Should Championship Games Be Officiated Differently?

By Randy Vogt

Soccer America columnist Paul Gardner has lamented that championship games are generally not as good as the matches that proceeded it as the teams often are more concerned with not making a mistake defensively than going for the goal. Although teams might play title games more conservatively, should refs officiate a championship game any differently than other games?

I have watched many important matches on TV and heard the announcers make comments such as “because this is a championship game, let’s hope that the ref does not get too involved in the game and lets the players decides who wins the title.” Funny how they rarely mention that the officials were given the assignment because they were determined to be the best in the league, just as the two competing teams are the best in the league.

Yet I have a rather different take on officiating a final game. When asked if the referees should officiate a final different than any other game, my answer is an emphatic “No.” The officials are there to enforce the Laws of the Game, no matter the level of play or the importance of the game. If a penalty kick needs to be whistled, a player needs to be sent off or a goal should be disallowed, no matter the level or implications of the game, the call is made. Whether in the third minute or in second-half stoppage time.

For U-11 boys or U-16 girls competing in their first championship game, it could mean as much to them as the World Cup final means to the teams and countries involved.

Recently, I was refereeing a high school championship game and against the run of play in a scoreless tie, I awarded a penalty kick in the 60th minute when a forward was tripped by the defender. The goalkeeper who had gathered the ball after the trip said to me, “It was a dive, sir.” The TV replay confirmed the call was correct, which I knew when I whistled it. The defender who had fouled the forward started crying and her teammate said before the penalty kick was converted, “Don’t worry. We are going to come back from this.” Which is exactly what happened as that team wound up winning 2-1.

A much more dramatic decision occurred in the inaugural WPS Final in 2009 when referee Kari Seitz sent off Los Angeles Sol defender Allison Falk in the 27th minute for denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity. Sky Blue FC was leading 1-0 at the time and that became the final score an hour later. The sending-off was 100 percent correct yet that did not prevent the TV commentators from saying it was a “controversial call.” Nothing controversial about it as it was absolutely correct. Championship game or not, it would have been wrong to leave Falk on the field.

I “referee” games as I am watching them live on TV. Sometimes replay confirms “my call” was correct and sometimes I was off the mark. While watching the 2010 World Cup final, I thought Nigel de Jong’s karate kick to Xabi Alonso’s chest in the 25th minute was a clear red card for serious foul play. If you had made a tape of what a red card offense is to use at soccer referee clinics, that foul would be it. But only a yellow card was produced. To his credit, referee Howard Webb admitted he erred and stated, “I sensed very early on that the players were under a lot of pressure, they were very close to winning the ultimate prize for their country for the first time. We wanted to be that steadying hand but equally we wanted to do our job properly and if there was a clear red card, we would do it.”

“When I look back on the full two hours of that game, which of course I have done, there is not much I would change. One of the things I would change is the color of the card for De Jong's tackle. Having seen it again from my armchair several times in slow motion and from different angles, I can see that it was a red card offense.”

(Randy Vogt has officiated more than 8,000 games during the past three decades, from professional matches in front of thousands to six-year-olds being cheered on by very enthusiastic parents. In Preventive Officiating, he shares his wisdom gleaned from thousands of games and hundreds of clinics to help referees not only survive but thrive on the soccer field. You can visit the book’s website at

8 comments about "Should Championship Games Be Officiated Differently?".
  1. Mathew Macdonald, November 20, 2012 at 2:48 p.m.

    Absolutely, 100 percent agree. If a specific call should be made in the 3rd minute, it should be made in the 92nd. If a call should be made in the second game of the season, it should be made in a cup final.

  2. Rick Kurianowicz, November 20, 2012 at 3:34 p.m.

    Randy, What I really think the commentators are referring to are referees that blow their whistle too many time Vs the ones that let the game flow and let the smaller fouls go as it would take the advantage away from the team with the ball that is attacking. As we all know the best referees are the ones that don't make themselves the central part of the game. I also believe that Howard Webb is one of the very best and most consistent referee's I have seen repeatedly. And yes everyone makes mistakes. I also agree with you that calls should be consistent and the same no matter what the level of the game, championship or otherwise
    Thank you
    Rick Kurianowicz

  3. Amos Annan, November 20, 2012 at 6:33 p.m.

    Wrong - what I have witnessed is referees getting nervous and over-reacting in the
    "big" game. Too often they do not show restraint and lack good judgement.

    In youth soccer the championship game is often at the end of a long weekend where the officials are tired and irritable.

    Better yet, soccer should change the rules so that teams do not play a man short just because a referee makes a mistake.

  4. Chris Sapien , November 20, 2012 at 8:29 p.m.

    If the word "Differently" means you do so consciously, then NO! But every good ref knows you do everything possible to prepare to referee a match between two sides by gathering info regarding competative history, likelihood of occurrence for rough play/retaliation, what currently is their team make-up etc.etc.......You have to be diligent to the task even before you pull up your socks for championship matches! Fouls are fouls, and any advantage for an attacking team is always considered, and the means to apply advantage is at the refs discretion, so I don't buy into the whole "flow" of the game argument. Let's not for one minute forget that "Commentators" are there to enhance the viewers enjoyment and understanding with their experience and insight, and that it serves the commentators future well to be somewhat flamboyant or controversial......Those are the last people referees concern themselves with! Bottom line is, Referees know this one thing going into high profile games, "Half the players & fans are going to say you're great, and the other half will say you suck" Unless there is a draw...then all bets are off.

  5. Kent James, November 20, 2012 at 8:55 p.m.

    This column is on the mark with the exception that Chris Sapien points out in that for a championship game, the referee crew would certainly be more aware of the history of the teams and the tendencies of the players (which opens up an whole new can of worms), more so than in an U-12 league game. But the general thrust; that all games are important and referees should do their best, and that special allowances should not be made (hesitating to eject a star player because of a sending off offense, e.g.) because it is a championship game is correct. Although I don't watch a lot of hockey, I've heard many analysts speak of "playoff hockey" where the referees call fewer penalties so that "the players can decide the game", and some people seem to suggest the same should hold true in soccer. I disagree. Referees should be as consistent as possible. While no one wants to have a referee try to grab the limelight by calling a lot of unnecessary fouls, swallowing the whistle to allow the game "to flow" can have the opposite effect as players realize what they can get away with, and the game degenerates into a thugfest. If the players want to play, but all means, the referee should let them. But if players are trying to gain an advantage by violating the rules, it's the refs job to enforce them, so that the players who want to play are able to do so.

  6. Chris Sapien , November 20, 2012 at 10:04 p.m.

    Hey Kent, Think you missed my point entirely, and concluded something entirely different. Part of pregame for a referee team is to know prior to a match if there are variables that for the safety of all involved they should be aware of and share amongst themselves. (the teams "competative history" against each other to clarify my meaning is one you might be interested in) In the article even Howard Webb aluded to "sensed the players were under a lot of pressure", and "we wanted to be that steadying hand...". That type of recognition is part of pregame preparation for a referee team in my opinion. Everygame consists of mini-battles throughout the match, and you need to know what to look towards to keep escalation to a minimum. I never mention the word tendencies nor inferred that you should treat (referee ?)a championship game differently! Actually I said the oposite with my emphatic "NO". Benjamin Franklin said, "Those who fail to prepare, are preparing to fail"! No can of worms for me there.

  7. Kent James, November 21, 2012 at 11:55 a.m.

    Chris, maybe you misunderstood the somewhat ambiguous wording of my first sentence? I was trying to say that while there should be no difference in how a game is refereed during the game itself, the crew will do more pre-game preparation for a championship game than they would for your run of the mill youth league game. I was trying to say that I agreed with your additional point (about the more extensive game preparation) to the original column. My point about the tendencies of the players is that part of the game preparation would be to know the players; which players tend to be more physical, who dives, who tries to game the ref, who tries to instigate stuff, etc. How you use that information during the game (championship or other) is what is somewhat controversial (should the referee consider the history of a player who likes to dive when he goes down in the box, or should the referee treat each player exactly the same?), but I was recognizing that that is a different issue. So I thought I understood your point and was trying to agree with it.

  8. Chris Sapien , November 21, 2012 at 12:31 p.m.

    Kent, thanks for taking the time to reply. You are absolutely right on all your points, including your first sentence being ambiguous. That's cool though, I try not to fly off the handle with my posts. Your use of "exception" DID make it sound like you were disagreeing.....Anyway, we are on the same page regarding you want to know everything necessary to control the "unexpected" during a championship match. One thing for sure if I was part of the referee team, is that I wouldn't reveal to anyone for instance, that hey "we know Nigel de Jong likes to wreckless/violent tackle the other team's dangerous players through the midfield, so we are going to watch him like a hawk". So, yes, I agree with you, if you lead on to that or something similar, you open a can of worms as you said.

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