Too much of a good thing? Why referees need the final say in any decision, even with VAR


byDon McMahon

What is a referee’s authority and what are his or her checks and balances that ensure he/she will do the job with integrity, firmness and fairness?

Law 5 provides the framework for the referee’s limits of authority and gives the restraints concerning the application of the laws as written.

Every trained referee has been told that the letter of the laws must be respected but not religiously or blindly. The spirit of the laws must play a crucial role in learning to make good decisions. I am sure Walter and any other referee will agree that blindly applying the laws without any consideration of their true intent will lead to disastrous results.

Some on UA advocate that the VAR referees be given the final say on a decision where the on-field referee has consulted the VAR. I do not agree, because the risk of second-guessing the referee’s decisions is too threatening and intimidating. However, I do feel that a good use of VAR is to assist the referee in making the correct decision, where he or she was unable to see the totality of the event being reviewed.

No referee worth their salt will refuse such timely and succinct help from a panel of their colleagues. That is why assistants are, by Law 6, allowed to bring breaches of the laws to the attention of the referee but NEITHER to make the final call nor to enforce the punishment.

The ¨logic¨ behind the referee having the final say after consulting VAR is based on the original intent and spirit of Law 5 (the referee) which gives the referee the SOLE and final authority to decide what should be applied and what ignored or postponed in applying the laws.

Its original intent was to avoid outside forces influencing the referee’s decisions, such as fellow officials, managers, players, owners, spectators, league organizers, the media, parents or other family members, gambling syndicates and criminals, and politicians… this list is endless.

This ensures that the referee and only THE REFEREE makes a final decision, free of incitement, intimidation and unjust or biased censure.  The intent is noble however the application is not. The secrecy surrounding the referee fraternity (sorority) is useful in moderation BUT when it becomes mafia-like Omerta and concealment, it is unfair, undemocratic and dangerous to the game.

Again, let me emphasize that a modicum of freedom from prejudicial harassment is essential for a referee to do his or her job BUT, within the legitimate structure of any governing body for referees, there MUST be a mechanism or mechanisms to assess and retrain officials punctually, where and when the need arises. Officials are human like everyone else and we make ample mistakes, miscalculations and errors, especially when we are under stress or pressure. Officials’ greatest fears and concerns are as follows;

1: The expectation that we will be perfect, make the perfect calls all the time and be perfectly impartial and even-handed when handing out decisions. THIS IS IMPOSSIBLE.

We have two types of authority on the field. The first is position authority-we are appointed as the experts in the application of the laws and we have the badge to prove it BUT the second type is far more important. That is performance authority which comes from us doing our jobs well and fairly. This earns us real respect and support, and that is the sole authority ANY official really needs. The rest is just window-dressing.

2: The expectation that when we make the inevitable error(s) or botch-up a call(s), we will be crucified by all and sundry (see the point about the law’s intent above) and our careers will be over.

Officials are most often ambitious and want to go higher and face more challenges as a referee, just like players do. We all dream of becoming FIFA officials one day, despite the obvious impossibility of such a dream. We also know that the higher you go, the more politics and ass you have to kiss and we usually come to terms with that, but NEVER by selling our souls.

3: Every time we take to the field we are a subconsciously or unconsciously concerned that we could face serious injury or even life-threatening events from the usual suspects. This is enough to break the spirit of many an otherwise good official and it can lead to an official bowing to intimidation and making a bad call or not making a call at all in or the consequences to ¨escape¨.

Any official who has officiated a tense, multi-ethnic local rivalry where 2000 fans are surrounding the field and are on a knife’s edge (literally), waiting to explode, knows what I am talking about. I personally have had to be escorted by police, in an armoured car from a stadium where 20,000+ really pissed-off fans were looking to give the officials a piece of their collective minds and I was ONLY the fourth official.

4: Finally, most officials feel the pressure to support and backup their colleagues and this develops an ¨us versus them¨ mentality, which is counter-productive to transparency and against the open and equitable nature of modern Football. I do NOT support unrestrained criticism of other officials from within our ranks BUT I do adhere to the rule that any good official must willingly accept positive and constructive criticism from fellow officials, otherwise how will we ever progress, learn or improve?

Basically this rather diatribe-like post was meant to address some superficial comments on UA where people who obviously never officiated, avidly promoted referees losing the power to make the final decision. Hopefully this article will make them think twice before glibly embarking on a spurious demand. Whether you agree or not, your thoughtful comments are always welcome.

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8 Replies to “Too much of a good thing? Why referees need the final say in any decision, even with VAR”

  1. I don’t think it has ever been the intention to stop the Ref having the final say (which is I believe the same in all sports where Video refs are used, except Cricket but that’s a very different game being a ‘non-contact’ sport).

    However there are many clear incidents that any decent ref should be pleased for assistance with. The ref was some way from the Joe Hart/Danny Wellbeck incident on Tuesday, as were the 2 linesmen, so a video ref telling him it was a Penalty rather than a free kick outside the area would have allowed him to make a correct call.

    Things like corners (which was an unqualified example I used in a previous comment) are more difficult as some attackers wrestle the defenders as much as they get wrestled themselves, but a VAR and a clear rule that such behaviour will go in the defenders favour, would stop the attackers doing that. So then a team can’t defend corners purely through WWE/rugby tactics.

  2. I should add that any decent linesman should also be pleased for the assistance of VAR when it comes to off sides as they don’t have 6 eyes and 20/20 vision, so they know perfectly well that they can’t look everywhere at the same time in fast paced top level football.

  3. Don

    I think this is a well thought out piece but for one thing.

    You state, “This ensures that the referee and only THE REFEREE makes a final decision, free of incitement, intimidation and unjust or biased censure. The intent is noble however the application is not. The secrecy surrounding the referee fraternity (sorority) is useful in moderation BUT when it becomes mafia-like Omerta and concealment, it is unfair, undemocratic and dangerous to the game.”

    For me, this negates much of your very good, if theoretical, argument. I’m not sure we’re actually disagreeing here but when you make points that are all based upon the fair and unbiased application of principles and rules, this all falls apart purely because some referees clearly seem to lack the integrity required and the authorities allow/condone said behavior.

    I like your theory but it is dependent two things that are, sadly, very rare in English football. Competence and neutrality. Some may have one or the other, few have both.

    I would also say that the some of your theory was also probably quite appropriate “back in the day” but the game has quickened dramatically and the intentional cheating by players has become more prolific and well practiced. Why should one person be made responsible for all that? Why not one in each half? Why not a ‘flag on the play’ from one of several officials, as one person cannot be expected to see everything? If refereeing worked we would have no need for the VAR. If the authorities punished all cheating retrospectively the job of the referee would become more manageable. Whilst neither of these happens your theory remains just that……sadly.

  4. I suppose what you are saying makes eminent sense, but what do you do in the absence of referees doing their job well and fairly and where there seems to not exist a mechanism or mechanisms to assess and retrain officials punctually, where and when the need arises? No one wants a witch hunt, but you can surely understand the frustration directed at the PGMO today?

    A similar reasonable law like making the referee the sole arbiter, is the rule in FIFA that forbids governments from interfering in the goings on of its own FA (for political purposes). The result is that FIFA, a known corrupt body, is seemingly immune from all criticism and in no hurry to change the way it works.

  5. The issue at hand in the PL is that there is serious doubt about the impartiality of referees and the black shroud that hands around the referee organisation.

    As long as this organisation, which as far as we know has all necessary financial resources, can have some teams getting the same referee several times a year, which does not happens in the other european championships, there is all reason to be doubtful that everything is clear and fine. How can they NOT have at least 19 referees and 38 assistant referees with the money available ?

    This the need to find workarounds.

    What I believe ought to be done is to see how the refs in the NFL are doing it. They are using video, and have been doing so for years. They have encountered most of the isses, and found workarounds when possible.

  6. Goonermikey…..We’re not disagreeing. I wrote the article in the spirit of an ideal world, but as you rightly point out, that world is simply a fantasy. However, fantasy or not, it is an ideal the authorities should be striving for and they clearly are not doing their job. Most officials I know have integrity and honesty and want to be as impartial as humanly possible…that is why most i know want VAR and see it as a perfect tool to help them improve their decision-making. I absolutely agree with your point about one person being responsible for the entire theatre of onfield shenanigans! Weneed alternate methods to officiate and VAR is one great one.
    Goinggoing gooner…..Yes, the PIGMOB is definitely falling down on the job. The FIFA law prohibiting state interference in Football has a rational basis but has been twisted to act as a shield for legitimate investigation and national concern. The Law 5 on referees is NOT similar in any form to the FIFA shield. It is meant to ensure that officials can do their job without undue stress and pressure,not to shield them from legitimate evaluation.
    Happy holidays to everyone on UA…..

  7. i for one think the ref should be the one to decide, for the simple reason that there would be one less person to influence the outcome
    currently the fufa can’t even assess the performance of a single person
    that’s why VAR is only a side step (although a welcome one) to proper refereeing
    open, scientific way to rate refereeing would be the real step forward
    even the simplest stats like the ones opta and the likes collect for 22 men on the pitch are surely a no-brainer to collect and analyze for 3 more
    i’m sure if fufa was not expressly prohibiting it we’d have far fairer refereeing in no time

  8. Oleg….FIFA does assess all their referees on the FIFA list and in actual fact appoint a small group of former FIFA referees in each country whose job it is to assess their nation’s FIFA referees performances locally. I ca.n attest to the fact (as I am sure Walter can as well) that FIFA referees are regularly assessed and required to upgrade themselves regularly as well, when it comes to fitness and competence. Those who don’t or can’t are dropped from the FIFA list for their country

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