Referees: Soccer's Secret Society (Part 1)

By Paul Gardner

There is a decidedly non-vital, unimportant area of soccer about which we know far too much: the private lives of the players, their girlfriends, their hairstyles, their favorite television programs, foods, colors and much, much more of similar bilge.

Compare that to a vital area of the game, refereeing. About which we do not know nearly enough. Secrecy, even deviousness, pervades the profession of refereeing. An atmosphere has been built up over the years that what referees do and how they do it is knowledge that is to be kept “in house.” The general public is not to be allowed to know what is going on.

On general principles, one can see why referees like it that way. For the same reason that any monopoly group bars outsiders, assumes an air of superiority, formulates complex regulations, and invents hard-to-follow terminology.

All of those tricks are designed to make it difficult for the layman to understand what is happening, and easier for the in-group to assume an air of patronizing superiority.

Up until, say, 10 years, certainly 20 years ago, what I have just written would have been an accurate picture of referees and refereeing attitudes. Today, it is an exaggeration. Things are getting better. Referees have descended from their Ivory Tower ... but not all the way. They’re only about halfway down to getting their feet firmly on the ground. I make that exaggeration to emphasize that the traditional attitude of secrecy is still very much a part of every aspect of soccer refereeing.

It now represents the worst type of influence on behavior. It is so entrenched that the very people who practice it are genuinely unaware that they are doing so.

Secrecy is never a good thing when practiced by organizations that make their living (as most do) by dealing with the public. From governments to politicians to major business corporations, judges and lawyers ... if those people are caught not telling all, the public is absolutely right to suspect that something fishy is going on, something is being hidden.

The very top level of soccer -- FIFA itself -- has lately got itself into all sorts of trouble because it has allowed murky financial and political activities, without them being exposed to the light of public scrutiny. We await to see how effective FIFA’s anti-corruption campaign will be. While we wait, we can reflect that the response to the scandals has been excellent in one area, for sure: Vocabulary. The word “transparency” -- the precise enemy of secrecy -- has risen to the top of the soccer buzz-word category. At least as far as FIFA and soccer administration are concerned.

The regrettable thing is that transparency seems unable to gain a foothold in refereeing. Wherever you turn in referee matters, you run into examples of secret practices. Mostly these are designed to withhold information from the public. But occasionally, they work the other way round, and the referees become the ones who are denied knowledge they should have. That’s the way it is when secrecy takes hold. Its practice becomes a habit -- a very bad one, that is not fussy about its victims.

As far as I can tell, this assumption of superiority by referees arrived in England in the late 19th century when professional teams began to dominate the sport. That there was an element of class snobbery involved cannot be doubted.

For the first dozen or so years of its existence, the sport was a middle, even upper-class game. Sportsmanship was highly valued. Each team appointed a judge or umpire to call the fouls. If they didn’t agree on a call, the matter was referred to an avowedly neutral guy (hence the term refer-ee), and his decision was accepted without further ado.

That all changed when pros entered the sport in the 1890s and quickly showed they were vastly superior to the amateurs who had dominated up till then. The pros were, of course, decidedly working class. Their ideals were not the same as those of the gentlemen amateurs. The referees remained middle class. A divide emerged. No use talking to these new pros, they didn’t understand the sporting concepts of the gentlemen.

In that period was born the superior (and certainly, he was likely to be much better educated) referee who now simply made rulings that the lowly players were supposed to simply obey without question.

Those who wonder at my persistent objection to the fatuous use of the word “laws” to describe the rules of the game, might consider how this decidedly upper-class word came to be used almost as a way of intimidating the new pro players (who were working class and therefore, as everyone knew, quite likely to be in need of the threat of “the law” to get them to obey the rules).

The game in England developed quickly as a working-class sport. Many of the club owners were from the working class, though they were likely to be those who had made money in business. The players were virtually 100% from the working class. They continued to be treated as inferior beings. Their pay was ludicrous, the contracts under which they played were of feudal harshness.

In the 1970s when television entered the sport, and players’ salaries zoomed upward, and everything changed. Almost everything. For the middle-class referees and their patrician attitude, superiority and secrecy remained. They were supported by the authorities. The mere idea of referees letting anyone know what they were doing, or why, was still out of the question.

This is the wording of a UEFA memorandum to referees in 1977: “No gestures. In numerous cases one sees too many gestures of any kind or particularly theatrical behavior of the referees.” That followed the line emphasized by FIFA earlier in the decade when it had advised that “It is not the duty of the referee nor is it a useful function to explain his decisions to the players or spectators. Any attempt to do so can lead to confusion, uncertainty and delay."

What an extraordinary statement that is -- because there were not, to my knowledge, many -- if any -- critics who were calling for referees to explain their calls. What was wanted was a definition of the call. What had been called -- the why could wait for later.

This business of referees not being obliged to define their calls is really at the center of the secrecy that envelops so much else in their world. Next time, I’ll take a look at the negative effects that this outdated -- indeed, anti-modern -- attitude has on refereeing in general.
2 comments about "Referees: Soccer's Secret Society (Part 1)".
  1. Kent James, May 24, 2014 at 6:11 p.m.

    Now I understand your obsession with the word "laws". I never knew the class issues associated with refereeing, so thanks for that. I agree that transparency (and some referee signals) help people better understand the game. And in order for people to play fairly, people need to understand what the rules are and how they are interpreted. Publicly explaining calls would also help us more towards consistency, the lack of which is a common complaint.

  2. Webmaster, May 25, 2014 at 12:47 p.m.

    +1 ~ No "Secrets" in the Ken Aston Referee Society! ~ Join and or visit for FREE... See you on 'The Pitch'! CHEERS!!!

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