by Don McMahon

Inspired by an article that Tony recently penned and as a follow-on to my recent articles dealing with the ins and outs of refereeing, I felt it was apropos to present a brief overview of more of the tricky and difficult path an aspiring referee has to travel to get to the top.

The first external challenge an aspiring official has is mastering the Laws. The Bundesliga did a study a few years ago, to determine what % of the Laws the general public, club supporters and players (professionals) knew in sufficient detail and depth of understanding to be considered Football literate. The results showed on average,that less than 20% of the above groups knew the basics of the Laws and a surprising 8% didn’t know how many Laws there were.
This is somewhat frightening because if only 20% of professional players have a basic mastery of the Laws, then how in heaven’s name can an official expect players to understand his or her decisions?

Experienced referees have told me repeatedly and consistently that it takes about 3-4 years before any neophyte officials begin to truly understand the Laws (both the spirit and the letter) well enough to apply them firmly and fairly. As a panacea to this problem I helped introduce courses to interested Clubs on the Laws of the Game in a simplified version of what referees were required to attend.

The second external challenge most beginning officials face is getting and staying fit. Most of us have to train alone and have to watch our diet, our lifestyle and our health to remain in top shape for officiating. On average we run 10-12 miles in a game, without any real breaks and get 15 minutes to recuperate between halves. Players actually on average run less than we do as we HAVE to cover the entire diagonal surface of the 100 metre pitch AND move in 4 different directions at once. Medical research has shown that referees have to do 60% more backwards and sideways movement than your average Footballer. Add the mental stress, the cognitive and intellectual demands of rapid-fire decision- making and the visual issues many of us have and you can see what the challenges entail.

The third, and in my humble opinion, the tallest hurdle to becoming a top class official is the politics and ass-kissing required to reach the top. I have known a lot of foreign and domestic FIFA referees in my time and discussed this issue with them repeatedly. Almost universally they told me that alienating a powerful or influential director of officials OR conversely ¨chumming up¨ these people could often determine if you got on the promotional list and stayed there. I made it to the National level for my country by fell at this last hurdle because I had made an enemy of my local director of referees. Strangely enough, this career ruining act was what Tony and Walter often demand an honest referee does….and that is to reveal the inherent infighting and chicanery that occurs at almost every level of officiating.

Another big barrier for aspirants is the jealousy of their fellow officials. In my country, where 45% of the general population are either newly immigrated or first generation citizens, there is still a strong ethnic and cultural ghettoism that survives even into future generations. This tribalism, combined with the normal human psychological need to excel (sometimes to the detriment of fellow human beings) can cause officials to turn on one another and forget the fraternity(sorority) we all belong to. I lived through this a few times but the most traumatic event occurred when an assistant working with me in a very high tension, boiling over match between two big rivals, encouraged the players to challenge me whenever they criticized his calls. When I confronted him at the end of the game, he boldly stated that I needed bringing down a peg or two because I was , in his opinion, so arrogant and superior!

Finally, there is the most common difficulty of all, and that is effective communications with players, coaches, managers, League and Referee administrators and the local and national FA. Far too many officials fail to master this rather complex art. For example, I have been on countless amateur League and Cup discipline committees as either a consultant or elected/appointed member and have had to wade through basically illegible or totally incoherent match reports and discipline statements submitted by officials who had few or no skills in writing a coherent and precise review of what happened. These people ALL spoke English or French as their mother tongue or had mastered either as a second language in childhood but were unable to compose a simple 1/2 page report explaining what occurred and what they did in response. Even more embarrassing was having to question them in person about what actually occurred and then having to listen to the exact opposite from the accused parties.

There are many other roadblocks and snares that await a beginning referee but there isn’t enough space on UA to even begin to scratch the surface. Please remember that 99% of officials honestly try to do their jobs in a fair and humane way, imho but it isn’t as simple and obvious as it may at first appear. I am sure Walter will concur that every game is a new challenge and never like the last one and that even those you trust can prove to be unworthy of that trust, under the ¨right¨ circumstances.

Untold Arsenal: the index


The books

19 Replies to “ON BECOMING A REFEREE…….”

  1. granted its not easy to referee a football match but may i ask why referees encourage violent play for the underdog…seems to me that here the ref punishes the team that wants to play football and allows the less skilled to get extra aggressive

    are the refs as deluded to believe that a sport involving 22 young men running around the grass in shorts and socks forms part of national culture and identity ….. ?

    are they protecting what they think is “national psyche” ?

    play the game correctly and lose if youre not good enough …why kick me ? oh thats right you dont want to lose from the french and get owned in your “national” sport …but its ok if roman spurts some grease to the machine huh? hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm

    90% of arsenal’s opponents should be ending their games against us with 8 men on the pitch….

    example: chgambers gets sent off for two professional fouls and cahil gets away with health-threatening tacklechop

    i think……that the english f.a and the refs need to sit down and have a honest group therapy session and abandon their patriotism and realise that they suck at football mainly because they still approach it like cannibals. once they realise that thsi is a game of speed and technique and not a wrestling/kickbox match maybe then the refs can whistle and manage games correctly instead of watching this dumb promotion of ‘hardmanship’ as if football is a test of manhood.

    as a referee you must clearly understand the psychological advantage you give to an underdog when you allow him to kick and frustrate the one who wants to play football….it is in those mini mental battles between players where a game is won or lost. without encouragment i dont think swansea totenham or whoever will find the resource and courage to beat arsenal via kicking…….

    in my opinion (always) arsenal has suffered unbelievable atrocities from referees…. it is almost like they do it on purpose so that we lose our cool and then we lose the game …and then we have to tolerate inquisitions on transfers, players, injuries,. tactics and a whole universe of b*ll*cks when the solution is SIMPLE. bring me referees who respect the GAME as it was meant to be played and not ‘match managers” to encourage the underdog who could be operating under different motivation…..( this kissing and sucking up ….) or maybe they are ‘servants of a product’ ….. which is what this league has become. i will go sit down now and eat something cause its frustrating me.

    p.s not saying it hasnt happenend in europe …..but i can understand the ref playing barcelona and bayern instead of us …. maybe just like interests need protecting in epl , same goes for europe 😉 unicef mesi maas que un club – bollocks….

  2. Referees do not run 12 miles in a 90 minute match. Sorry, that’s bollocks. 12 miles in 90 minutes is roughly a 3:15 marathon pace, which is something I’d venture only a handful of referees throughout Europe would even be capable of running at all, much less with considerable stops and starts, as well as backwards and sideways running.

    Most of the top figures you see for players is about 10k per match, which is just over 6 miles. There’s just no way you can convince me that the average referee is doing double that amount of running, especially considering that most of them probably couldn’t cover 12 miles in 90 minutes at all, without the help of a segway.

  3. Hunter 13…….that is a question we are ALL asking of FIFA,EUFA and specifically the PGMOL but don’t hold your breath!
    Have the officials been ¨instructed¨ to allow Arsenal to be kicked to high heaven like Riley did when our 49 game unbeaten run ended at Old Toilet? We would all LOVE to prove that beyond a reasonable doubt….but again don’t hold your breath just yet!!!

  4. Walter,

    That linked article more or less backs up what I’m not buying. They’re saying the average distance run by refs is somewhere around 7.5 miles, meaning most performances probably fall with distances of around 6.5-8.5 miles of ground covered, with extreme cases being just short of 12 miles. That’s a big difference from an average of 10-12 miles in a match, which frankly, very few referees worldwide are probably physically capable of doing.

    Keeping in shape is clearly an important part of refereeing, but 99% of those guys wouldn’t be able to do the job if it required running 10 stop and start miles in 90 minutes.

  5. It seems referees run about 6-8 miles per game, which is roughly the same for players:

    Here’s the fitness test for referees for international games:
    “…six 40-meter sprints with 90 seconds of rest in between. Each sprint has to be faster than six seconds. After another 10-minute recovery, you are then required to complete 10 laps on the track, running 150 meters in 30 seconds and walking 50 meters in 35 seconds — a 2.5-mile fartlek in 21:30 with an average running pace of 5:20 per mile.”

  6. I came across this interesting research paper you may want to have a look at.

    This INDEPENDENT research found that 17.5% of off-side calls in the Premier League were incorrect. I believe the Mike Riley figure is 1% are incorrect.

    “The probability of a team winning after trailing by 1 goal in the 30th minute is 11% and decreases to 2% in the 70th minute, emphasizing the importance of a single goal.

    “…Winning and losing teams need to be justified through accurate officiating leaving the teams knowing the win or loss was NOT due to a missed or inaccurate call, but was indeed a fair game.”

  7. SteveO…..sorry for this mistake, I meant kilometres but wrote miles instead and didn’t check it before posting.Anyway, my point is still valid as Walter has shown…and the article as well, referees run as much as if not more than your average professional player but we are almost always 8-10 years older than them and do not train anywhere the amount of time they do.
    Wa;ter….it is interesting to see that referee in Dutch is the same as in German!

  8. The kick ’em if you want the ball technique is a media driven method that seems to have impressed the FA & PGMO. Referees are not idiots and see most things that happen on a football field. The PGMO choose what to ‘see’.

    The FA in their FIFA role ignore all things racist and corrupt by picking on some name calling & a few humourous sexist emails. Racism is evading the employment of people because of their look, culture or origin despite their qualification. We have in England several people in positions of power whose origins do not complement the PGMO. There are no European, Asian or African referees in Englands PGMO.

  9. Just picking out some things from the article Mandy Posted:

    At least give him credit for this:
    “He expresses his frustration that most surveys quote top-end prices when the League deliberately encourages clubs to charge expensive executive prices so they can make more, cheaper tickets available. ‘It’s like going on to the British Airways website and just asking for the first-class single airfare,’ he said.”


    “When the season ends, whoever has won it, and people say what do you want to happen next year, I just say, “I want somebody else to win it”. And that goes for Champions League places as well. I’d like to see a different four teams in the Champions League.

    “…I’ve sat here for 10 years saying the more we develop internationally, the more revenues are distributed evenly. It is a far more communist/taxed system, where the big clubs are being taxed internationally to pay for the smaller clubs. The advantage is the gap narrows. Therefore, you do get more chance for a small club, a middle club, to beat the top clubs.”

    Not really. Has the “communist” distribution of tv revenue made the league more open? No. Why? Because the financial doping of Chelsea and Man City makes it harder than ever for small clubs to get into the top four.

    They also have this gem:
    “However, the Premier League is still seen by many as the principal stumbling block for the England team.”

    Who is this ‘many’? Whose fault is it if English players are not good enough to be regualar players for Premier Leaugue teams? The clubs’ fault? If English players are finding their path blocked to first team football, why not take a wage cut and go oversea? Like Untold has pointed out, most of the Dutch, Belgian and French national players do not play in their national league.

  10. Proposed changes to the ‘homegrown rule’:

    Basically, they want eight English players, rather than simply homegrown players (e.g. Fabregas), in each Premier League squad. Like I’ve said before, the main consequence of this will be an even higher price for English players.

    Apparently they’re going to do something about wrestling in the box:

    Funny, no one ever speaks up after we get kicked to pieces by Chelsea, Man City, ManUre,…

    And surprise surprise, Stoke’s chairman has been charged by the FA for implying referee bias:

    The beatings will continue until morale improves!

  11. Michael Oliver doesn’t seem to be working this weekend. There is no evidence that he has been dropped by Mike Riley 😈 but I don’t know how Mike Riley would respond to one of “his” referees resigning their County FA post over some trivial thing like sexism by an executive member of that County FA.

    I am guessing that Northumberland does not include the Northampton that Tony calls home.

  12. Gord……since most top referees are usually in their very late 30’s or early 40’s, fitness is always an issue. I played soccer, refereed it regularly and played ice hockey as well. I also trained 1-2 times a week and watched my diet, etc. Despite all this I had a real challenge in staying fit, until I took up cycling wherever I wanted to go (particularly to referee games). This helped a great deal but was expensive as I had 2 bikes stolen and also dangerous, as I was hit 3 times by careless car drivers!

  13. @omgarsenal

    To work with the bob sled teams requries sprinting, which may not be what the top referees are best at. But there may be elite sports (cross country skiing?) where they have a chance. And I think it would be good for the world to find a referee at the Olympics (or similar).

    Back when I was doing athletic first aid for football teams, there were a couple of brothers who rode bicycles to all of their games in Edmonton. They were not the most skilled athletes, but they were fit. The younger brother was on the NAIT Ooks team when I did athletic first aid for them, and he was the highest tested VO2_Max athlete NAIT had seen.

    It is a pitty people steel bicycles. Way back when, I was known to ride my bicycle on the Whitemud freeway crossing the river with traffic zooming by. I won’t do that any more. And now living in NW Alberta with all the oil patch idiots, the safest place with these oil patch drivers around is behind them. Being on the side of them is not safe, they can just decide to drive on the sidewalk to pass someone in their jacked up 4 wheeel drives.

    I have been highly trained aerobically, and strength wise. I can get back the aerobic fitness. But first I need to find a life (having autism sucks).

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