Referees aren't so bad - they just need a little help
“Who would willingly want to be a football referee?” I often ask myself. With a constant spotlight from millions of people each week who are ready to leap on that one fatal mistake, I can only shudderingly imagine the pressure these men (and women) feel on a regular basis. The monetary reward is far from that of the players around them – in any typical Premier League match, the referee is the poorest person running around the pitch, and is burdened with the most work to boot. It’s the kind of zero-thanks job that might lower crime rates if it was introduced as community service.
Everyone’s favourite referee was the truly terrifying Pierluigi Collina, a man who has been retired for nearly a decade now and whose talents were confined to Serie A, European and international fixtures – so that oftentimes he was far away from English shores. In recent past and present, Premier League fans have bemoaned the quality of officiating in the country time and again. The best of a bad bunch was Howard Webb – everyone’s least favourite Manchester United supporter – who retired in 2014; now the likes of Martin Atkinson, Phil Dowd and Mark Clattenburg regularly play the villain’s role, vindicated by players, managers, fans and neutrals regularly for their supposed inability to make key decisions.
And it’s true, there are plenty of examples to highlight the failings of Premier League standard referees – the best England has to offer for the sport. You only need to harken back to the FA Cup match on Monday night between Manchester United and Preston North End, in which Dowd gave a penalty for Wayne Rooney’s dive, and all the officials allowed Ander Herrera’s goal to stand despite Rooney appearing to impinge the goalkeeper’s judgement. Just one match and it produced two game-changing questionable decisions. But that is just the most recent example to drawn on upon this article’s composition; pick any match that has gone before, and any that will come, and there will be referee-related controversy weaved into the plotline somewhere – you can be as sure of that as the match starting at nil apiece.
All that conceded, I still think the standard of refereeing in England, and football in general, is high. Granted, it is far from perfect, but neither is any sport which relies in any way on human judgement. The fact stands that referees and officials do an exceptional job to keep up with football’s frantic pace – and this is especially true in the Premier League – when FIFA still has them almost entirely reliant on human, split-second decision making alone. It is remarkably unfair on these men to be expected to manage a match effectively using only their primal instincts when there is optimal technological advancements available to help them – but that is a generation-old debate at this stage, and one that has been futilely raised a million times before.
For now, we might as well try and focus on the positives of what is currently in place – goal line hawk-eye has improved accuracy of some contentious decisions in England’s top flight and will likely be introduced on a wider scale to the game, while the often comical ‘magic spray’ has greatly sped up the free-kick taking process to its credit.
Back to the point in hand however, I think the debate about technology’s role completely ignores the people already officiating matches. The argument in favour of replaying contentious decisions – however valid – sweeps over all the positive aspects referees contribute. They are not, as some would have you believe, running around with their eyes closed, blowing the whistle at random and hoping things turn out alright on that basis. Demonised football referees, I would argue, often make far less
mistakes, and maintain relative levels of consistency compared to their often commended compatriots in rugby and tennis, for example.
The latter comparison is an obvious case. I’m not for a second arguing that tennis umpires and line judges are incompetent – far from it, considering the ferocious pace tennis is played at. But considering their sole job is to determine whether or not the ball has gone out, the percentage of error still remains high enough that players are allowed to challenge a capped number of decisions per set. And a lot of those times, averaging 25-30% most tournaments, the players turn out to be correct, meaning that in a typical three-set tennis match where each player uses all three challenges per set, five or six point decisions by the officials will be proved incorrect. And that’s just for the points players choose to challenge – often they are loathe to challenge points early in a set to keep them for more vital moments. So, by averages, the umpire and up to nine line judges make at least five mistakes per tennis match, and if it were not for technological assistance there would likely be a lot of modern John McEnroe characters.
It is also worth noting that umpires can be frustratingly inconsistent in enforcing other technical points in tennis. Foot faults on the serve are often overlooked, while the 25-seconds between points are often stretched to a 30- or even 40-second interval without punishment, especially by slower, methodical players like Rafael Nadal. It’s these little inconsistencies that show the continued human error in a sport like tennis for which the standard of officiating is widely praised.
Another sport that football’s officiating is continuously compared with is rugby. I think the use of technology is fantastic in helping the referee make vital decisions in try situations, and it really helps to make sense of what is often a chaotic and impossibly decipherable scenario in real-time. The pressure of making a decision based on split-second observation is taken away by multi-angle replays which can be analysed for as long as it takes the video referee to make the correct decision. There is a certain excitement about this system too, as the crowd can see the same replays and make their own minds up while the official verdict is deliberated. Often it takes a couple of minutes and more than a dozen reviews of various angles for a correct decision on whether a try should be awarded, showing just how difficult it is to make a live-action accurate call.
Yet, for all the technological advancements that benefit rugby, there is still plenty of room for human error, and quite often this shows. Where in football referees are continuously slated for missing player simulation, rugby players are given retrospective bans for violent action on a regular basis, for acts the match officials failed to spot or punish adequately in-game. In a recent example, Scottish fly-half Finn Russell was given a two-week ban after their clash with Wales in the currently contested Six Nations Championship – for a challenge that the referee deemed only a yellow card at the time of the incident.
Regular match scenarios are also met with inconsistent officiating. The throw-ins from lineouts, though lawfully meant to go straight down the middle, are often slightly off-centred in favour of the team in possession, but unless this is made very obvious the referee will let it slide. Scrums are especially frustrating to watch due to the confusion they cause – it seems to me that neither the players nor referees are exactly sure of which way to call it if the maul collapses. The referee has a quick look, blows his whistle and waves for a penalty in one team’s favour and everyone has to get on with it with minimum explanation – even the commentators seem, for the most part, a little baffled on many of these calls.
As I say however, the players get on with it without complaint because rugby referees have another rules advantage that their football equivalents lack: forced respect. With microphones strapped on so
that every vocal altercation can be heard by television viewers, rugby referees can make decisions safe in the knowledge that they will not be verbally abused by a swarm of prima donnas. And if any player does dare descent, the referee has the right to give an opposition penalty right in front of the posts, no matter where on the pitch the perpetrator sinned.
Can you imagine how much easier a football referee’s job would be if they were allowed to follow the simply implemented following procedure: a player attempts simulation in the penalty area but the referee waves play on and the ball is cleared; a host of the attacker’s teammates furiously surround him and berate his judgement, so the referee immediately orders the ball be taken to the opposite end of the field for an opposition penalty; meanwhile an added official can replay the attacker’s penalty claim, and the player is retrospectively banned after a panel reviewed major incidents of the match reported by this official. All of this could be done quickly and smoothly in the Premier League and other top divisions, where there are literally dozens, hundred even, of television cameras capturing every moment from a feast of angles. Similarly, if a goal shows any suspicion of offside without being called by the linesman, the replay official could easily confirm the correct decision at the referee’s or defending team’s discretion.
We are talking about a seconds-long process to deal with problems that the majority of football fans hate to debate at this stage, due to there being no realistic need to. Referees are of a high quality; it would be extremely unfair to overly criticize them in what is an increasingly impossible task of keeping step with the Premier League’s frenetic, eventful rhythm. I for one am tired of resting all the blame on human incapability. We are well beyond the right time for football all over the world to use today’s technologies as an advantageous aide. Let referees and officials interpret each event, but at least allow them the resources to assist their decision-making in a positive manner. We might find then that football’s officiating is on par or even superior with plenty other mainstream sports.
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