[REF WATCH] Look at the facts. We are an endangered species. More than half million of us worldwide; dying out like dinosaurs of a bygone age. Our demise is largely due to our own folly for we suffer the cruelty of human nature from the very people we help add sunshine into dull lives. We put up with insults, abuse, threats and assaults. We are spat upon, ridiculed, shot at, and sometimes murdered.
Trained experts in our field, we are the targets for the masses who protest, contest, accuse us of corruption, racism, being pawns of the mafia, power crazy despots, and worse.
No, we are not politicians. We are soccer referees.
According to verbal taunts from the touchlines we are the lowest form of human existence, illegitimate offspring of unmarried parents, fair game for insults and humiliation. Surely no intelligent person would want to be so despised by fellow citizens. So, why do we do it? Can we be so dumb? Are we all nuts?
Who are we? Doctors, engineers, teachers, lawyers, scientists, experts in our chosen occupations that demand personal commitment, study, hard work, formal training and responsibility. All require effective management and communication skills. Experience of life, maturity and integrity are other qualities evident whenever referees meet.
These are intelligent and successful people, hardly compatible with the “mental defectives” targeted by moronic verbal missiles launched from touchlines.
At pro-level they are also the most visible officials. The real heroes are the thousands of solitary guardians of discipline at grassroots level who have little chance of reaching the top. Such men and women, who devote a large slice of their lives in a referee’s role, contribute an invaluable service to the community. So, why aren't we loved?
New recruits to refereeing soccer games face a steep learning curve. The rule book only scratches the surface of a real game; played at speed with tough physical contact between competing athletes. It delegates responsibilities and supreme powers to the referee. He is a complete judicial system on legs. He detects the crime, makes the arrest, deliberates as the jury, announces the verdict, passes sentence as the judge, and carries out execution – all in a split second – hundreds of times in 90 minutes. Some task!
With this job description a soccer referee needs the ability to think fast on his feet; make quality judgements and correct decisions in emotionally charged situations; plus streetwise wisdom to apply justice with tact and diplomacy. Hard experience of officiating many games at various levels hones the desired qualities for disciplined and fair interpretation of the rules of play on the field.
Reflecting on my own commitment to soccer, the questions flow. Why did I choose to officiate as a referee? Why have I exposed myself for years to the ever present atmosphere of grudging acceptance; to ridicule and humiliation; bearing the incessant verbal, and sometimes physical, abuse of players and fans; enduring the minimum of facilities, washing in buckets of icy water on a bleak winter's day?
Why have I devoted an important part of my life trying for perfection as an arbiter; working hard to achieve a good level of fitness; accepting the inconvenience of time away from home and career? Why? What was the purpose?
Why do others indulge in a hobby where we blow whistles and wave tiny colored flags. Are they nuts, too? Is it for the money? How many have made a million as a soccer referee?
Common answers include “I do it for the love of the game.” “I want to give something back.” “I enjoy being involved.”
For me it goes deeper than that. Yes, a major attraction was to be active inside the play, the next best thing to actually kicking the ball. I was part of the theater of sport, playing a role which was positive and satisfying.
But, I realize now that, during 25 years serving as an official on the field, I was hoping for a dream to come true - a dream where every soccer match is played to the highest ideals of fair play: where the players, guided by moral and physical disciplines written into wise rules, combine individual skills in an athletic ballet of spectacular movement and color; where they express emotions of excitement and joy for themselves and for those who watch.
I wanted to relive all of those wonderful moments of elation I felt as a boy with a ball at my feet.
In reality, every cynical foul, every attempt to cheat, every act of disrespect for the game and its disciplines, spoiled that dream; felt like a knife in my flesh, drawing blood and staining my vision of the purity of sport. I know that dream was naïve but, together with fellow referees, I tried to limit the degradation of a healthy sport by thoughtless players and fans who do not share my degree of passion.
Although my dream has rarely been realized I look back on my years as an active referee with satisfaction. I learned much about myself; about latent convictions; accepted responsibilities and developed attributes that served me well through life. In my own country, and many others in the six confederations of FIFA, I learned much about people and feel privileged to have met, and shared my love of a special sport, with a unique brotherhood of honest men and women from all walks of life.
An endangered species we might be but we’ll never be extinct. We can never be replaced by robots, which could possibly impose the rules of play by computers. But without human heart judgement and streetwise justice our sport would become an arid emotional desert.
Referees will continue to rock on an emotional see-saw, one day ready to pack it all in, and then feeling an irresistible surge of adrenalin before the next match. It is an obsession which yields more satisfaction than frustration.
After this heart searching and mental agonizing I ask myself the final question, "Would you do it again?" Without hesitation I get the stupid answer "YES, SIR!"
OK, so I'm nuts, too!
(Stanley Lover is a longtime international referee instructor and author of "Official Soccer Rules Illustrated." He officiated over 1,000 soccer matches at all levels, including serving as an assistant referee in the English Football League for 11 years, plus international and European Cup games.)