This trip to the sideline cannot be exactly welcome for him. He is being asked to check his own call, as it may not be correct. Next, he presses a hand to his ear, making sure that we know that the VAR as asked him (maybe it’s “told” him) to take a look.
We wait. The TV viewing takes some seconds. Then our referee trots back to the center of the field to give the decision we’ve been waiting for.
We must wait a little longer. The ref is now drawing another phantom rectangle. Presumably to make it quite clear (though why should we be in any doubt?) that the decision we’ve been waiting for comes from TV evidence.
Here it comes ... usually it consists of an outstretched arm and a decisive pointing gesture. Meaning, maybe, that the original decision was correct, or maybe reversing it, or adding or subtracting a yellow or red card to the incident.
Plenty of options, then, and the referees seem to be at some pains to make sure that we, the spectators, understand what’s going on.
That the referees look awkward, even a little sheepish, with this new activity, should not be a surprise. I suppose that we shall get used to it. But I think it will take quite an effort from the referees before they themselves look comfortable in their new role of letting everyone know what they’re up to.
Secrecy has been a watchword for referees for over a hundred years now. In 1896 the English Football Association published the first “Referee’s Chart,” which made things clear: the referee, just that one man, had total control of everything that happened on the field during a game. When Sir Stanley Rous published his history of the rules in 1974, he commented that such sweeping authority meant that the referee “was under no necessity to explain his decision.”
Rous was a tremendous force in the development of the rules: he invented the diagonal system of refereeing, and was responsible for a massive re-write of the rules in 1938, giving them the basic “17-rule” format that they retain to this day.
Less positive was his view of allowing referees to use signals identifying their calls. He breezily dismissed the idea: “I do not want my referees looking like windmills.”
Rous’s opinion carried tremendous weight, and undoubtedly bolstered an already-existing feeling that it was somehow demeaning to ask referees to use signals.
But progress and modernity have been persistently chipping away at that archaic mind set. FIFA at last blinked in the 1970s. Its Referees Committee issued a Memorandum dealing with “Signals by the Referee and Linesmen.” It stated, severely, that “the referee has no need of signals beyond those few already in use.” There were just seven such signals. Photos of all seven were included: indirect free kick, direct free kick, penalty kick, goal kick, corner kick, plus advantage, and the showing of a red or yellow card.
All, obviously, involved the arms. But there was not a hint of any windmill activity. Five of the seven featured a stiff arm simply pointing. Referees are rather good at pointing. One had an upraised -- stiff -- arm holding a card, while the advantage signal used both arms with a slight movement.
But FIFA was obviously scared that it might be opening the flood gates. It warned sternly: “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.” That fear-of-windmills bias was still alive and kicking as official policy in 1997 when UEFA issued an “Instruction to Referees” memo stating: “In numerous cases one sees too many gestures of any kind or particularly theatrical behavior of the referees.”
But holding such a “no-disclosure” line in an era when transparency has become an essential FIFA word has proved problematic. So where does FIFA stand now on the matter of signals? There are now signals that can be considered official -- they appear in the rules. And they are exactly the ones mentioned above, that first appeared in the 1970s (with one minor change --the advantage signal may now be given using only one arm).
In short, not much has changed in 40 years. Referees continue to nurture a closed culture of secrecy (though less arrogantly than in the good old days) and the authorities -- FIFA, that is -- evidently support them.
Searching for an explanation, this is the best I can come up with: Referees fear that if they let fans and spectators -- and, yikes!, journalists -- into their secrets, they will somehow lose their authority. Either that, or it’s simply mulish resistance to any change in an approach that has served, apparently well, for a century.
Back in 1977, I wrote my first SoccerTalk column. Followed quickly by column No. 2, which was titled “Let’s Hear It from the Referees” and in which I suggested that soccer needed a comprehensive system of official signals -- pointing out that college soccer already had such a system with 19 signals that worked pretty well.
In 2000, when I became a columnist for the English magazine World Soccer, my first column was “Wanted: some clear signals for all to see.” So, I’ve been pressing this point for some 40 years now. Without much success, obviously. Whenever I bring the matter up with referees (something I’ve done dozens of times), they agree, it’s a good idea. But nothing ever gets done.
But ... now here comes VAR and these almost, but not quite, windmill arms gestures. As it happens, I don’t like them. But they do serve to highlight the fact that FIFA is being overtaken by events. Technology has taken the lead, it comes with its own needs and systems. Signals being one of the needs.
FIFA, as the soccer influence, should be in there helping to develop sensible signals. It is not. In the case of VAR, what we should have is the referee calling for a timeout while he checks the monitor. So the official time-keeper (who happens to be the referee) should stop the clock (which he never does and is not authorized to do).
In other words, we enter into a whole area -- not just signals, but time-keeping too -- which needs to be thought over. A task for soccer minds. But it is abundantly clear that FIFA -- and its satellite IFAB -- are not equipped for the job. The notion that signals are an encumbrance still rules: for the referee, it is still “not a useful function to explain his decisions to the players or spectators.”
The ironic thing in that statement, used as an argument against referee signals, is that it is now, and always has been, a misunderstanding. That word “explain” is quite wrong. Signals are necessary to identify a referee’s calls. Not to explain them. Some sort of explanation for a baffling call might be expected to follow -- but later. After the game. But even there, referees would rather not face any questions. In fact, we rarely hear from them at all.
This mindset of closed lips and closed minds is one that, in 2018, should really be ridiculed out of existence -- in this country, of all countries, where excellent, clear, referee signals are used in all pro sports.
The development of soccer -- in particular, making sure that it keeps up with the times, and is not taken over by the modern marketeers and techno-wizards -- is greatly hindered when one of its crucial groups, the referees, still pay homage to a mindset that dates back to the Victorian era when the lower classes (in those days, that certainly included pro soccer players) were expected to do what they were told and then shut up.
In the earliest, truly Victorian days, of the sport, it was written into the rules that “a player may enquire from the referee as to his decision.” But that was before the arrival of the rough-and-ready pro players. In 1935 that clause was abolished. It had been a “privilege” said IFAB, but it was being treated now as a right, and was being abused.
How’s that for a sturdily patronizing approach? It fits in well with the almost feudal insistence of the referees that the rules that they administer must be called Laws, with a capital L. How on earth of have American referees, who live in a country where sports have rules, not Laws, allowed themselves to be cajoled into that absurd usage?
This is soccer-cringe at its most brainless. It would be nice -- and eminently proper -- for American referees, with their American attitudes, to drag their colleagues into modernity. They could at least try. They might ponder the fact that, in translating the English-generated Laws of soccer into their own languages, Italians, Germans, Brazilians, Spanish (including and the whole of Latin America), do not come up with Laws, but all use their own word for rules.
Referees, I’m afraid, are never what you’d term pro-active. They don’t like change. They are almost never heard from, neither as individuals nor as a group. They are surrounded by silence, they prefer to act in secrecy.
One of the most reprehensible examples of this attitude, this 100-year reluctance to open up, to let people know what they’re doing, is their prolonged refusal to acknowledge the need for a code of official signals. That is something that American referees could introduce. The fact that they don’t do anything, that they don’t want signals, and prefer -- like stuffy English Victorians -- to talk of Laws rather than rules, all this backward thinking, has now been rewarded by FIFA. The USA will be the only country in the world with more than one referee working in this year’s World Cup.
A strange world, that of the soccer referees.