to anyone, unless he makes a serious technical mistake as I mentioned previously.

7) He knows that he and his assistants will make far fewer mistakes than the 22 on-field players will during a game so he feels secure in the knowledge that he is less visible than them….this is of course false security. However he knows that the higher authorities will ALWAYS give him the benefit of the doubt.

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8) He has the authority to allow play to continue, even when a foul is committed, if it offers the offended team an advantage to create a goal-scoring opportunity. He can also stop play regardless of an advantage arising because he feels that the offence must be punished immediately. Ultimately, one of the hardest calls to make is to recognize and give advantage and many officials take the safer route of making a call.

9) He can caution a player based on an extensive list of behaviours, all of which are open to misinterpretation or misunderstanding. He can send a player off if another carding offence occurs or a serious first time foul happens, and rarely will his decision be questioned or even reviewed.

10) He can award ¨mystery¨, very minor or ¨invisible¨ fouls in order to warn or control a player who is obnoxious, to calm down and stay out of his face. I have seen this done countless times and it serves as a painful reminder to the player(s) involved that he is the ¨boss¨. It is a sweet form of revenge as we say.

There are so many more powers the officials enjoy but they also always face extreme risks when trying to officiate 22 excited players, whose idiosyncrasies and personalities can quickly distort a game. So if it is mission impossible to prevent the skewing of games by officials, what are we to do?

Here are a few suggestions:

1) Video technology including goal-line and video refereeing reviews is a great start.

2) The simplification of some of the laws would help make his job easier.

3) Total transparency by the officials and particularly their governing organizations would be welcome.

4)  An immediate expulsion for players repeatedly harassing and haranguing the officials.

5) A new governing authority other than the PGMOL. the new body being composed of neutral Football experts like retired referees, university sports instructors, coaching instructors etc.

6) A more transparent and in-depth assessment process like Walter’s referee reviews and seasonal analysis done by a team of referees.

7) A clear and well documented process for promotion of officials from lower leagues that is publicly available and reputable.

I am sure our erudite readers can suggest even more options that will illuminate our beautiful game.

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19 comments to MISSION IMPOSSIBLE? The power of the referee.

  • HR

    Here are some other suggestions.

    1. Establish a refereeing ‘academy’ for all sports where officials can be trained to an better-than-acceptable standard. Sharing refereeing ‘techniques’ across sports would be a significant step forward. Just watch how officials handle a field hockey match and you’ll see what I mean. And why not open it up to foreign applicants who’d pay through the nose for the privilege thereby raising standards globally. Officials could take refresher or remedial courses to maintain standards. It can even be handed over to the private sector if you were capitalistically minded.

    2. The creation of refereeing teams. Using the same personnel throughout the season thereby eliminating some of the vagaries of miscommunication. There’d be an established team leader, though promotion can still take place where warranted.

    3. Post-match refereeing press conference and Q&A. Though this would have to be ‘some’ days after a match as it first has to be reviewed on VT. Only by being challenged can the public gain confidence in officials.

    4. A kind-of refereeing ‘ombudsman’ that would oversee the whole shebang … academy, self-discipline, etc answerable only the the Sports Minister and the appropriate Parliamentary committee.

    5. Two on-pitch referees instead of one increasing the proximity of officials to significant incidents.

    6. On-pitch team-consulting of officials for important decisions pretty much as they have in the MLB.

    7. And/or an off-pitch video official in constant communication. This is guaranteed to happen one day, so why not now?

    8. Clear and published guidelines to officials prior to each season from the PL or FA presented during a press conference that includes a Q&A. Make sure everyone’s on the same page.

    9. Sacking, shooting, culling of all the corrupt, old men in football. Bring in women and other ‘minorities’. None of points 1 to 8 will ever be instigated while these ‘fat cat’ dinosaurs are in charge.

  • colario

    Up until I read this I thought it was shakespeare who wrote “A midsummer’s Night Dream’.

    I was wrong. Ii was Walter from Belgium. 🙂

  • Pete

    Good article.

    Every individual decision can be debated and, usually, justified – albeit often with very contorted logic. If not it can be excused as an innocent mistake.

    The only way that a case can be build against any referee (or club) is through statistical evidence painstakingly compiled over a period of time. This is what Untold has done with the referee reviews, what I did with the penalty analysis and also – occasionally – what other people have done. E.g. the analysis of “Fergie time” a couple of years back where it was demonstrated that Man Utd got more injury time when they were losing matches.

    Statistical evidence is very powerful but, sadly, not well understood by many people. For example, most in the media do not have a statistical or even technical background.

    Or, to put it another way: Once is unfortunate, twice is a coincidence but three times….

  • bjtgooner

    The refs have demonstrated repeated incompetence and bias – in the EPL, in Europe and at the World Cup. They are not fit for purpose, bring on the technology.

  • oldgroover

    Some good ideas, a few of which are (under the current system) impractical. e.g All of the PGMOL referees are promoted from the Championship (who recruit from Div 1 & 2), where most are part timers (learning their trade literally on the hoof), and have a full time job. If they graduated from academies they would be looking to be full time and not have to slog through the lower divisions. So yes, full timers properly trained to elite standard at academies is the ideal, but in reality I can’t see it happening without complete restructuring of the refereeing system right through the divisions.
    The post match interviews was tried for a while and for some reason dumped. I’d like to see it return.
    The ombudsman could infringe FIFA rules as it might involve government interference in FA business.
    The other points are worth a try though, particularly number 9

  • wam

    EA’s FIFA series proves that if shock sensors were imbedded in players socks and kit we could have an automated referee call fouls, pushes, excessive contact, offsides etc without error, with a clearly defined parameter and without the human element/bias.

  • colario

    ‘Hi Webby. It’s Mikey here. Howard you to day?

    ‘Is that Rilly you Mikey?

    ‘Sure thing Webby. Why do you ask?’

    ‘No offence boss but you can’t be too sure of what hear or for that matter what you see these days’.

    ‘Strange you should say that Webby, becausse that is what I am calling you about.

    ‘Oh yes boss’. Said with the sound of doubt in his voice.

    ‘Well Webby you know we refs always get the decision right first time and the cameras and their obnoxious replays always tell a lie and those idiots who call themselves ‘supporters’ always believe the camera replays.’

    ‘Yes boss.’

    ‘Well I have been thinking, its time we stood up for ourselves and you Webby are the man to do it.’

    ‘Yes boss.’

    ‘What I want you do to do is to retire!’ (Webby drops his phone so doesn’t hear Mikey’s next bit first time.

    Not being able to see Webby drop his phone Really Micky continues.

    ‘Don’t worry you get your £50 000 silence hand shake and we give you a great job your goonner like this one.

    You watch the game on TV. then you go on TV and explain our — no I mean the decisions that no one understands. You will be our lead in ‘referee openess’. You are answer to all this nonsense about technology’.

    We pay you a great salary just for watching TV. (no more exhausting yourself running up and down the pitch surroundered by a bunch of mindless idiots) and explain why we are right and technology is wrong.

    In addition to all that your name will be in the media almost everyday, you will be one of the most famous people in the country.’
    What say you Webby?’

    ‘Thanks boss you really are a true boss.’

    ‘Well Webby I can see the headlines now.
    ‘Howard’s really Mike’s man’. I’ll email you the details. Bye for now.’

    About a minute later Reaily Micky calls his friend Webby again.

    ‘Hi Webby. I for got to tell you. You can throw your whistle away as you wont be needing it in your new job. Nope. There will be no whistle blowing in your new job. See yer’.

  • zac

    Personally, I think the game is fine as it is. There are academies and a very structured review processes, we don’t need any more. Instigating all these fandango technological strategies will take the passion and zip out of the game. The role of the referee is also to man manage and he does this by applying common sense, whether it’s understood by the players or those watching. Ultimately, he wants to keep 22 players on the field to maintain a contestable game. Pundits often scrutinise referees without detail knowledge of the laws themselves. Apart from goal line technology, leave the game alone and let’s stop making the game sterile. Stop pandering to the player’s egos and leave the refs alone. Yes they make mistakes but how many refs command £150k plus a week to make as many blunders as the players do a game? Players who turn to refereeing often say to me just how difficult it is on the other side and can see why we make the decisions we do. I suggest all Pundits and those pointing the finger try a few games themselves

  • Micheal Ram

    I think the most important aspect of electing a referee is character and profile background. Knowing and experiencing the law is not enough, the ability to apply and enforce the law according to moral and safety requirement is also important. A strong official must be humble and conscious to be respected by everyone. His actions should be louder than any criticism, scandal or act of self-interest. David Webb is a man of law (police), so is not easily intimidated by power and corruption. How about moral stand and efficiency? I suggest referees of all sports to be randomly elected form the police force and army. A seasonal and experience man of honour do the job unlike any other. Trust me.

  • Tom

    One of the biggest reasons for the officiating status quo in football are the clubs , managers and fans themselfs who bemoan every wrong or controversial decision going against them but bend over backwards to justify the same decision going their way.

    Players are coached from a very young age to cheat . Managers are incouraged to manipulate and influence referees , and partisan fans are only too happy to excuse their idols from any guilt for diving , time wasting, shirt pulling and holding as long as it benefits the team.

    If the clubs, players,fans and the media that cover football , stood in a united fashion for changes being implemented into the refereeing aspects of the game , the governing bodies would have no choice but to comply.

    The quality of refereeing in football is low but it matches closely the levels of integrity of most coaches, players and fans. We only get what we deserve.

  • oldgroover

    I think that in truth people are going a bit overboard with some of the suggestions for referee performance improvement.
    Devices in socks? Quasi religious intervention (this was somebody on UA the other day), Have I had a humour bypass today? And I don’t get the continuing comparisons with field hockey, a completely dissimilar sport, but I’m sure the angry chap who keeps calling me disingenuous will clue me in.
    There’s only so much extra technological assistance that can be applied before a whole new IT infrastructure is installed throughout the Premier & Championship Leagues, and lets not take the power from the man in the middle by adding extra men for him to be confused by, but make sure he (or she) has reliable assistance if required.
    The regional imbalance (to prevent bias) must also be addressed as should the issue of unnecessary PGMOL secrecy.

  • oldgroover


    That’s right Tom, but nobody ever thinks to bring that up

  • H Bo

    @wam it’s a cool idea but to be honest I’m with @zac and @oldgroover it’s all too much, however I do think there should be so bit more explanation than a few hand signals now I’m nit completely sure as only watch footie really but there is a sport stateside I think American football where the referees decision are called around the stadium. Generally if they make the calls too perfect what will we debate when the season starts and it’s part of what makes the game so interesting and emotional.

  • bjtgooner

    It’s a rather dangerous thing to assume that all players, managers and fans are cheats, certainly there is a large element of that, but I don’t think it is universal. Further, we like to think that Arsenal as a team and as a club (in terms of cheating) are one of the cleanest around.

    The point about introducing technology is that there should then be a level playing field; at present Arsenal appear to be punished when they commit fouls – ok that is correct – but the teams we play against are often unpunished for similar or more major offenses – and as for penalties …..

  • Mick

    @H Bo
    ‘Generally if they make the calls too perfect what will we debate when the season starts’
    How about we debate the quality of the football and the performance of players which is what we go to the match for. Why should I have to come away from a game knowing that my team was robbed because of a terrible ref decision that everyone can see was wrong but according to you placate myself by saying saying ‘that’s OK, it gives us something interesting to talk about’. Arsenal have been on the receiving end of more dodgy calls than any other team over the last few years which has probably cost us a couple of trophies and you tell us it makes for interesting debate. Give me a break please.

  • omgarsenal

    Excellent debate and here are a few more points to consider:

    1)A study done by the German FA indicated that officials got 82% of their calls correct, the first time and 88% when they communicated with their assistants and reconsidered their initial decisions. These were German referees but I imagine this is true for other nations as well.

    2)FIFA’s technical committee reported that on average, a referee has 1.5 seconds to see the incident, another 2 seconds to consider and judge it and another 2 seconds to make the call. That is 5.5 seconds to perform under pressure while running and trying to keep eye contact with the play, the ball (not always the same thing) and his/her assistant.

    3)The top paid referee in any professional league in the world is on average paid 30 times less than what the lowest paid professional player in the premier division he is officiating gets on average. So for example, Webb would get about 1000 quid per game, while Sanogo would get about 28k per game/week.

    4)Referees do not get any substitutions unless they are injured and unable to continue. They run an average of 10km per match and in some cases even more. While they usually do not touch the ball or have any physical contact, they have to run backwards, sideways and forwards as well as turning abruptly and all the while looking at the entire half/quarter they are in.

    5)Most referees worldwide don’t have official assistants so they also have to keep up with the offside line and become excellent guessers and prayerful optimists.

    6)FIFA considers that it takes between 5-7 years for a neophyte official to reach their best level as a referee.

    7)Not all referees make equally good assistants and vice-versa. It is considered by all training groups that referees should have as much time as an assistant as a referee.

    8)The art and science of instructing your assistants before the game and at half time is one that few referees are properly trained in and prepared for. This appears to be the case at all levels.

  • mk

    Re the original post point 4:
    Referees generally do not listen as it would be seen as a sign of weakness to change a decision after listening to a player, you could quote the rule book word for word and prove a referee 100% wrong and all you would likely get is a yellow card.

  • jayramfootball

    The biggest problem is that a referee can apply the same set of laws in different ways and still be within the rules.

    Football is game that can be manipulated easily without making big decisions. In fact the big decisions can often mask cheating. A referee can ensure that he equalised the big decisions for each club, though make them more crucial for one club (i.e. a penalty to a favoured team that is 1-0 down evened up by awarding a penalty to the other team when they are 4-1 down). Looking at the big decisions it would be seen as one penalty decision each but it does not explain the flow of game.

    Even then, it’s the smaller decisions that can often have a bigger impact. Penalising one team’s defenders for aggressively handling an opposing striker whilst letting the other team away with it is one of the biggest ways to cheat in football but it is rarely mentioned. The ability for a team to make the ball stick with the front man and have players play off him is one of the most important areas of the modern game. A referee can make this nearly impossible for one team whilst ensuring multiple dangerous free kicks for the other. This form of cheating happens all the time.

    Bottom line – if refs want to cheat, or are invented to do so, then there is nothing that can be done about it… at least not until the laws and methods of refereeing are changed.