How referees get to the top

Don McMahon

A number of Gooners have asked about how referees get promoted to the top of their profession so I am humbly submitting my experience and will happily accept any corrections our readers can bring to my attention. I will be speaking in general for both genders and  North America officials but worldwide for Fifa nominees.

Here are some basic requirements for any official, either an assistant or referee to meet in order to progress :

1. A deep love of the game: If the game is just a way of escaping obligations at home or getting a few minutes peace from your spouse or whatever, then you won’t succeed in being a good official.

2. Good judgement: since you are required to make split-second judgements and get it right as often as humanely possible, you had better be above average confident in your ability to make intelligent decisions.

3. Above average fitness: A referee will run more than most players since we don’t get substituted except under exceptional circumstances. Failure to keep up with play is one of the referee’s most serious faults.

4. Good mental strength and self-confidence: Most of the readers here know how much pressure a referee can be under, even in the least competitive games. If you begin to doubt yourself and/or buckle under pressure from players, fans or managers, your career is done.

5. Integrity: When that moment of truth comes, if you chicken out, your career is on a slippery slope. People know when you have the moral and ethical courage to do the right thing and the higher you go the more evident it becomes-that is a lack of or the existence of.

6. A genuine concern for firmness and fairness: Your role is always to be the IMPARTIAL arbiter of the laws and to apply them consistently, firmly but always fairly. If you don’t care about the players’ well-being, you will never make a truly great referee.

7: A desire to perfect your game: Any referee worth his/her salt needs to improve his/her knowledge, application and expertise in the Laws and their vagaries. If you are the same referee you were 10 years ago, you haven’t taken this requirement seriously.

8. In some cases you’ll need a good mentor to help you along the way. Most referees find someone who is willing and able to help them improve, for without them one cannot know whether they are progressing or not….you cannot rely on the players, fans or managers to tell you this.

There are more elements than this but these seem to me to be pretty fundamental. Now on to the Fifa challenge

1. All 7 FIFA referee candidates are nominated by their national associations annually.

Thankfully it isn’t the referee Board or Association who has the final say.

2.  FIFA has a list of requirements as follows:

2.1 *They must be citizens of the country they will represent (they need not have been born there),

2.2 * They must hold the national badge of their country, if that exists, or be officiating as a referee, not just an assistant at the highest level available in their home country,

2.3 * They must meet the fitness standards for FIFA referees.

2.4 * They must be recommended by their national association,

2.5 *The candidate must be below 45 years of age (usually they are much younger),

3) Each member country from FIFA can nominate up to 7 referees  per year.

They can be the same as in the previous year or new names can be added if older referees retire or for other reasons a referee is no longer eligible.

4) Once a FIFA referee, always a FIFA referee so a retired referee wears the badge and is always referred to as a FIFA referee, regardless.

How does one get to the top in this process?  Well here are a few examples :

  1. Handling more and more difficult/demanding and visible games well. EPL and other top league officials have that visibility and of course actively seeking to show everyone they can do it. Assessors comments and reports, if generally positive, help as well.
  2. Knowing the right person(s). A referee who is controversial or conflictual will rarely rise to the top. One who keeps his or her nose clean as we say, has a better chance. This can mean kissing the right boots or being a sycophant BUT this also has its own risks.
  3. Having a powerful and positive mentor who will promote your candidacy and case before his or her colleagues or administrators. This is different from point b because the mentor is a role-model, not a wheeler-dealer.
  4. Believe it or not, earning the respect and support of the players, the managers and the League administrators by doing your paperwork right, displaying a pragmatic and skilful application of the Laws, being firm and fair, protecting the players from serious injury as much as humanely possible, keeping your cool and showing respect as well.

There are other elements but this sums it up pretty well.


The books


15 Replies to “How referees get to the top”

  1. Don – many thanks.

    Do you know how many active FIFA refs each nation has? Is there a mechanism for determining this?

  2. The trouble is that throughout out globe, match officials are human beings with all the failings attached to that species.
    Greed, jealousy, ambition, bias…all the worst aspects of those whose main purpose it is to be fair, competent and above reproach.
    One day there will be sophisticated video assistance and multiple observers to ensure integrity in what is the world’s most practised sport.

  3. Interesting, a shame how individuals with these genuine qualities and love of the game, not to mention a work ethic to get to the top,can sometimes be taken over to the dark side. As Nicky says, there are human failings, and in the case of referees, technological assistance is needed to help, we can only imagine why it is not used more.
    Been following the media outlets today, strange how tackles on Arsenal players are ignored, or,sometimes,edited out, but once one happens to a Chelsea player, media meltdown.
    But some good may come of this. Referees are firmly in the spotlight. Not so much in suggesting they are bent and biased, but more that they need help, cannot keep up with the game, don’t get enough coaching, and there are not enough of them. And significantly, pundits and ex refs seem to be lining up to point the finger at mike Riley. Hackett and Mark Halsey have both laid into Riley recently. Seems like a tipping point has been reached and hopefully, Riley’s days are numbered. What will come after may or may not improve things for arsenal, I suspect the latter, but hopefully Riley will be replaced by someone who will spend more time developing and supporting decent honest people who love the game… least I am sure the majority are that when they start refereeing.

  4. Thanks for the information, Don. So,once a Fifa referee, always a Fifa referee.

    Has England got 7 current Fifa referees? If so, who are they I wonder?

  5. Thanks Don.
    There is more talk about refs in the EPL now because they have done so poorly. I would suggest that 2 refs on the field would help a great deal to get decisions correct. This could be done at all levels. At higher levels I think video replay would help with getting decisions right. There also has to be an end to this secrecy and a very transparent evaluation of the officiating.

    There seems to be a good deal of debate about retrospective actions by the authorities. First it should be said they already do it. For example a player that gets a red card in a game is often punished with further suspension after review. So why are authorities not able to punish retrospectively a horrid tackle that is not punished in the game? This is a stupid inconsistency. If Barnes had broken the leg of the Chelsea player he would most likely have been red carded and then on review given a extra game or two of suspension (like Shawcross) but a punishment that makes players think twice before trying to injury a player on the other team would be suspension until the player with a broken leg returns to play! Or in the case of Barnes the suspension ought to be much longer than a few games! I think there was a case where the MLS suspended a player for over 20 games for a vicious tackle.

    Cahill’s tackle on Alexis earlier this year should have been reviewed and Cahill suspended. I would also like to see the suspension not just apply to the next game regardless of opponent but it should include the next game against the opponent where the violation was committed. This is would be fairer to the team suffering the violence.

  6. Pete – FIFA has a list of all the men and women who are hascurrently FIFA referees as well as retired and I believe deceased ones as well. Go to and you’ll see the links there.
    Pat – You’ll find the current FIFA referees for England on the FA website.
    While every nation can nominate and maintain 7 referees maximum on the list, not every member nation of FIFA does so.
    Nicky, I concur that referees are human with all the faults inherent to that reality BUT, from my experience, we referees are the most un derappreciated,villified and ill-treated of all the actors in this Great Drama called Association Football! We get paid 1/10,000 of what the lowest paid professional 1st division player gets per game , our mistakes are reviewed,criticized and constantly regurgitated, we are physically and psychologically attacked and abused almost every day worldwide, we face stress that not even the most famous footballer has to face and we don’t usually get any rewards similar to theirs. No professional player has EVER played a game where he had to be in fear of his life but ask almost any top referee and he’ll tell you there have been such occasions in his or her career.

  7. Am I correct with the name Colina? The Italian bald ref? Any information on him? How he became so good. I believe that the players feared him. A bit of stuff on him would be interesting.

  8. omgarsenal
    You have a good point. I think refs ought to be paid more. They ought to be professionals in the fullest sense at the top levels.

    Associations ought to be recruiting refs and developing them starting in their 20s.

  9. Refs that perform well should be very well paid. There should be more of them and more younger refs given the chance to come through on their own merits rather than on Riley’s view if the world. The treatment of refs is a disgrace, and yes , I know I can be a harsh critic if some of them but sadly a secretive unaccountable management structure that exists here does the decent refs no favours. It is high time this structure is taken down

  10. To repeat a comment I made a long time back, having met a recently retired PGMO ref, Riley is a bully and unsupportive of the referees. He was compared exceptionally unfavourably with his predecessor – Keith Hackett.

  11. As I see it all this current outrage has nothing at all to do with referees making bad decisions. They’ve been doing that for years. The problem is they’re making them against the wrong team/s.

    This has all sprang from the simple fact a few decisions have gone against Chelsea, and the Medias little darling has seen fit to throw his toys out of the pram.

    If Wenger had done like wise, and heaven knows he’s every right to of done, this entire debate would never even have arisen.

    Rather than a week of ‘poor old Jose’ all we would of had would of been a week of ‘whinging Wenger’.

    Mark my words none of this is about getting referees to Referee better and fairer. They Could’nt give a toss. All they care about is that it’s the ‘right teams’ getting screwed, and screwing Chelsea, or rather Mourhino, is just not on.

    The problem is it seems the refs have just lost a bit of focus as to whom they should and shouldn’t be screwing. Once they get that sorted all in the refereeing garden will be fine again.

    Better Refereeing?

    Untold has published pages and pages of well researched, in depth data and statistics, over many years, showing how Referees, and the PGMOL in particular are not fit for purpose, which the Media will of all seen and be well aware of, and they’ve done NOTHING to follow it up. Not a thing.

    Do you really believe our corrupt Media give a toss about honesty and integrity? Do me a favour. They wouldn’t know honest and integrity if it slapped them round the face.

    They just don’t like it when they think the wrong team is being screwed.

  12. Still according to the match assessor Atkinson got all of the calls correct . So no problems there then and the percentages can stay unbelievably high.

  13. Had a very similar experience with an ex ref at a function Pete, have a funny feeling we both may have met the same ref! He also said many of the refs breathed a sigh of relief when fergie retired, hoping things with Riley, a man preoccupied with pleasing said manager ….would improve, sadly, they do not seem to have done so.

  14. Atkinson and Friend are apparently not doing games this weekend. East may be injured (his leg was hurt last game). And apparently, Taylor is going to do the League Cup final at Wembley.

    Somebody mentioned pay. Apparently there are some teams where there are a few players on very large wages, and many at much lower wages. Other teams, have more of the wages close to each other. People like the idea of average (arithmetic mean), but the first instance biases the “average” to high values. The solution is to use the geometric average. To get the geometric mean, we multiply all the individual numbers together, and then take the Nth root of that number. Nominally it is trying to equalize ratios.

    If everybody on a team is getting 50,000 per week, the geometric mean will be 50,000. If there are many people getting 10-20 thousand, and one or two making much more, you will still get a number that is probably arond 50,000 for the geometric mean.

    It is obvious we have 2 teams, and there is no particular reason that each team should have the same geometric mean wage for any given game.

    What is left is the referee and possibly the public. There are referees doing games where nobody is paid, and they are making a certain amount of money, and I don’t know what that is in England.

    If I assume an amateur adult referee is getting 40 to do a game, and that the two teams are in the 50,000 range, the geometric mean of those 3 numbers is we gt a number of about 4600. Which is going to run about 175,000 for a season. Is that a good number?

    Hackett is not necessarily the person we should be looking to. I believe he is one of the people who feels it is perfectly fine for one player to kick another.

  15. so here is an idea
    why won’t federations/leagues do referee transfers? referees will be free to choose a federation/league which pays best and allows for better development, and employers will be interested in developing or employing best talent

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