The making of a referee: could former professional footballers become refs (and other one-shot solutions)


A recent article on the Footballroar website caught my attention and after reading it, inspired me to write this article.  Here is the link to that article

The premise of this article is that former professional footballers are well placed and suited to become premier league officials because of their prior experience on the field, calmness under pressure and appreciation of how the game can be in a competitive environment.

While I do not disagree fundamentally with this premise, it is not the first time I’ve had it presented to me as a ¨solution¨ to the officiating malaise currently being recognized by supporters, some managers and many players.

The real problem is that, like many similar one shot ¨solutions¨ proposed by well-meaning commentators and fans, it misses a few fundamental points about what makes a good referee. When I say ¨good¨ I mean someone, regardless of gender or other considerations (other than severe physical disabilities like blindness, missing limbs, mental acuity, etc.) who can learn and apply the Laws of the game FIRMLY but FAIRLY.  This definition comes from Sir Stanley Rous,  CBE (25 April 1895 – 18 July 1986) was the 6th President of FIFA, serving from 1961 to 1974. He also served as secretary of the Football Association from 1934 to 1962 and was an international referee.

In my humble opinion, this defines what it means to be a referee perfectly, in just a few words!  However there are many subsets to this simple meme and here are a few, which I am sure Walter and any other referee will agree with:

There are four essential factors that contribute to whether a referee will or will not become successful let’s start with the most important (vocational professionals all agree this is the number one factor) – PERSONALITY.

Basically this means that one’s traits of character can ensure success or cause great difficulties. What traits should a referee display in order to succeed?

  • Patience – the ability to tolerate and endure whatever comes their way in the knowledge that impatience will work against them eventually,
  • Empathy – the ability to understand and sympathise with others thus permitting them to humanise the Laws, which are after all just rules NOT commandments,
  • Fairness – the ability to impartially judge what has and is happening and to deal with it in a balanced and just manner,  of outside pressures,
  • Humility – the ability to acknowledge, accept and manage one’s strengths and one’s failings in a mature way allowing one to avoid becoming the centre of attention

The next aspect and a vital element in becoming a successful referee is PASSION. This means being a true lover of the game and all it involves. Some of the fundamental aspects of this trait are;

  • Eagerness – the feeling of being excited and motivated to get in the middle (or on the sidelines) and to be part and parcel of delivering the goods, ie: a beautiful match, beautifully officiated,
  • Willingness – the urge to improve one’s performance continually, to accept positive criticism, to maintain one’s fitness, to welcome innovation and new ideas, to display courage and conviction in officiating the Game,
  • Love – to love the Laws and protect them from abuse, to protect the players from avoidable injury, to care about the integrity and honesty of the Game, to do one’s best at all times out of respect for the letter and the spirit of the Laws and the Game

After that, there is EXPERTISE. This is defined as a mastery of the Laws, their on-field application and a constant personal re-education in all aspects of the Game and the IFAB changes and a willingness to learn new technology associated with the Game. Core elements of this trait are;

  • Practice – requiring continual and unrelenting efforts to dismiss one’s weaknesses, improve on one’s strengths and upgrade one’s abilities, both physical and mental,
  • Education – offering a referee the opportunity to relearn what one already knows, but from a different perspective, learn new approaches to officiating, and encounter alternative application of the Laws that may help the referee’s overall efficiency and effectiveness,
  • Experimentation – being the willingness to try things they have seen other officials do that they deem helpful to themselves. This requires humility and openness to their colleagues skills and suggestions.

Finally there is KNOWLEDGE. Perhaps the most difficult aspect that a good referee MUST master. It is very easy to assume with only 17 Laws that are fairly uncomplicated, that it is easy to learn them and automatic to apply them. However there are criteria that are needed before one can really be knowledgeable;

  • Discernment – providing the referee with the ability to read the Laws and their IFAB interpretations in an intelligent and insightful manner,
  • Depth – offering the referee the opportunity to master the Laws in detail and to understand the letter and the spirit of FIFA’s rules and regulations for the Game,
  • Flexibility – a willingness to interpret the Laws positively to encourage fewer stoppages, acceptance on the players’ part of the officials’ decisions and to respect officials as professionals and essential elements of the Game.

How many ex-professional footballers possess these qualities? I am sure there are quite a few BUT do they really want to undertake such a thankless job that is sorely underappreciated and under-compensated and whose st iress levels far exceed what the 22 onfield players are used to? I am sure UA Gooners can add to these criteria so please have at it.

Untold Arsenal

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If Alexis and Ozil depart, Arsenal have plans to replace both of them with one player!

Nominations for the best of, worst of, what we need more of and what we need less of in 2016

Football in England is at the crossroads and its future hangs in the balance

The psychology of winning.

England’s refereeing in the dark ages. In Europe they are already talking about the problems AFTER the video box

Referee Appointments and Results Matchweek #13 complete with video evidence

And from the History Society

19 Replies to “The making of a referee: could former professional footballers become refs (and other one-shot solutions)”

  1. The other day, I believe Mr. Lineker was protesting about Vardy’s red card and appeal of said card. The note describing this, thought it important to mention that Mr. Lineker had never been dismissed.

    The note did not describe in detail this last point. I assume Mr. Lineker started playing football at say age 5. He had never been dismissed since then? Since becoming affiliated with a professional team? Since playing at the adult level? Since signing professional terms? Since playing in the EPL?

    In any event, I would think that this might be related to usefulness as an official, but I think you need to go back to probably teenage years in compiling statistics on fouls, yellow, second yellow and straight red cards, as well as discipline handed out outside of those cards.

    Being an official depends in part, on being in the right place. For the person in the middle, this is nominally running a diagonal on an open park. For the linesperson, this is keeping even with the second last defender.

    I would think that most goalkeepers do not have the necessary aerobic fitness and/or speed to be as effective as outfield players. What fraction of goalkeepers would be outliers to that statement?

    I would think that the mindset of attacking players (forwards and attacking midfield) would run contrary to their need to be in the right place. I suspect many of them may know where the right place is, I just doubt their ability to be in that place.

    Hence, if I was to go hiring ex-professional players to be officials, I would prefer to look at defenders and defensive midfielders.

    I think there is also something to be said for players that can play multiple positions effectively. And I would put a premium on outfield players that can be effective as goalkeepers.

  2. The only ex football player that really made a successful career as a ref that I know is Dick Jol from Holland.
    He used to play for a short while in Belgium when he played for my local team. Then went back to Holland and to my surprise he took on refereeing shortly after.
    He became a FIFA referee even he even had the honour to do the CL final in 2001.
    But he is an exception as most ex footballers take the easy route to money by becoming a pundit… better paid and less stressful I can imagine…

  3. I am not getting my November analysis written very fast.

    Some of you know economics, and have heard of Black-Scholes. Well, it seems the footie statistics version is known as Dixon-Coles. It may follow form work done in Greece, and some from other places.

    In the past I’ve muttered about under dispersion and over dispersion. And you probably wondered why I was getting into the sauce so early. The early work looked at complicating the score of a football game, by instead of making a football game the realisation of choosing 2 Poisson deviates (the number of goals scored by both teams), to make it a realisation of 3 Poisson deviates. They introduced a Lagrange type variable, and added it to the scores by both teams.

    And people noticed that fitting got better (or predicting got better). They noticed that the variance wasn’t always as close to Poisson as expected, that some scores occurred too often and some too few. A researcher found a way to handle this, which could handle one kind of correlation, but not another. And so on.

    One enterprising statistician (apparently from Norway) was was looking at the EPL and Bundesliga, and his latest kick at the cat, so to speak, found that both the EPL and Bundesliga see LESS variance in scoring than they should. And they (statisticians) just leave it there, empty observation.

    Okay, so I am going to try and learn to do this in R. Normally I work in Perl, but hey how hard can it be? 🙂 A good thing is that from this I found some better data sources, so maybe I don’t have to manually find and type in so much stuff.

    But, it seems to me, there isn’t just one game going on. The points/scoring game is the one being followed above. We have other games all going on at the same time: the penalty game, the fouls game, the first yellow cards game, the second yellow cards game and the red cards game.

    Obviously, the most common score in the red cards game is 0-0.

    But, are these other games also associated with under dispersion? Are they correlated?

  4. Vardy’s sending off was shocking! But what was more shocking and unacceptable is the FA upholding the sending off order by the Pgmol referee. No wonder Le Prof has said, Referees are protected like the lions are protected in the zoo.

    Whether it’s in the case of 2 glaring offside goals being allowed to stand in a big game by the Pgmol match officials, the FA still felt duty bound to protect them from being said to be wrong in the wrongful decisions they’ve made and still went ahead silently protecting them by saying nothing.

    Due to the slowness in introducing the video referee assistants into the Premier League games despite Fifa have gone ahead to introduced them into their just concluded Fifa Club World Cup in Japan where they were successfully used to settle any controversy during the playing of a match that arose, Arsenal still continue to suffer at the hands of the Pgmol match officials maximumly until maybe the VRAs are introduced to look could minimize their sufferings.

  5. Judging by the comments of the ex-pros who are pundits, it seems that being a player does not guarantee knowledge of the laws of the game.

    We hear repeated nonsense such as “only slightly off-side” “not enough contact for it to be a penalty” and, perhaps worst of all “he’s not that sort of player”.

    Conversely “he’s entitled to go down if he feels contact”……

  6. And there are those that say the ref was “technically right” but should not have done it.

  7. My first experience of officiating with an ¨old-school¨ official was in my local league. He was about 66 years old and always carried a hip flask in his back pocket. He barely knew the Laws and tended to make things up as he went along. He loved to speak with the players and rarely if ever gave a card, regardless of the offense. I acted as assistant about 4 times with him and not one of those matches finished well. He would throw his assistant’s under the bus when he made a bad call, pretending that we had signalled an offside or a penalty, etc. So we took the shite and he snuck off and had a sip to ¨fortify¨ himself. He was an alcoholic Brit and probably suffered from PTSD (being a vet) so we cut him a lot of slack back then. Today he wouldn’t make it past the entry exam.
    John L. – it is incredible to hear that crap from so-called Football professionals but it was amazing to see how many professionals had no real idea of the Laws. Officiating is an art and as such needs careful mentoring and practice to make perfect. When I met Luigi Colina, I knew right away that he was what every referee aspired to achieve, and he even admitted that he winged it sometimes!

  8. Shearer would be a great referee, – at least not such a total failure as he was as a manager. Laws would be applied selectively, so that kicking an opponent in the head would be permitted in some cases, elbows would be necessary for leverage when going for headers, but some players would be awarded penalties for going to ground at the sound of an opponent’s approaching footsteps.

    Souness would never award any free kicks for fouls (except against Arsenal.

    Off topic entirely:-) Gary Lineker should stick to politics and stay out of football.

  9. Theoretically ex players would make ideal referees, but in reality there would probably be far too many conflicts: previous teams played for, ex team mates plus the usual regional bias’.
    Take somebody like Joe Cole who’s played for five English clubs; he could never be involved in matches that featured those teams or players or staff from them.

  10. OMG
    Nice bit of name dropping there old chap. When did you meet the great man? That must have been some experience for you. I’d have been thrilled.

  11. Actually Leon, it goes a bit beyond which teams a player has played for.

    Take for example, the love felt between Arsenal and Tottenham, or Liverpool and Everton? A former player for Arsenal, probably shouldn’t officiate Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea, WHam or ManU.

    Where it becomes interesting, is for players of teams that have relegated or promoted.


    Dixon-Coles was published in 1997.

    They looked at a LOT of games. They assumed that officiating and management by league management was perfect.

    Across all of these games, they found vanishingly little difference between the goals per game by a team, and a Poisson distribution. There were slight hic-cups around 0-0, 1-0, 0-1, 1-1 and I believe 3-0. Papers (by physicists, not statisticians) I seen at arXiv quite a while ago had more or less shown that the probablility of scoring was almost independent of time for the entire game. There was a minor exception on the time coming up to half time, and quite a bit bigger exception approaching full time.

    There is a bit of a timing problem, in that the amount of playing time after 44 minutes in a half, is not 1 minute. Not only is it not necessarily 1 minute, it is variable. And this can influence this reported deviation from a condition of Poisson scoring.

    There is another problem, in part driven by the guys running the sides of the field and the one guy running a diagonal. They can stop play and present one side with a penalty kick.

    It may be that if a person allows for penalty scoring, and this variable time added on for stoppages, that the assumption that the probability of scoring is independent of time (which underlies the Poisson) is actually stronger.

    Except for things like, the probability of scoring in the first 2 seconds of a half.

    Which means that if we can tie deviations between the variance observed to the variance expected (assuming Poisson statistics) to explanations, we may yet be able to hoist PGMO up.

    My initial feeling is that the statistics of fouls should be about the same as goals, the probability of a foul happening should be independent of time. If anything, I think this should be closer to Poisson requirements than scoring (players are close to each other from the kickoff, whereas the ball is 50m from the goal at kickoff).

    All of the historical data I see in these “nice” compilations, is just final scores. It usually doesn’t include who scored at what time, when fouls or offsides happened, when players where booked, when players were dismissed (whether it was a second yellow or a straight red) or penalties.

    There is data in some compilations which includes all this other data, but I can’t say I’ve seen this in anything that is “freely” accessible. Another source of information, is the commentaries various places have published. But, is even the BBC going to keep copies of commentaries that are 20 years old? 10 years old? 5 years old? Last season? They will all cry that it is too expensive. Even though I can buy a TB sized disk for $100 or so. And I will guess that you could store the commentaries from about 102 million games in a 1TB disk.

    Okay, Dixon-Coles analysed a lot of data (possibly under bad assumptions). The ratio of home wins to draws to away wins was 46:27:27.

    The Dixon-Coles work has the expected score by the home team being a function of a home effect, and an attack parameter. And there is just a defence parameter for the visiting team.

    The table is:
    League _ _Mean Attack Parameter _ _Mean Defence Parameter
    EPL _ _ _ _1.38 _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ 0.68
    Champion _ 1.07 _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ 0.86
    Div 1 _ _ _0.83 _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ 1.14
    Div 2 _ _ _0.73 _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ 1.32

    There are people working with Dixon-Coles that “assume” that the Defence parameter is 1/attack_parameter. Which is approximately true with this data. Making this assumption, does make the analysis go faster. Maybe they should make a second pass, dropping this assumption?

    While we sort of expect that the attacking parameter should fall from EPL to Champion ship to …, this should not be considered an estimate of how many goals is scored. And likewise, we don’t expect an EPL team to be worse a defence than a 2nd Division team.

    This data does fall out of an analysis of all teams over a 3 year period, including things like FA Cup and League Cup. So there is some inter-league analysis here. But you need to be careful in how you look at those attack and defence parameters.

    Dixon-Coles talked about the fact the attack and defence parameters could change over time. They did not talk about what drove this process, these are just numbers. They actually tried to find the optimal scaling time for changes in attack parameter (and defence parameter), and this value ends up being about 538 days. Which is around 1.5 years. Maybe there is a factor of ln(2) missing, which would get us up to 2 years and a bit. Which really looks like the average time a manager stays at a club. Even back in 1997.

    Which does seem to support the idea that changing managers, can have some effect.

    And it is possible this has driven me even further off trying to figure out November.

  12. I would like to advocate mandatory lie detector tests to be conducted prior to be admitted to the service of the PIGMOB . And subsequently administered after every match , while watching all the ‘lowlights ‘ of it. We could always also get it done on the serial divers and other cheating players .

    Truth serum administration and hormonal studies should be also considered. I am sure that the present lot will fail miserably without exception .So we should be getting a brand new and an untainted batch !

  13. Then again there are many succumb to temptation . I just received this from a friend . I was lost for words .

    ‘ After seven years of medical training and hard work , my very good friend has been struck off after one minor indiscretion. He slept with one of his patients and now can no longer work in the profession.
    What a waste of time , training and money . A genuine nice guy and a brilliant vet .’

  14. Football is an emotional game.
    It should be for the players as much as the supporters (and the fans).
    This then produces problems in decision making if there is any underlying emotion involved.
    Usama and Walter are both Supporters and do their very best to do their refs report impartially but on occasion it’s clear to me that they don’t. Sometimes it’s a 50/50 that they deem was a 90/10 in our favour and sometimes they go all technical and call a foul which few refs would have given but technically it was a foul against us.
    Xhakas Red card tackle has been repeated by many other players every weekend but it’s never (in a million years 😀 ) a red. So we can see emotion does have an effect.
    I should add that I think overall they do a good job on the reports and if their numbers are as much as 10% out then the refs are still doing an abysmal job of it.

    If a ‘former player now Ref’ comes from the lower leagues where footy is ‘played by men’ so fouls go unpunished and where kick and run football is seen as a justified tactic, then he’ll never appreciate the technical abilities on show in top class PL games.
    If he’s ever played PL football and got injured by an ‘iffy’ foul, lost a game to a questionable refs decision or had an ‘off the ball’ incident then it’s likely he’ll have some underlying emotion against the team this happened against.
    Obviously if he played for one of the big teams then he’ll have some rivalries ingrained in him, as well as the usual derby issues.
    Q) Should ex footballers become refs?
    A) If they want to, and go through the usual procedure then yes, but they must not be ‘fast-tracked’ to the top levels of officialdom as the standards are already piss-poor and the last thing that’s needed is fast-tracked officials with a lower ability that those already there.
    Maybe former Criminals should be considered for the position of judges… 😀

  15. A model for the future ?

    A man bought a Lie detector robot. Every time the robot detects a lie, it slaps the liar. He decided to test it at dinner on his son, who he suspected of often lying to him.

    DAD: Son where were you today during school hours?
    SON: At school (robot slaps son) ouch! Okay okay I went to the movies!
    DAD: Which one?
    SON: Harry Potter (robot slaps son again). Ow! Okay, jeez – I was watching an adult movie, okay?
    DAD: What?? When I was your age I didn’t even know those existed! (robot slaps Dad)
    MOM: Hahaha! He is your son after all!

    The Robot slaps the mother.

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