Refereeing without guesswork. Maybe.

By Paul Gardner

We now have PRO, the Professional Referees Organization, which is supposed to bring about significant improvements in the standard of MLS refereeing. We await developments on that front. In the meantime, PRO is giving us a spiffy website ( that includes a “Play of the Week” section that explains unusual or controversial calls from MLS games. Something I always find interesting -- if only because I don’t think referees do nearly enough explaining.

Mind you, I do believe that things are changing. There is quite a lot of evidence that the old attitude -- that referees are not obliged to explain their calls -- is crumbling. Referees may not yet grant coaches and players and fans and journalists a “right to know,” but I find them much more open and willing to discuss their actions than used to be the case.

Television, of course, with its endless slo-mo replays, has made the huge difference. Thus, the PRO website can make use of excellent video clips to make its points. Another plus for the “Call of the Week” is that it has already included an example where the referee was adjudged to have got his call wrong. How long that sort of honesty will last, who knows.

The latest example (the assistant referee gets it right) is taken from the April 20 Dallas vs. Vancouver game. It hinges not so much on the specifics of an incident, but on general refereeing attitudes. One of those goal-line incidents where the ball was hooked away -- but had crossed the line. Paul Rejer, PRO’s training and development manager, pointing out that the assistant referee was in perfect position, on the goal line, to make the call and confirm the goal, has this to say: “If the AR is in any other position, apart from the goal-line, he will not be able to make the call. Instead, he would have to take a guess, and we instruct officials never to do that -- only give what you see is the message.”

Now that sounds sensible and, really, indisputable. But is it?

In the example given, the referee faces three possibilities: he saw the ball cross the line; or he saw that the ball did not cross the line; or he’s uncertain. The third situation is the tricky one. Rejer, and no doubt virtually all referees would agree with him, is advising “when in doubt, do nothing.”

Except that “doing nothing” is not an option here. By choosing not to make a call, the referee is making a decision. And once again, as far too often in refereeing, it is a decision that favors defensive play.

Why, when the referee cannot say with certainty “what he saw” (that is the ostensibly reasonable criterion cited by Rejer) should he make a negative no-goal call? Because he did not see that the ball was definitely over the line? OK, but he is in doubt, which means that he also did not see that the ball was not over the line.

Either decision -- to award a goal, or to do nothing -- violates Rejer’s dictum that the referee should only call what he has seen. There is no middle ground here. By choosing to do nothing, the referee is, in fact, saying that he did see that the ball was not over the line. Charitably put, that is a guess.

It is, of course, precisely these impossible moments that have led to the birth of Goal Line Technology. GLT will, in theory, relieve referees of the onus of having to make questionable and negative calls when they’re not clear in their own minds exactly what happened.

But the “don’t guess” advice has wide implications. I can be sure that it is widely ignored when we come to the vexed question of simulation. Diving. I know from my own research, and because I have been following and analyzing diving calls ever since the current war on the alleged divers started, that at least 50 percent of these calls are either flat-out wrong, or dubious to an extent that they should not have been made.

Simulation calls present an acute problem for referees, because there is an almost personal element to them. When there is simulation -- obvious simulation -- the diver is deliberately trying to deceive the referee. No one likes being conned, so it’s understandable that a referee will be quick to punish a player who, in his opinion, is trying to make a fool of him in a crowded stadium.

Which leads to referees guessing ... guessing that there was no contact. Far too often the replays show that there was indeed contact -- not necessarily massive, but enough to bring a player down. The referee has guessed, he has got it wrong. He has called a non-existent foul, he has tagged an innocent player as a cheat, and he has failed to punish the real foul. And once again, he has favored defensive play.

I have immense sympathy for referees and the complications of their work. I find most complaints made against referees by players and coaches trivial, often worthless because based on ignorance of the rules, and usually biased. But on this question of simulation I’m allowing the referees no slack at all, because far too often they get it wrong, badly wrong -- and they’re getting it wrong because they’re allowing simulation to get to them as a personal affront, and -- please note Paul Rejer -- they’re guessing.

It is a most curious reality that eye-witnesses quite often give the most unreliable sort of evidence. Dangerous evidence, because it is assumed that an eye-witness must be telling the truth. After all, he’s not guessing, he saw.

“Don’t guess”, and “only give what you see” are honorable guidelines. But they need help. I don’t think soccer refereeing would be possible without a certain amount of guessing. But the guessing should be -- and usually is -- educated, expert, and unbiased guessing. So expert, in fact, that it’s excusable to call it something less opprobrious. Understanding, perhaps. The sort of thing that an experienced referee feels, knows instinctively, when he can’t be sure he’s seen. I’d rate it a key skill in the make-up of a good referee.

15 comments about "Refereeing without guesswork. Maybe.".
  1. feliks fuksman, May 1, 2013 at 6:24 a.m.

    Is it necessary to insult when you disagree with an opinion, or someone's article, etc?
    Paul, interesting and controversial article as always. I like and agree strongly with your last paragraph about the instincts and feel of someone experienced.
    Nevertheless, as a former referee, I never took diving or simulation as a personal affront but rather as someone trying to cheat the game; moreover, there are plenty of defensive players who also try to simulate a foul when they get in to trouble and try to get out of it by diving, or making up something.

  2. Kent James, May 1, 2013 at 8:42 a.m.

    Paul, you just gave a great example as to why referees should not guess (diving): a card should be given only if the referee is sure the player is diving. I'm also a former referee, and Feliks is right about viewing diving as someone trying to cheat the game, not a personal affront. Another example along those lines is dissent; if I'm sure about a call, I could care less how much a player disagreed with me. And when I became a referee, I was determined to punish things that mattered (physical fouls) and ignore stuff that didn't (dissent), because as a player, I've always been bothered by referees who give cards for dissent but not hard fouls. But I quickly realized that while the dissent did not bother me, by not clamping down on it, it can grow and players start to focus on the referee and fouling can become a competitive sport. So it is necessary to shut down dissent for the good of the game. Diving is the same; even if I am not personally offended by a player trying to deceive me, if I let him get away with it, others will join in and the game can get out of hand (and defenders will adopt the attitude that since they're being called for fouls that they don't commit anyway, they may as well commit a real foul...).

  3. Charles O'Cain, May 1, 2013 at 9:13 a.m.

    It is the unquestionable bias of Mr Gardner that referees are anti-offense in their "war" on diving, based on his "research" and analysis. The value of that "research" is also questionable because of that bias. All contact is not foul play, and foul play certainly occurs without contact, so this distinction is largely without meaning when deciding the issue of simulation. So his assertion that "at least 50 percent" of these calls are incorrect must be suspect. Has he also analyzed penalty kicks awarded to see what percentage of these might have been in error? I too have "immense sympathy" (though would prefer to term it "respect") for referees and their willingness to honestly guide play through application of the laws within the bounds of human performance and perception, and accept that my own ability to perceive (though enhanced by slow motion replay) is also limited.These perceptions lead to judgements (or "guesses" if you prefer), not to be confused with "The Truth". I also respect the willingness of the players to perform honestly, and accept that they will make mistakes. We would not want dishonest referees, and should not want dishonest play. We see much more of the latter.

  4. Michael Saunders, May 1, 2013 at 9:52 a.m.

    I must remind myself Paul that you like stirring things up whenever I read your articles regarding what are invariably controversal situations. This is particularly the case whenever you write about refereeing. In this instance, your inferences on "decision making" by an official to automatically favor the defense fails the logic litmus test as Charles states so well. Put it another way, if we follow your rationale, if an official is "not sure" he should rule in favor of the offense. Wow! I could only imagine the discussions we would have if that guideline was followed.

  5. Andrew Bermant, May 1, 2013 at 9:56 a.m.

    Mr. Gardner, there are many instances when, in fact, not guessing, works to the favor of the attacking team: offsides, handling etc.

  6. Millwall America, May 1, 2013 at 11:25 a.m.

    How many times do you have to be told, Paul? "Contact" is not the same as "foul". You appear to be operating under the assumption that simulation only occurs if someone goes to ground when they haven't been touched. This is incorrect. I'm rather surprised -- your own statement suggests that all of your "analysis" and "research" is completely useless. How could you analyze and research simulation when you don't even know what it is?

  7. Ramon Creager, May 1, 2013 at 12:21 p.m.

    As a former ref, I don't see eye-to-eye with this column. There is a reasoning fallacy here: that not giving something because you were uncertain is just as positively a choice as "doing something". These are not symmetrical. We can only affirm what we can be sure of, and that's what we have to hang our hat on (i.e. don't ask me to prove a negative). Ironically this is why I agree with Mr. Gardner on simulation. I can't know for certain that something was simulation. Perhaps the player went down because of contact, but the contact was not foul. That doesn't mean the player that went down did something wrong. Maybe the contact did cause him to go down. Maybe he was trying to protect himself from injury instead of "fighting through" the contact. Just don't make a call it it wasn't a fou. I never once cautioned for simulation. On the goal line stuff, again: if you don't see it, you don't give it. Simple. The PRO example shows how it should work, but the AR is rarely in position to make that call. I believe the AAR system does have the potential to work because the AAR can almost always be in position.

  8. Millwall America, May 1, 2013 at 1:50 p.m.

    Ramon, in many cases you can actually know with great certainty whether a player is simulating. There have been academic/scientific studies that demonstrate that soccer players fall to the ground differently when they are diving versus when they genuinely fall. Certain types of diving (most notoriously the "Archer's Bow") actually go against the body's instinctive attempts to protect itself during a fall and can *only* be done intentionally. That's just one example; there are other visual cues a good referee can use to spot simulation.

  9. Ramon Creager, May 1, 2013 at 2:18 p.m.

    Millwall America, here's the thing. There are two possible outcomes when a player simulates: it works, or it doesn't. If it works, then the ref was fooled and he's never going to give the deserved yellow anyway. If it doesn't, then there was no harm anyway, and the risk of cautioning a player just for going down "too easily" is way too high. I've seen, *especially* in the EPL but also in the UCL and Europa League, way too many cards given for simulation when even in slo-mo there did not seem to be simulation. And often the contact *did* look like a foul. The error rate I've seen is simply too high; and ironically that's probably because many refs just don't call it at all, and those who do are the ones predisposed to see it. If you really think you must punish simulation to deter it then punish after the fact, when you have incontrovertible video evidence to go on. (Of course that opens a new can of worms...)

  10. Ramon Creager, May 1, 2013 at 2:34 p.m.

    It's worth bringing something up about contact and fouls. You hear all the time that "not all contact is a foul", and that is true. But contact is not a precondition for a foul to be called. Here is one passage from Guidelines on Law 12: "Any player who lunges at an opponent in challenging for the ball from the front, from the side of from behind using one or both legs, with excessive force and endangering the safety of an opponent is guilty of serious foul play." No mention of contact. So, for example, say an attacking player is bearing down on the box, and a defender executes such a lunge. The attacker, seeing this, jumps to avoid the contact, but in doing so loses control of the ball and himself falls to the ground. No contact, so: simulation? No. Foul? You bet. (And to be fair to defenders everywhere, a Madrid *defender* was the victim of a flying lunge in his own end in yesterday's UCL semifinal. Howard Webb, of course, didn't see anything wrong with the play.)

  11. ROBERT BOND, May 1, 2013 at 2:46 p.m.

    And Manzukich got jobbed by a Spanish ref-still, what keeps it simple is to treat the refs as a variable that needs to be played through, like the weather, remembering most refs were not particularly good footballers.

  12. Millwall America, May 1, 2013 at 5:44 p.m.

    Ramon, I'm impressed that you've seen way too many cards given for simulation in the EPL, since the league only has around 20 simulation calls a season (that's one card for simulation every 19 games -- so you must watch a lot of football). In the 2010-2011 EPL season there was a grand total of 8(!)simulation calls made over the entire season. How many of those 8 calls do you reckon were undeserved? Do you really believe there were only 8 dives made during the entire 380 game EPL season? Here's the thing -- an infringement that is called once every 19 games is hardly being called too often, unless of course you're Paul Gardner.

  13. Charles O'Cain, May 1, 2013 at 9:32 p.m.

    I'm with Millwall. I do watch a lot of football (but can there be too much?), and I see much more simulation than cautions for same (I would estimate 10-15:1 ratio). Players clutching the face when replays show absolutely no contact with that part of the body represent a clear effort to have the opposing player sent off ... dishonest and worthy of retrospective punishment. Multiple tumbling rolls with screaming and contortions after minimal or no contact ... at the very least gross exaggeration (and thus simulation) are par for the course both in the European continental leagues and (to a lesser degree, thankfully) the EPL. Of course there are serious fouls which are missed as well, but rarely if ever intentionally ignored by the referee, and thus "honest" mistakes. Truly malicious intentional fouls (a la Stoichkov or Keane) are very rare.

  14. Kent James, May 1, 2013 at 10:59 p.m.

    Ramon, you're right that unless a ref is sure about a simulation, he shouldn't give a card. But I disagree that you can't tell if a player simulates (Millwall's point about the unnatural falls is brilliant; the "archer's bow"--never heard that expression before but I know exactly what it describes). There will certainly be times when it is hard to tell if a player is making up a foul, and in that case, you should give the benefit of the doubt to the player and not give a card. And you're absolutely right that an attempt to foul (the bone crushing tackle that the player jumps to avoid) should be called as the foul that it is. But failing to stop simulation leads to disrespect for the ref and the rules of the game, and can lead to a more violent game. This is where I wish PG would understand that simulating fouls contributes to the violent tackles he so frequently (and rightly) rails about. Additionally, failure to card simulation in the penalty area means that there is no down side to a player trying to "win" a penalty kick. Players should focus on playing the game, not gaming the ref. Anything the refs can do to encourage them to retain that focus should be done.

  15. tom brown, May 6, 2013 at 4:28 p.m.

    MLS is a cesspool of corruption under Don Garber. Virtually every game is fixed where referees get guidelines to deliver results. Fans are oblivious to this dire situation. I turn on the tv & within 2 minutes I can see who is fixing for whom. It is blatantly done & if Garber continues in charge MLS will never recover. Once fans become aware MLS will be abandoned. Its a stupid move on a slippery slope. & for what? They are risking their integrity for stupid reasons. Petty & pitiful. GET GARBER OUT!

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