The Rational Ref

The ability to judge referees goes beyond Ferguson's expertise

Former United boss can criticise players and managers all he wants, but his experience does not cover match officials

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 November, 2013, 9:31pm
UPDATED : Friday, 15 November, 2013, 9:10am

Soccer is full of people with opinions, and they're entitled to it. The trouble is most people's opinions are just too full of subjectivity to be really useful, and frequently overstep the mark of expert opinion.

Let's take Alex Ferguson's latest autobiography, in which he talks about anything and everything to do with the game. There's no doubt that he has had a fantastic 26-year period as manager of Manchester United.

Many of his opinions about certain players and managers are based on his personal and professional experience. This is his right. Ferguson has criticised former players David Beckham, Owen Hargreaves, Mark Bosnich and Roy Keane. Other players on the receiving end of Ferguson's spite are Liverpool players Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson. Managers such as Arsene Wenger, Kenny Dalglish and Rafa Benitez do not escape Ferguson's wrath, either. This is all very well because as someone who has earned his success and reputation in assessing players and managers, his opinion carries weight. Who cares what the average manager, journeyman player or even a loyal, lifetime fan thinks? Ferguson has proved he is an expert in his particular field and therefore his opinion has credibility.

The person assessing the officials should have no interest in the outcome
William Lai 

However, buried among Ferguson's recently publicised comments is his opinion about referees, in particular EPL match officials. Ferguson claims full-time referees, as a group under the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL), are generally not fit enough and that they are impossible to sack. "We hadn't had a really top Premier League referee for a long time," said Ferguson.

With this, Ferguson has overstepped his mark. His opinions about players and managers are perfectly acceptable because that is the arena where he excels. But he is no expert in refereeing matters. The problem is the media are taken in by Ferguson's reputation and aura. Succumbing to a person's halo effect is a common mistake by many, especially the media.

We see this a lot in many walks of life. That is, egotistical individuals who go beyond their remit. For instance, in the academic field there are outstanding professors in Hong Kong and yet, more often than not, they go beyond their area of expertise and offer views that they insist to be authoritative. In doing so they are hoping to pull the wool over the public's eye.

Similarly, this halo effect occurs repeatedly in the world of soccer. Why should Ferguson - and other managers and players for that matter - have an expert opinion on referees?

If such critics demonstrated a proficient knowledge of the rules, checked their biased club allegiances at the gates, and actually refereed matches without fear or favour, then they would automatically earn some credibility for their opinions about refereeing performances.

But how many matches outside of the 2,155 as a manager and 317 as a player has Ferguson truly watched with an impartial eye? Of those "neutral" matches that do not involve Manchester United or the four other teams he has managed, what was his assessment of the refereeing? This is the crux of the matter.

In order to judge match officials, all bias must be eliminated or reduced. The person assessing the match officials should have no interest in the outcome of the game, no allegiance to or negativity against any of the teams, and no conflict of interest with any of the match officials. With this in mind, it stands to reason that no manager, player or fan with team loyalty has any credibility in assessing referees. They have no business airing their views about referees.

Likewise, although Richard Scudamore, the EPL chief executive, defended EPL referees - claiming they were the best in Europe - his opinion has no credibility. What makes him an expert on referees?

"No, I don't accept [Ferguson's] criticism. I don't," said Scudamore. "We are at the leading edge of referee development. We are at the leading edge of referee fitness. We are at the leading edge around Europe in terms of what we are doing with our referees. Are they perfect? No. Do they make mistakes? Yes. Are those mistakes reducing in frequency? Yes. Would we swap them for another group in Europe? No."

It is imperative to know your experts. By all means pay attention when Ferguson talks about players and team management. Similarly be alert to what Scudamore says about managing soccer leagues as successful commercial businesses. But ignore them both when they attempt to discuss refereeing matters.

A final note: Congratulations to Guangzhou Evergrande for winning the AFC Champions League. After the turmoil of the Chinese Football Association's corruption scandal, it appears pumping money into Chinese clubs to make them more professional really does work. Is this enough evidence to convince those in Hong Kong to do the same? Can the HKFA secure HK$100 million per year from the proceeds of soccer betting to help make the local game more professional?

Agree or disagree? Contact Rational Ref at rationalref@gmail.com