Referees and communication: a long history of non-compliance

We can thank VAR for the almost vaudeville images we now see of soccer referees drawing imaginary rectangles in air. The rectangles represent television screens. Having sketched his rectangle, the referee scoots off to the sideline to consult a real television set. Actually, “scoots” is too active a verb -- it’s more of an accelerated trot.

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.

9 comments about "Referees and communication: a long history of non-compliance".
  1. Jeff Ripley, April 17, 2018 at 12:49 p.m.

    Explaining leads to time wasting, which we don't want players to do, and lends itself toward debate.  Debate should be kept to academic pursuits.  Football referees are there to ensure the safety of the players and that the LOTG are enforced.

    When was the last time you officiated a match?  I will answer for you.  Never.  You've little idea of the stresses that the game puts on officials.  Arguing (questioning) decisions by players erodes the authority of the referee slowly over the course of 90 minutes.  Trying to explain decisions to spectators is futile.  If they can't tell why the whistle was blown then I would suggest they take an Entry Level Clinic.

  2. Wooden Ships replied, April 17, 2018 at 1:34 p.m.

    Good advice Jeff. I’m not interested in pandering to the fair weather soccer fan in this country. Soccer people, the world over, know what the whistle is for. Why it’s blown. The US doesn’t need, nor has earned, to change the game. Authority is needed and required, which is slipping with the continued acceptance of players gesticulating in the face of referees. We don’t need to emulate any other pro sport. Keep true to the sport, even with its perceived deficiencies, after all it continues to grow rapidly with interest and participation. Love your articles and devotion to the game Paul, even if I disagree on occasion. 

  3. Bob Ashpole replied, April 18, 2018 at 4:16 a.m.

    Well said both of you.

  4. Kent James replied, April 25, 2018 at 9:05 p.m.

    To be fair to PG, he did say he's not for ref's explaining the decisions: "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"

  5. Mike Lynch, April 17, 2018 at 4:49 p.m.

    Paul, As always, well written and defended, though, I, too, am not a big fan of expanding referee responsibilities as the role seems to be challenging enough as it is. If possible to do VAR of red card offenses and goals, that's it and quick (less than 15 or so seconds ruling by 5th official and get rid of the guy on the end line. My request has always been at least gesture the direction immediately (as often this is not obvious), keep the talking to a minimum, allow for context (Buffon's initial emotional rant while having a red line, too, which he subsequently crossed), forwards dive because defenders and especially gk's get way too much leniency and should be penalized, yo-yo year to year handball interpretations need to be finalized as simply ball to hand or hand to ball, time on the field is good with me until extra time then it should be put on scoreboard and run like a college soccer game (official time on the scoreboard and if you have sub, injury, goal clock stops), offsides should be until full unobstructed space observed between attacker and 2nd to last defender, keep limited substitutions, ... sorry I digress. Thanks Paul, keep up the great work.

  6. Wooden Ships replied, April 17, 2018 at 8:57 p.m.

    Mike, you had me until time on the scoreboard. I’m also fine with no VAR. Sometimes in life things don’t go your way, move on and work harder and smarter to get the desired outcome. 

  7. beautiful game, April 17, 2018 at 6:41 p.m.

    Good job Paul. I still say; have a fifth referee in the telcom booth to review the play as soon as it is supicious in nature. If the center ref wants a review, the guy upstairs should give him his unbiased opinion....end of story. So far VAR is a farce amid so-called drama which belongs on reality TV.

  8. Phil Love, April 18, 2018 at 3:49 p.m.

    Come on. Referees already use some signals beyond those in the Laws: raised foot on a foul throw, the waving back and forth for offside when the player was offside then moved back to an onside position.  This isn't really explaining, just indicating. There is plenty of time for this especially during VAR challenges. A few weeks ago I was at a game where Clint Dempsey was red carded due to VAR.  I didn't know why until I got home and watched my DVR.  I have refereed many games and I believe in many cases signals would ease some frustration of the fans. 

  9. Ric Fonseca, April 21, 2018 at 9:47 p.m.

    This reminds me when I first got more involved in soccer at Cal St Hayward (now Cal St East Bay) in the late 60's and even when I was present at the NCAA finals when I was aghast when we saw the game officials - using the dual system - wore knee length pants and striped shirts and a cap. The Rules or LOTG were laced with a myriad of drawn hand signals, clock wound down, and the game was played in quarters - later changed to two equal halves.  And didn't I read somewhere (SA???) that the NCAA was not going to count down the final two minutes or ten seconds?  Ah, those were the days allright!!!

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