By Paul Gardner
I mentioned some weeks back that the American Mark Geiger had been chosen to referee this year’s Under-20 World Cup final. This was a particularly notable honor, as one of the referees also in line for the job was England’s Mark Clattenburg, a man with seven years’ experience refereeing in the English Premier League.
Geiger got the job -- so, let’s ask a question: Which guy would you send to which country to help with referee training? The fact that the question is a sensible, reasonable one, tells you that the standards of American refereeing are not to be despised, that they are not to be automatically dismissed as inferior to those of the EPL.
This is a topic that will shortly come to the fore because of an initiative currently being worked on at Major League Soccer -- a scheme to upgrade the refereeing in MLS.
I have some questions about that -- but they are not going to get answered by MLS. At least not right now. MLS spokesman Will Kuhns put it like this: "MLS is constantly looking to improve in all areas. Officiating is one of them, and one that we consider to be intertwined with the actions of players and coaches. The League is in active discussions with the United States and Canadian soccer federations and with various international officiating constituencies. We are determining our next steps in continuing to improve the overall quality of our games including officiating. Once those plans have been finalized, MLS will share them publicly."
Which leaves me to ponder and speculate. Very well, then. For a start -- is there anything drastically wrong with the current standard of MLS refereeing?
No, there is not. It is not the best in the world, nor is it the worst. Very much like all other refereeing, in fact. Is there, has there ever been, a soccer league in any country where the refereeing has not been under constant criticism? I have never run across such a place.
And who is it who levels the criticism? Why, invariably the coaches and players and fans of teams that are looking for a convenient -- actually, the traditional -- excuse for games that have been lost. Not, in other words, the most reliable or objective of critics.
Yes, American referees make mistakes. Yes, there are one or two MLS referees that I would not employ if I were running things. Well, so what? Once again, those circumstances will be paralleled anywhere in the world.
All things considered, I think American referees do a remarkably good job. They do work at a disadvantage, because unlike referees in the main soccer countries -- say, Germany, Italy, England, Argentina, Brazil -- they lack the step-ladder of leagues of increasing toughness in which to learn their profession. The widespread and numerous games of national fourth and third and second division pro leagues are not available to them.
This is not an easy problem to solve -- and it is certainly not one that can be tackled by bringing in foreign referees. And that seems to be where MLS is heading.
We have been through this before. When the National Professional Soccer League began operations in 1967 it employed English referees. Later the North American Soccer League used foreign referees on short “guest” stints. And as Director of Officials, the NASL employed two English ex-referees -- firstly Eddie Pearson, then Keith Walker.
It was not clear what the working referees were supposed to be accomplishing. Were they here because the Americans were adjudged to be simply hopeless, so there was no alternative? Or were they supposed to be making everyone better by their example?
The referees -- and I saw all of them, I think, in action -- never seemed to me to be any better than their American counterparts.
On occasion they were demonstrably worse -- the worst occasion being a notorious 1976 game in which Englishman Gordon Hill allowed Pele to be mercilessly kicked and battered.
You will notice that throughout the NPSL-NASL years (1967-1984) there was always a strong British presence, and therefore influence, at the pro level. That influence has diminished since then -- a happening that I, for one, find agreeable.
Yet here we have MLS working to restore it. MLS has, of course, already been in contact with the English refereeing community. An English ex-referee, Keith Hackett, has already been brought over here for discussions about an MLS position of Director of Officials.
The 67-year-old Hackett has considerable experience for such a job. He officiated for 16 years in the old English First Division, then finished his active career with two years in the EPL when it replaced the First Division. After retirement, he spent five years (2004-09) as the general manager of the body in charge of England’s Professional Game Match Officials’ Board.
Hackett is also well-known as the referee contributor to artist Paul Trevillion's classic "You Are the Ref" series (currently published weekly in The Guardian) - which poses and answers tricky refereeing questions.
There’s more, because in 1982 Hackett spent two months in the USA as a guest referee, officiating at 17 games -- an experience he wrote about in his book “Hackett’s Law,” published in 1986. Reading his chapter “American Experience” does resolve a question I asked earlier, because Hackett says nothing about helping to improve American referees (in fact he doesn’t even mention them) -- but he does state, three times, that he accepted the trip because “I felt sure it would improve my refereeing.” (Maybe it did -- but it did nothing for his geography. Hackett displays typical English ignorance in calling Mexico a South American country.)
I think that Hackett’s self-centered view was probably that of all of the guest referees -- it is not necessarily a blameworthy one as they do not seem to have been asked to do anything more than simply officiate. Anyway, refereeing 17 games in two months -- what time would there have been for anything else?
Despite his impressive background, Hackett has one absolutely fatal blot on his refereeing escutcheon, one that should immediately rule him out of consideration for any job in American soccer. Simply that he is English.
This means that Hackett comes with some 40 years of experience of the English game. Back in the NASL days we didn’t know that much about English referees -- other than to assume that they must be good (though the iniquities of Gordon Hill ought to have warned us that something was amiss).
That naivete has long since been banished. Now, with the saturation TV coverage that we get of the EPL, we see English (or British) referees at work all the time. We know their style -- in particular, we know their approach to physical play. That approach can only be described as tolerant. More tolerant, I suggest, than that of referees anywhere else on the globe.
Certainly more tolerant than should be permitted in MLS. Don’t take my word for it -- we had Commissioner Don Garber’s appeal to referees, at the beginning of this season, that they should do more to protect skillful players.
MLS, struggling to find a place on the American sports scene, not only for itself, but for the sport of soccer, needs to offer the American public something more than another overtly physical game -- the NFL has that specialty sewn up. English-style refereeing would effectively undermine that necessity.
There is also the Hispanic factor. As the number of Hispanic players coming into American soccer grows, bringing with them a style of play that is neither known to, nor appreciated by, British referees. A more comprehensive approach to refereeing, an American-style refereeing, is needed as the game changes in this country.
To summarize: I am not saying that the refereeing in this country cannot be improved. Obviously it can -- as can refereeing everywhere. But I have total objection to any search for perfection. There is not -- nor can there be -- any such thing in refereeing. What we have at the moment, in MLS, seems to me to be working pretty well. Trying to make it better, praiseworthy as that sounds, presents some intractable problems.
Firstly, bringing in foreign referees accomplishes nothing. We’ve done it before, on a number of occasions, with little or nothing to show for it. The biggest obstacle to the education of American referees -- one that they have coped with remarkably well -- is the shortage of top-level game experience. The short-term answer to that suggests itself: fully professionalize American referees, and then work out deals with other countries whereby they can spend half their time as guest referees overseas.
A complicated and, no doubt, costly procedure, and one with no guarantee at all that the referees would come back to the USA greatly improved. Again the blight of a refereeing lex Britannica England descends: What would one expect from American referees returning from a six-month spell officiating in the lower levels of the Football League (I’m assuming the English would not consider them up to EPL’s standards)?
If there existed a country that consistently produced top referees, that seemed to have discovered the secret of turning out referees who regularly made the right calls, who invariably, immediately, and impartially applied the correct interpretation of the rules, then OK, let’s get together with those guys.
But such a scenario is a pipe dream. We know it is because we regularly see, at the World Cup, top referees making total asses of themselves -- the two worst errors, and they were really bad, at last year’s World Cup were made by experienced officials from Uruguay and Italy. That same World Cup also served up excellent performances by referees from New Zealand and Uzbekistan, soccer-minnow countries that must have the same referee-education problems as the USA.
By engaging in a campaign to up the level of its refereeing, and by immediately involving foreign referees, MLS is not helping matters. In general -- whatever may be its professed intention -- it is sending a message that it is not satisfied with American referees.
It is also opening the way for -- indeed, seems to be inviting -- the very influence that refereeing in this country assuredly does not need: the British influence. Under no circumstances whatever should a Brit hold any position of authority in the American refereeing structure.
The sooner that MLS lets us know exactly what it is up to, the better things will be for everyone -- for MLS, for the sport in this country and, not least, for the American refereeing community, which does not deserve to have this implied criticism hovering over it.