Referees have some explaining to do

By Paul Gardner

I very much like what Arsene Wenger said about the mystery of stoppage time. Briefly, he's complaining that no one knows exactly how the referees calculate the time to be added on at the end of a game. He says that everyone should know and that there should be a clear set of guidelines explaining the matter.

He's 100 percent right, but he's really about 500 percent right if his point is expanded, as it should be, to include other referee activities that are conducted beneath a veil of secrecy, or at least in a cloud of deliberate obfuscation.

Controversy over those extra minutes of stoppage time has been going on for decades. It was at the center of one of the silliest moments of refereeing I have ever seen, 30 years ago, during the 1978 World Cup. The score was Brazil 1 Sweden 1, with very little (stoppage) time left. Brazil took a corner, Zico rose up and headed the ball firmly home.

A last-ditch 2-1 win for Brazil? Not at all. Welsh referee Clive Thomas had blown his whistle to mark the end of the game while the corner kick was in the air -- before it reached Zico. There were even rumors he had told the Swedes not to worry as the game would be over the instant the ball was kicked from the corner.

The stupidity of such fussiness doesn't bear scrutiny. But Thomas was sure he'd got it right down to the last second. Which is surely ridiculous. But there was one thing that no one could argue about: Thomas was the only person in the world who knew when the -- theoretical -- end of the game would arrive.

Thomas' silliness did cause a reaction, and it's doubtful that such a martinetish decision would be made today. But the deeper matter of how Thomas arrived at his timings -- that was left uninvestigated.

It should be closely looked at as soon as possible. Are we running a billion dollar industry here or an inconsequential parlor game? But it should be looked at in the wider frame of a determination to do away with all the areas where referees (and their close allies, the rule-makers of the International Football Association Board, IFAB) prefer to act clandestinely.

Transparency is a word much admired and used by Sepp Blatter. But it seems to be a word that is frowned upon in refereeing circles.

IFAB, for instance, when making its yearly report on rule changes, carefully marks, in the new rule book, anything that has been added. This is helpful -- but it is also downright deceptive, as it gives an impression of openness when in fact IFAB is not mentioning -- i.e. is concealing -- what it has subtracted from the rules.

There was also the celebrated case of Ruud van Nistelrooy's "offside" goal against Italy in the 2008 Euro championship. While the press and the fans howled at an obviously poor referee decision, the refereeing authorities at UEFA calmly announced that the ref had got it right. They spelled out the reasoning ... but who had known about this beforehand? Only the referees, apparently.

On the field, referees are still under no obligation to let anyone know what they're calling. Not that long ago the 1997 rulebook said "... it is not the duty of the referee to explain or mime any offense that has caused him to give a particular decision ..." That wording has been dropped, but it has not been replaced, as it surely should be, by a requirement that referees signal exactly what they're calling each time they blow the whistle.

In other words, a universal code of referee signals should by now be mandatory. But neither FIFA nor IFAB nor the referees themselves have taken any action. Once again they prefer to act, whenever possible, without telling the rest of us what they're up to.

[A slight aside: may I recommend -- not for the first time -- to MLS that they look into this? The USA would be the ideal place to develop such a set of signals as it is a country where sports fans are used to, indeed expect, clear referee signals. The development and use of such a code would not constitute a rule change, and by my reckoning would not even require FIFA's consent.]

Maybe this time something will be done, at least about stoppage time. How did a stoppage time that had been signaled at four minutes end up lasting almost seven minutes, allowing ManU to score the winning goal against ManCity during those extra mystery minutes?

A scandal in the making! The English newspaper The Guardian, having studied the stats, has found that ManU does get more stoppage time minutes than other teams ... when it is tying or losing a game at 90 minutes. A coincidence?

There's a lot to be explained here if the impression of sheer guesswork on the part of the referee is to be dispelled. Guesswork just doesn't seem good enough. Nor do unpublicized rule changes. Nor do unexplained on-field decisions.

I have a feeling that there are plenty of referees -- perhaps even a majority -- who would vote for more transparency, just as they would vote for replay assistance. Why is it we never hear from them?


8 comments about "Referees have some explaining to do".
  1. Brent Crossland, September 28, 2009 at 9:12 a.m.

    I know, why don't we keep the time on a stadium clock so everyone can see it. Oh wait, that would simply lead to more instances of the ball being dead in the air.

    Look at NFHS games. You see teams stopping play before time has expired because there isn't enough time to mount an attack. (Maybe we could just start postgame handshakes with 1 minute remaining?)

    And what is the real risk of committing that attack ending 'tactical' foul at midfield with 20 seconds showing on the scoreboard? It will take longer than that for the opponent to take the free kick - especially if I loiter in front of the ball. Much riskier if I don't know if there are 20 seconds or 50 remaining.

    We could also adopt a lengthy series of 'pantomime' signals for referees like our pointy ball friends. I'm sure that there wouldn't be any arguments after the fact if the referee signaled pushing when you saw holding. And that information makes so much difference. After all, in one case the referee will award a DFK and in the other . . . .

    I don't disagree that one can point out instances of glaring inconsistency or apparent contradiction in individual games but I think that the current system serves us well overall.

    Certainly some referees are better than others and some games are better managed but that will always be the case. Still our game flows better than any other and, despite the best efforts of coaches and sanctioning bodies (and sportswriters?) the game on the field still belongs to the players. More so than any other major sport.

    Let's don't encourage the micro-management that occurs in other major sports. Accept the fact that, regardless of whether money is or isn't involved, some controversy is part of the game and it always will be.

  2. David Flanagan, September 28, 2009 at 9:28 a.m.

    The referees in the NFL in the US have the ability to advise the crowd what the penalty calls are and who was guilty of the penalty. EPL referees have earpieces and could be miked to communicate at the very least with a staff member of each to to advise them of the infraction and who it was called on. Sepp knows nothing about transparency, referees by nature never want coaches or players to know what they call, its easier to make something up later than to tell people on the sopt who the call was against. Time for FIFA and the IAFB to come out of the closet and let us know the who, what , where and why of each and every foul. Most important including the referee assistant and having them identify the player who was offside and if one side identify the player who left the attacking player on side. M0ore shocking is I think PAul make s a good point for once!

  3. Austin Gomez, September 28, 2009 at 11:02 a.m.

    My dear Paul,
    ALLOWANCE for TIME LOST is posted in the Law Book on page 19 of Law 7 concerning "The Duration of the Match" and explained quite fully & clearly & succinctlly via the "S A R T A" principle (6 Reasons for discretionary minutes to be added, regardless of score), and concluding with that the Time is always up to the 'DISCRETIONARY' POWER of the Referee, depending upon many factors: especially, Time-Wasting by one team during rhe Stoppage-Time sequence, itself ----- etcetera, etctera, etcetera.

    Do you want 1978's World Cup revisited when the REFEREE blows the Whistle, due to the precise moment of time when a 'goalward-bound' Ball
    is clearly going int the nets of the Opponents, but the Whistle of the Referee blows before the Ball has crossed the goal-line. to the great detriment of all Participants & Spectators alike? ! ?
    Is that what you wish? ? ?
    The Law Book handles the 'Stoppage-Time' concept very correctly and authoritatively with admirable DISCRETION!


  4. Roy Gordon, September 28, 2009 at 12:19 p.m.

    I know that Paul Gardner hates collegiate soccer, but given his comments about stoppage time, maybe the collegiate game has got something right. In Collegiate soccer, the official clock is controlled from the desk and the time remaining in a game is clear to everyone in the stadium. The clock stops for a number of reasons, including, injury, substitutions, cautions and ejections, and the scoring of goals. Why doesn't FIFA consider this change?

  5. Alan Cahill, September 28, 2009 at 12:20 p.m.

    Solution is easy...just follow the NCAA insofar as clock management is concerned. Ref signals to time keeper to stop the game clock whenever he deems appropriate, thus nothing left to anyone's imagination.
    Count down of the final seconds (when home team is ahead) is traditional part of college soccer...unhappily we have not been seeing much of it at SLU this year...


  6. Kevin White, September 28, 2009 at 12:57 p.m.

    I’m afraid that the eminently sensible suggestions from ROY GORDON and ALAN CAHILL about following the NCAA clock management procedure will give Mr. Gardner a near coronary. Why would you want to break a calcified football tradition such as the arbitrary decision by referees on added time with a transparent one? That just isn’t done by traditional footballers. It is something new for heaven’s sake!

  7. Rich Friedman, September 28, 2009 at 2:29 p.m.

    While American soccer has much to learn from the worldwide game, the concept of stoppage time isn't one of them. It is silly, anachronistic, certainly not transparent and serves the game poorly. In this instance, the American version(as in the NCAA) is clear and more accurate. Don't want the game to end with the ball in the air -make a provision for the play to end before the game is officially over, or use the basketball model of the shot taken before the buzzer.

  8. J. f. Allen, September 29, 2009 at 8:42 a.m.

    What Mr. Gardner forgets to include in his rant is that the referee is instructed by the IFAB -- the people who make the Laws (not "rules") of the Game -- to exercise his (or her) opinion on the amount of time to added, and is also given a complete guideline as to what would cause time to be added. (See Austin Gomez's note above.)

    The referee -- and thus any non-referee -- can calculate the time to almost the second. The one area that everyone forgets (and thus miscalculates) is that the number shown on the board is the MINIMUM amount of added time to be played. Thus in this case the MINIMUM time shown could actually represent 4 minutes and 59 seconds, as the board only shows the whole minutes!  Take this as your starting point, add in the Man City goal scoring celebration that eats into the time allowed, the Man United substitution and then the Man United goal celebration and the referee probably played a few seconds SHORT, rather than too long. By using this calculation you can then work out the actual amount of seconds over the 4 minutes he was allowing!

Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications