The Rational Ref

Making the right call on referees

Whether they are full-time professionals or part-timers, the often least popular man on the park has to make best decisions

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 May, 2013, 4:16am

I laughed when a player said: "Ref, you can't make mistakes, you're a professional". The player did not realise that with his one single outburst he had unwittingly made three faulty claims.

First, it is a well-known phenomenon that players, coaches and fans see referees in a bad light. However, the claim that referees cannot make mistakes actually praises and elevates referees to being superhuman, rather than subhuman. It is a compliment that all match officials should take heart. Perhaps this is how players, coaches and fans really perceive match officials. They subconsciously acknowledge that officials are superhuman, while simultaneously publicly deriding them as subhuman for having the temerity to make unpopular decisions against their team.

Second, the claim that professionals cannot make mistakes assumes every full-time professional cannot do anything deemed to be remotely unprofessional or amateurish. By those standards, professional soccer players and coaches, who are often paid millions every season, are expected to be infallible. Yet every weekend, they make schoolboy errors, mundane mistakes and horrendous howlers. These things happen and yet, apparently, they shouldn't be allowed or tolerated because the people involved are professionals who are handsomely paid to perform at a competent level. The reality is everyone makes mistakes. Being a professional really means being able to deal with the situation, learn from it and then move on to perform another day.

And third, it is taken as a compliment when players, coaches and fans incorrectly presume referees officiating at the highest levels are professionals. Nothing could be further from the truth. In professional leagues all over the world, the overwhelming majority of referees are part-timers. These match officials have full-time jobs that are usually far removed from soccer.

Only a handful of countries truly have professional referees working in their top domestic leagues. England's Premier League is officiated by a select group of about 18 professional referees known as the Professional Game Match Officials Limited. Japan and South Korea also have professional referees working in their top flights. And apart from a few individuals dotted here and there, all other referees make their living in industries outside the beautiful game.

England's PGMOL has developed professional referees since 2001. The idea behind this was stated at the time by former Fifa referee Roger Milford, who refereed the 1991 FA Cup final between Tottenham Hotspur and Nottingham Forest: "This will mean more consistency from the officials on points of law which cause controversy." That is, professionalism will ensure greater consistency and hence a higher standard of officiating in the EPL. But has this actually been the case?

Assistant referees, or linesmen as they are still called, are always part-time. Alex Ferguson knows this only too well, especially when he lambasted John Flynn for flagging a dubious decision leading to a Newcastle penalty that sealed a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford last November. Ferguson used this as his excuse to criticise match officials in the EPL, claiming: "The problem is the referees are full-time and the linesmen are not."

But does becoming professional really improve refereeing standards?

Rational Ref reckons no one has looked closely into this. There should be studies comparing full-time professional referees with part-timers.

One useful study could compare groups of referees who perform at international level. For instance, professional EPL referees such as Howard Webb and Mark Clattenburg are Fifa referees who officiate in the Uefa Champions League. Are their performances significantly better than Fifa referees from other European countries who are merely part-time referees? These include tomorrow's Champions League final referee, Italian Nicola Rizzoli, who is an architect, and last week's Europa League final referee, Dutchman Björn Kuipers, who is a supermarket director.

At face value, there does not appear to be much difference in performance between professional and part-time referees. This is akin to comparing Fifa's top-ranked national side Spain with bottom-ranked part-timers San Marino and finding no difference in performance What does this say about English referees who are full-time professionals? To be definitive, an in-depth study is needed to identify important differences between full-time professionals and part-timers.

As an aside: Starting tonight, fans will get the chance to see up-close a real professional referee in Phil Dowd at the HKFC Citibank International Soccer Sevens. Dowd is one of Rational Ref's favourite match officials due to his no-nonsense, give-as-good-as-he-gets, man management.

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