Commentary

More officials do not necessarily mean less mistakes by officials

By Ahmet Guvener

It is a well acknowledged fact that soccer has the fewest number of officials per square feet in any team sport may be with the exception of rugby. If one follows the history of Laws of the Game one can clearly see the transition from the linesman -- whose sole duty was to indicate that the ball was out or not and the direction -- to the Assistant Referees with more appropriate job definitions. Later on we saw the fourth officials, then the additional assistant referees and very soon we will see the visual assistant referees (VAR). Along with those the use of technology like the Goal Line Technology (GLT) and communication devices used by officials was introduced. I even consider the spray used to indicate the 10 yards as the use of technology.  Let us not forget we are just talking about the professional game where billions of dollars are being spent on teams. In grassroots and amateur soccer, we sometimes can hardly find fourth officials let alone the use of sprays and others.

All these were introduced with the hope that there will be less match-critical mistakes in a game. Match-critical incidents are incidents which change or might change the outcome of the game like goals, red/yellow cards and penalty kicks. Referees making clear match-critical mistakes are reprimanded seriously by their observers. I do not understand why team owners, coaches and fans can forgive and understand match critical mistakes made by players but not those made by officials. Well this is not the topic of this article.

The new Laws of the Game changed the title of Law 4 from the Assistant Referees to Additional Match Officials. Now Law 4 talks about the Assistant Referees, the Fourth Official, the reserve Assistant Referee and the Additional Assistant Referees (AAR). It will not be surprising to see Video Assistant Referee (VAR) in the near future. The IFAB has given permission for VARs to be used in trials, including by MLS. This side of the Atlantic knows very little of the AAR. AAR is the result of the tug of war between Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini. Blatter, the former FIFA president, was in favor GLT whereas Platini, the ex-UEFA boss, favored AARs. GLT is extremely expensive; $250,000 for installation in one stadium. For a decision -- goal or not -- that occurs in a very small percentage of the games, $250,000 is a lot of money. For example, MLS refused to use GLT. The alternative was to put an official on the goal line to act as a “goal judge.” That is how the concept of AAR was developed.

The AARs are being used in UEFA-sanctioned tournaments like Euro 2016 and the Champions League. One did not see AARs in any other continent. Only two major leagues used AARs in Europe, the Italia Serie A and the Turkish Super League. This year the Turkish federation decided not to use AARs. The AARs are selected from the core of referees and not the assistant referees since they are expected to be more than a “goal judge.” They are expected to help the referee with some match critical decisions in the penalty area like a penalty kick or disallowing a goal for a foul. This is where the system starts to crack down.

Soccer is also the only team sport -- except rugby again -- where the referee has the final say and is the only boss on the field. So when you have two AARs making match critical decisions on the field, they better be as qualified as the referee in making those decisions. So if you watch Champions League games, you will see FIFA referees as AARs. It is easier to find qualified AARs -- FIFA referees -- from the same federation for the Champion League games. There are a maximum of 10 FIFA referees in any country. For national league games, it is very difficult to assign nine games in one weekend with qualified AARs. The less experienced AAR usually doesn’t have the self-confidence -- against the back drop of, let us say, a FIFA referee -- and does not help the referee on a match-critical incident. The referee who has an AAR on the goal line concentrates at other parts of the field and hence also misses the match-critical incident. Sometimes the less experienced AAR wants to become a hero and makes a very controversial and usually incorrect match critical decision. Either way having two extra pair of eyes on the field in the case of soccer does not always imply less number of mistakes. That is the reason why the Turkish federation decided not to use AARs in the Super League this year.

For the referee and AAR system to work harmoniously, you need the same team working together for a long period of time. For that reason, I was expecting that the AARs will phase out in a number of years considering that Platini was out of office although one of AARs greatest supporter, Italian Pierluigi Collina, is still the head of refereeing in UEFA and the Asian Football Confederation referees committee proposed that additional assistant referees should be introduced in the AFC Asian Cup 2019 and the AFC’s top club competitions.” To be honest, this decision startled me.

Introducing more officials does not necessarily bring in better decisions in soccer as I said earlier it might cause problems in national leagues. But how about the use of “instant replay”? After nearly all the team sports started using “instant replay,” IFAB and FIFA couldn’t resist the change. Instant replay and VARs will be in our lives shortly. The instant replay in soccer will be for some match-critical incidents and will be not be initiated by coaches like in other sports. The success of instant replay relies heavily on the quality of broadcast, especially directing. The broadcasts of some of the MLS games do not give me too much hope for a successful implementation of “instant replay” in USA. C’est la vie. Soccer is a game of mistakes whether the mistakes are made by owners, coaches, players, officials or directors of broadcasters. It makes no difference. You cannot remove the mistakes from the game completely.

Ahmet Guvener (ahmet@ahmetguvener.com) is the former Secretary General and the Technical Director of Turkish FA. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in Austin, Texas.

11 comments about "More officials do not necessarily mean less mistakes by officials".
  1. Bob Ashpole, October 10, 2016 at 11:53 a.m.

    Good article on an interesting topic.

  2. Victor Mathseon, October 12, 2016 at 4:01 p.m.

    When US Soccer experimented with a 2 whistle, 2 AR, 1 4th official system during the Open Cup in roughly 2000 or 2001, it was also generally not considered an improvement. (Or at least I would guess that was the case since they didn't repeat the experiment the next year.

  3. ROBERT BOND, October 12, 2016 at 4:11 p.m.

    tell my kids, like the weather, nothing you can do......bad refs, play harder or quit-my job to get them to do former....

  4. Tibor Polgar, October 12, 2016 at 4:50 p.m.

    Law 6 defines the duties, mechanics and responsibilities of The Other Match Officials, not Law 4 with is about Player Equipment.

  5. Daniel Ellis, October 12, 2016 at 5:10 p.m.

    RIP Harambe

  6. Jay Wall, October 12, 2016 at 5:37 p.m.

    Dr. Arthur Seiderman, author of "The Athletic Eye" in 1984, the authorative text on vision training in sports, that went on to be used by professional and olympic sports teams worldwide was also retained to do a comprehensive study of referees in team sports played in the United States.

    That study found that over 20% of referees do not have 20-20 visual acuity (vision) and among those that wear glasses most don't wear them in games to avoid any hint they may not have perfect vision. The study also found that just over 30% lack the visual processing ability to call any game correctly.

    Players, coaches and referees should all be screened for vision and visual processing issues that can be corrected. Sreening and training for depth perception, near far vision, short term visual memory, long term visual memory, scan rate (dynamic acuity), color deficiency and tinted lens correction, and eye muscles and teaming (eyes working together) should all be done.

    Technology at the highest professional level with billions being spent makes sense. But for grassroots soccer a simple vision screening can even be done online to screen all and then refer those who exhibit vision, visual processing or color deficiency problems to a developmental vision specialist.

    Introducing more match officials unless their vision is properly vetted makes no sense at all, espacially given the low cost of an initial online screening to identify those who need a vision exam, visual processing exam and/or color deficiency screening.

    As a side note, the biggest visual error by the average person, including coaches, players and referees, is to fixate on the ball or player in possession 54 seconds a minute and to only scan for teammates, opponents and spaces 4 times a minute for 6 seconds.

    Simple scan rate training done online, in a moving vehicle going to/from practice and with a slight modification to existing practice exercises can improve youth players with the best learning to scan up to a best of 26 times a minute and to only fixate on the ball for 34 seconds.

  7. Bob Ashpole, October 12, 2016 at 7:32 p.m.

    Being a longtime myopic contact wearer myself, I have long suspected that a lot of amateur player problems with first touch, passing choices and timing of runs off the ball were vision related. I have even suggested to youth coaches that they consider vision impairment as a possible factor when assessing their players.

  8. Ahmet Guvener, October 12, 2016 at 8:35 p.m.

    Correct it should be Law 6. My typo...Thanks

  9. beautiful game, October 12, 2016 at 9:54 p.m.

    I don't see the relevance of this article. The Referee, ARs and Fourth Official have certain responsibilities in order to enforce the laws of the game. What is and should be enforced has become a game of cat and mouse between the players and officials. The latter are extremely derelict in enforcing the rules on the pitch. It's as if too many whistles or yellow cards will damage the energy of the sport. In actuality their peevishness is the root cause of players hubris.

  10. Kent James, October 12, 2016 at 11:30 p.m.

    Good topic for an article, with some good information, but I have a grammar quibble (which is ironic, given the context). "More referees do not necessarily mean FEWER mistakes" (instead of 'less mistakes'), but I agree with the observation. The job of the AAR on the goal line is particularly difficult; you don't do anything most of the time, then suddenly you are required to make a game critical decision (and it may be the only decision you make), since fouls in the box are often that type. I think it makes more sense to use video review (rather than goal line technology)because it is cheaper and more versatile (could be used to review all game critical calls; red cards, and goals, maybe yellow cards as well (or some yellow cards). With too many officials, you may get the 'bystander' effect, where everyone assumes someone else will call it.

  11. Bob Ashpole replied, October 13, 2016 at 1:21 a.m.

    I find the ground shaky under my comments about writing, but I would like to point out that this is not an issue of grammar or style, but rather usage. (I had to check 3 dictionaries and 1 article before risking this public comment). The issue is one of usage, rather than grammar or style. Since the author's meaning is clear I don't see any reason to criticize him for failing to follow a conventional usage of less (and fewer) even if some would teach it as a rule of grammar. :)

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