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Referees: Soccer's Secret Society (Part 2)
by Paul Gardner, May 26th, 2014 12:01AM
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TAGS:  referees


By Paul Gardner

In 1981, I interviewed the aging Sir Stanley Rous, former FIFA president and a cardinal figure in the development of modern refereeing.

I asked him if he thought a set of signals would be a good idea for referees. The question was mischievous. I already knew -- everyone did -- that Rous was vociferously anti. And we all knew his favorite put down. He obliged by promptly using it -- “I don’t want referees behaving like windmills ...”

In my previous column, I quoted statements issued in the 1970s by FIFA and by UEFA, both belittling the very notion of signals, even of mere gestures. Rous was merely continuing the deeply felt opposition to signals.

To assess just how deep that antipathy goes we need know only one thing: Today, some 40 years later, there is still no official set of signals for soccer referees. Nor, to my knowledge, is there any action on the part of the game’s leaders to draw up such a set. Secrecy is preferred. The referee will not be obliged to let anyone know what call he is making.

Which in the year 2014, in an era when information is flowing more freely than ever before, reveals amazingly archaic thinking. That degree of negativity almost demands to be challenged.

I have enquired many times whether I could obtain transcripts of the conversations that referees have with their assistants or -- of more interest to me -- what it is they say to players. Well, possibly, I might. Maybe. We’ll see. But it has never happened.

The habit of secrecy is so ingrained that it immediately dictates the answer “No” to almost any enquiry about how referees go about their work. Ingrained to the point where it can quite easily act in reverse, at the referees’ cost.

Take the celebrated recent incident in England, when referee Andre Marriner sent off the wrong guy -- for an offense that was later adjudged not to have been an offense at all. We were told that “the FA” had made the decisions, confirming that Marriner got it wrong, twice. And who, exactly, are “the FA”? Sorry, we can’t tell you, we don’t release the names of the panel.

Withholding information has become an accepted practice, not to be questioned. Even when there is no reason for it, when common sense indicates that all the advantages are to be found in disclosure. In transparency.

There are, it seems to me, a number of areas in soccer where the United States could make a solid contribution to transparency -- a much vaunted and, unless we are being systematically deceived, a much desired attribute.

Sadly, the USA shows no sign of wishing to do anything different from what the rest of the world does -- and for rest of the world, you can read the Brits, for that is where virtually all of the refereeing history and attitudes come from.

Much of that history is admirable -- indeed, you have to wonder what other nation would have accomplished so much in trying to be serious about what has been, for most of its 150-year history, primarily a recreational activity.

All that Brit devotion comes at a price. It is accompanied by a hefty dose of snobbishness and pomposity. Borrowing from cricket (a decidedly elitist game in the 19th, and well into the 20th, century), soccer quickly trumpeted its pretensions by adopting the intimidating word “laws” to define its rules.

There is absolutely no reason at all for Americans to use that word, laws. That is not American usage for sports. More importantly, it indicates American submission to Brit culture -- and in this case, that brings in much more unacceptable practices. Elitism among them, of course. And, inevitably, secrecy.

The USA, of all nations, should not be a party to cover-ups. It should be setting an example to the rest of the world, letting daylight into the world of refereeing activities. It is failing to do that.

Read "Part 1: Referees: Soccer's Secret Society" HERE.

  1. I w Nowozeniuk
    commented on: May 26, 2014 at 11:20 a.m.
    Mr. Gardner, it would behoove you to touch on the scandalous TV video production that is cancer to the game...about 20% of the game are video close ups or in-your-face shots of players, coaches, and the referee when in reality the game demands a wide angle video so the viewer can see the team shape and movement while the ball is in play. Take a sample of a corner kick, when the kicker is zoomed in, than the scrum in the box is zoomed in, than the keeper is zoomed in, back to the scrum zoom and again the kicker is zoomed in during his delivery; it's a hodge-podge of insignificance followed by zooming on the keeper before the free kick and the viewer having no clue of where field players are set up. Anyone care to follow the ground level action where nothing is seen except feet/ball, i.e., no lanes of opportunity, no view of positioning of other players. What has happened with the slow motion replay which details the flight of the ball, the movement of players, and end result in order for the viewer to savor the precision or delicacy of the scoring chance.
  1. Saverio Colantonio
    commented on: May 26, 2014 at 1:28 p.m.
    Paul, as much as I would like to see more transparency with officiating, these signals that you would like to see introduced are very unrealistic. Speaking as a current player, coach and referee, the game flows too quickly for signals and 99% of the fouls are fairly obvious. It is not like hockey, basketball or American football where the play stops and the penalty is assessed. Most players and teams want the ability to take the quick restart. Having said that, there are some signals that are used--arm up for indirect kick (including offside kicks), Flags raised by ARs to indicate ball out of bounds on the side and on corner kicks, arms extended to indicate that advantage is being played, arcing motion of the arm to indicate the player came from an offside position to receive the ball, waving to the flag by the AR to signal an offence, the AR running back toward centre to indicate the ball did cross the goal line, pointing to the whistle to indicate that the free kick is to be taken on the whistle. When refereeing, I will usually tell the players why I charged the foul on one player rather than the other when both are running at each other at a hundred mph. As a coach and player I know that the ref is not going to get it right a 100% of the time especially because the he/she does not have 360° peripheral vision.
  1. Christopher Tallmadge
    commented on: May 26, 2014 at 2:19 p.m.
    Let's start with that clown fromMali.
  1. Ramon Creager
    commented on: May 26, 2014 at 11:23 p.m.
    Honestly now: why on earth do refs need signals? (Beyond what they already have, that is. It's not true we don't have signals. They're just simple and to the point.) As a player, fan, & coach I never felt the need. I can follow the game as well as anyone. And as a high-school level ref, where we did have hand signals, I rarely found the time to use them. What are players now supposed to do: wait on that quick free kick while the ref is busy making silly gestures? Also, a bit unfair to rag on Brits. Have you watched Rugby Union? You don't need a transcript of what the refs communicate amongst themselves, it's broadcast live during the game.
  1. R2 Dad
    commented on: May 27, 2014 at 12:07 a.m.
    thx for the history on this, which is little known in most circles. According to Wiki: "Since 2010 the neutrality and competence of PGMOL has been consistently challenged by a group of referees from outside PGMOL who have challenged the statistics that PGMOL have provided about their own work, and the reliability of the referees themselves. This led to the group of referees themselves reviewing 40% of all Premier League matches during the 2011/12 season and assessing the referees." The status quo can change, and it helps to have quantifiable metrics and statistics to do so.
  1. Jogo Bonito
    commented on: May 27, 2014 at 1:40 a.m.
    "...American submission to Brit culture -- and in this case, that brings in much more unacceptable practices. ..." Unacceptable practices like hiring Brit TV Commentators for American TV and the domestic American professional league. Or the silly practice of saying things like "nil" or "pitch" or "kit"
  1. Ramon Creager
    commented on: May 27, 2014 at 2:35 p.m.
    I w Nowozeniuk I second that about TV. When HD first came along I thought to myself, great! Now we'll be able to get a broader view of the game without everything looking like a smudge! But no, the new tech did not come with new ideas; now we get a closeup view of everyone's dermatological conditions, or their spitting technique.
  1. I w Nowozeniuk
    commented on: May 27, 2014 at 4:48 p.m.
    Jogo Bonito, I don't feel your pain, since 90% of the American commentary is winded and yada-yada, just like baseball. The other night I'm watching LA v Philly and the commentator opines 'and so&so makes a clearance downfield'; it was a misguided pass, not a clearance. What does that say about the commentator, he's out to lunch; or so&so intercepts when in fact the ball was delivered to so&so's feet. The game of soccer is simple and the American commentators can't keep it that way; saying something relevant, short and to the point doesn't exist. I once heard Max Bretos do a game from Argentina; he did a beautiful job, because HE WAS ALONE; afterwards he was paired in some MLS games and it was the same old story, yada-yada-yada.
  1. Webmaster
    commented on: May 27, 2014 at 9:22 p.m.
    +1 ~ No "Secrets" in the Ken Aston Referee Society! ~ Join and or visit for FREE... See you on 'The Pitch'! CHEERS!!!
  1. Jogo Bonito
    commented on: May 27, 2014 at 10:37 p.m.
    Nowozeniuk, I just don't like the whole attitude that we Americans can deliver soccer to Americans. It's embarrassing to me that a huge company like espn can develop good American play-by-play commentators. The reason is simple ... they don't want to. They actually think is somehow more hip to have a Brit call games to an American audience. Based on your comments, I guess they're right but it's a shame. I'm just tired of listening to the snobby Brits ... l'll just watch games in Spanish again.
  1. Jogo Bonito
    commented on: May 27, 2014 at 10:38 p.m.
    Nowozeniuk, I just don't like the whole attitude that we Americans can't deliver soccer to Americans. It's embarrassing to me that a huge company like espn can't develop good American play-by-play commentators. The reason is simple ... they don't want to. They actually think is somehow more hip to have a Brit call games to an American audience. Based on your comments, I guess they're right but it's a shame. I'm just tired of listening to the snobby Brits ... l'll just watch games in Spanish again.

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