Commentary

Today's refereeing at the highest level

When I wrote my latest article “referee is homo sapiens” and others relating to soccer refereeing in the past, I intended to stir some controversy and  provoke some new ideas. As soccer becomes more and more industrialized, the Laws of the Game (LOTG) does not meet the demands of the professional game. It needs a lot of revisions and additions and IFAB has been doing so and will keep on doing so. 

As I am writing this article, I am also watching the semifinals of the Champions League; any serious error regarding a Key Match Incident (KMI) might result in one of the teams not reaching the final of the Champions League. Millions of dollars are at stake for such games. You cannot expect the same LOTG that is applied to the grassroots game (U-6 all the way to the adult games) to be strictly applied to the professional game; even if the same letter of the LOTG is applied you cannot expect the same interpretations at both levels. At the professional level, you have to read between lines, understand the spirit of the LOTG and now understand “what football expects” for critical decisions.

I understand that “what football expects” is a subjective reasoning but so are most of the interpretations of the LOTG. I personally do not agree with some of the interpretations at the professional level, but I try to understand them. I am trying to convey the current refereeing approach at the highest level of the game to the readers of Soccer America, so that when they watch such a game they understand some of the decisions even though they might not agree with them looking through the lens of the letter of the LOTG.

None of these are my original ideas, interpretations or approaches but rather what is expected from the referees at the highest level.

Some consider the EPL as the best soccer league in the world. The referees for the EPL are managed by PGMOL (Professional Game Match Officials Limited). (MLS uses a very similar approach and methodology through PRO for managing referees.) Every game in EPL is run through software which tags all potential decision-making incidents. Then an observer/evaluator looks through these tags and makes subjective decisions regarding the correctness of the decisions of the refereeing crew. The results are then shared with the crew. Recently the overall results of the EPL referees have been published. Here is a summary:

Premier League referees make on average 245 decisions, almost three times more than average player touches ball (90). That's one decision every 22 seconds.

* Sixty of these decisions are technical (goal kicks, corners, throw-ins), leaving 185 decisions to judge physical conduct or disciplinary actions.

* Of those 185, 28 are visible decisions where action is taken (fouls, restarts), and 157 are non-visible, where play continues.

* Referees make on average two mistakes per game. Meaning they are correct 99.2 per cent of the time.

* On average, referees run 9.7km (roughly 6 miles) just below the average player distance run of 9.8km.”

I actually tested the first assertion that a referee makes a decision every 22 seconds in a game during the first 20 minutes of the Champions League semifinal (Real Madrid vs. Bayern Munich). I could not observe that many number of decisions made during the first 20 minutes of the game; may be 30 decisions were made in that time frame. It is possible that the definition of a decision used by the software is a bit different than mine.

The most striking result of this summary is that it claims referees in the EPL make 2 mistakes per game. That is the referees in EPL are 99.2% correct. This is based on the interpretations of the observers/evaluators; some of the interpretations are objective -- the technical ones -- and some of them are subjective. Actually 60 of the decisions – the technical ones - mentioned above are very objective decisions. There is no interpretation regarding whether the ball is in play or not or which side is entitled the throw-in, goal kick or corner kick. So one or both of the errors might fall under this category. Neither the observer nor the referee has to make a subjective decision regarding those. Law 12 decisions on the contrary are subjective since they are decided based on the “opinion” of the referee.

Well, as an engineer, I can tell you that any system designed by engineers might have an error greater than 0.8%. Anyone watching an EPL game will immediately invalidate this very low percentage. One would immediately ask if there are so few errors, why do we need the Goal Line Technology, Additional Assistant Referees (AAR) or the use of VAR which had been recently incorporated into the LOTG? 

Before we go any further, let us define black and white obvious calls and more difficult gray calls: Black and white obvious calls are calls where nearly everyone agrees on whereas gray calls are calls where there is a difference of opinion. For example, the penalty kick Michael Oliver awarded for Real Madrid was a gray call since some experts thought it was not a penalty kick. On the other hand, the sending off of Luis Suarez and the penalty kick against Uruguay in the World Cup 2010 quarterfinal game between Uruguay and Ghana was a black and white and correct decision. 

It is obvious from the results that only and only very black and white obvious foul and disciplinary mistakes are considered as “mistakes”. So according to the PGMOL summary report some of the calls or non-calls regarding Law 12 falls under the gray category and those decisions do not fall under the category of “mistakes”. This approach might support the referees involved but I doubt that it supports the game or the development of refereeing.

This report tells us a lot about the current state of affairs in the professional refereeing world. 

There are three necessary and sufficient attributes that will define the best referees of our game. Being talented, being very fit and having the correct body language are necessary conditions but are not sufficient attributes that define the Webbs, Rizzollis, Çakrs,  Geigers  of our game. 

  1. Being fair and consistent.

This is defined by how you make your decisions regarding the “gray” calls in a game. We already know that there a very many “gray” calls in a game. The observers will always support the referees with regard to “gray” calls. The credibility of the referee does not only come through the observer’s grade. As long as the referee makes the gray calls fairly and consistently between the two teams regardless of which one is the home team or the big team then after a while the referee gathers credibility points from the constituents of the game. The constituents of the game -- players, coaches, administrators, spectators -- do not evaluate the mistakes in a game like the observers do. They will see more mistakes than two per game; but as long as those mistakes based on “gray” calls are fairly, evenly and consistently distributed they will respect the referee on the long run.

  1. Being courageous.

The referees at this level are expected to make unpopular but correct calls without hesitation. Unpopular calls or non-calls are penalty kicks, goals and red cards or any other call that has a direct or indirect effect on the outcome of the game. Especially referees who make those unpopular correct calls under pressure will excel in their careers.

  1. Thinking about “what football expects” when making decisions.

This is the most difficult of the three attributes. The referee has to know the letter and spirit of the LOTG as well as what “football” at that specific game at that specific instant expects from him/her. This might be contradictory to the second attribute. If the referee makes the unpopular but correct -- black and white -- call then he / she will be fulfilling both attributes. On the contrary if the call is correct but gray in nature then he/she has to think about what “football expects”. For example the penalty kick that Oliver called against Juventus was a correct call but a non-call would have been more correct since that was what “football expected” at that time of the game. I understand that this is not an easy task. So the referee has to be very smart, wise and knowledgeable about the game to make a call that “football expects”. But then nobody said that refereeing at the highest level is easy.

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, TX.

11 comments about "Today's refereeing at the highest level".
  1. Bob Ashpole, May 3, 2018 at 11:36 p.m.

    Interesting article and I appreciate what you are trying to do. I understand and applaud notions like following the "spirit" and "intent" of laws. Unfortunately perhaps, I just don't understand the correctness or value of the "what football expects" factor in foul recognition inside the box. It seems to me that this factor is really about making a match more entertaining rather than about enforcing the Laws and keeping players safe.

    If that is the case, I reject the notion that player safety and fair play should be sacrificed for increased entertainment, even at the professional level. I would rather have fans bored with fair play watch WWE if they cannot appreciate the world's greatest sport for itself. 

  2. Austin Gomez, May 4, 2018 at 9:15 a.m.

    In my opinion, only:   I fully agree with your above-comments, Bob Ashpole.  "What Football Expects" can be utilized (perhaps) with 50/50 decisions, (I would believe, using always the 'Common Sense' as the prime factor) ............... but NOT with changing 'CRTICIAL MATCH INCIDENTS' that only deserve the CORRECTNESS of the Referee's decision, on what that Referee actually SEES and truly RECOGNIZES, (regarding Fouls and Misconduct ----- regardless of the TIME and the SCORE of the Game).  I would think that the Game-of-Soccer should only want 'FAIR PLAY' to be used at all times, 'For the GOOD of the Game' ---- (at whatever Level-of-Play: Youth, Amateur, Professional, International).

  3. John Soares, May 4, 2018 at 12:51 p.m.

    Good article, appreciate the research and detail. But, agree with the above comments, Also would add that comparing a U6 to EPL does not add credibility to your argument. Leave the LOTG as they are and for the highest level. Referees involved with children will adapt to the situation at hand. Most issues with referring are missed or bad calls... did not apply the rules correctly. How will you reach a compromise/agreement when a referee makes a correct  call but it is not "the game expects". If you want to change the rules, fine. Two sets especially when one is arbitrary from the beginning...ridiculous.   Like the man said, just my opinion. 

  4. R2 Dad, May 4, 2018 at 2:44 p.m.

    Thank you, AG, for drilling down on this topic. I think of "what football expects" as an extra layer of judgement that should be applied at perhaps the grade 5 (state) level of officiating and above. This seems necessary at the professional level, as we assume player safety and fairness from our officials already.

    I have a bigger concern with officiating at the U15-U19 level, as these are matches that I do and there are a great many more players affected than at the professional level. The LOTG as they exist are easier to implement below U15, but older youth players run into situations where the referees allow more contact, more fouls, more aggression in the name of flow and continual play. I understand it, but the migration of the foul bar from youth to this U15-U19 level is not a smooth/logical/linear transition. I have yet to run across any documentation that addresses this issue. I'm hopeful a state assessor/assessment would help, but in truth I do not enjoy centering (and thus only AR) these older matches because I dread bumping up against the Peter Principle. At the end of the day, I officiate because the game needs a grownup willing to hold a flag or blow a whistle and I'm here to serve the game.

    In lieu of documentation/explanation, I see experienced referees lose their Fair/Consistent application of the LOTG because there is no new/recognized/understood bar for fouls/contact--it becomes a decision only in the mind of the center referee instead of an understood application between center/AR1/AR2 in a 3 man crew. I do not believe U15-U19 should be treated to men's league/solo officiating, but I think I am in the minority here among referees who actually officiate these games. This bohers me, because this U15-U19 officiating scares smaller youth players out of the game as they can see how U19/mens league carnage is waiting for them.

  5. Wooden Ships replied, May 5, 2018 at 1:42 p.m.

    R2, excellent point. I don’t believe referees understand the importance they play in the style we adopt. We have been mired in this, hard men of football-English, mentality for so long. This ethno influence has caused our arrested development ( sorry, tv reference ). Referees can and need to, reign in this skill second trajectory. However, that evidently is the soccer culture they grew up with. Officials and USSF need to admit the error of their way. Many soccer people are still using the eggball frame of reference in soccer. We really can only be what our experiences are. Which is another reason the exclusion of Latin players and the diminutive player has prevented our technical level from increasing. The politics of the sport has hit us square in the mouth. I follow the soccer referee site and it is ridiculous the amount of contact that they see as part of the game. Ref’s, you can do more to influence this game than anybody, how can you not see it?

  6. Bob Ashpole replied, May 5, 2018 at 10:29 p.m.

    WS interesting point. Now I understand what R2 was getting at. I think perhaps I was lucky in having a lot of very good referees for my adult rec matches. Most of what I considered the best referees all played too. I didn't see foul recognition as a problem, although I do see it as a problem in professional and some high level amateur matches. (Problem being professional fouls, holding, pushing, and too much reckless play.)

    WS I expect more physical play, especially holding, against shorter, weaker players who don't feel they can defend successfully if they play fairly. 

    I blame coaches for the lack of technical play and the dependence on defending by professional fouls. Refs just react to what they see. Coaches train players and make game plans. True, officials can let games get out of control, but that is not the problem I think you are talking about. 

  7. frank schoon, May 6, 2018 at 10:42 a.m.

    As far as I'm concerned, I follow the philosophy of reffing as "it is what it is", meaning don't get VAR involved but allow the reffing to be as it is, which, to me, makes it exciting for no one can predict the outcome due to human flaws.  
    The quote <At the professional level, you have to read between lines, understand the spirit of the LOTG and now understand “what football expects” for critical decisions."> says if all for me. In other words, I prefer refs who have played at a significant high level for they have a better feel for the game  and able to better read between the lines and sense the spirit better than the what I would call some  laptop ref types.


  8. beautiful game, May 6, 2018 at 7:58 p.m.

    The way LOTG are applied is not for the safety of players. Referees are given too much leeway to interpret a violation; it's either a non-violation or it is. I suggest that 90% of takedowns on a counter are not carded because referees are instructed to keep the game flowing; they hardly ever return to card an off ball tactical foul. Take a mundane free kick situation. LOTG state a 10-yard opponent clearance from from the ball. It never happens, and if the kicker points to the defendener, the referee signals to restart the play without ordering the opponent to retreat. So why have this law on the books. And why the fourth official, just to escort player changes? FIFA is overdue for a rehaul...its current cadre of corrupt administartors is a cancer to the game. 

  9. Kent James replied, May 7, 2018 at 4:31 p.m.

    You've identified one of my primary gripes with officiating at the highest level; not enforcing the 10 yd distance, and essentially letting the team that has committed the foul to prevent a quick restart, forcing them into a "ceremonial" FK.  Is this part of the "what the game expects" argument?  Certainly, at this point, professional players ALWAYS go to the ball after a foul to prevent a quick restart, and are never punished for it.  Why have refs stopped enforcing this?  I don't think the players demand it (only the players on the team preventing the free kick don't want it enforced, but at this point, you would be crazy to abide by the rule since doing so (when the other team doesn't), puts your team at a disadvantage).  And this is not a tough call, and once it started to be enforced, the issue would go away.  Players take what the refs give them. The game would go more smoothly (less time wasted setting up walls) and you'd avoid the confrontations the inevitably ensue when a team wants to restart quickly and the defense gets in their way.

  10. Kent James replied, May 7, 2018 at 4:32 p.m.

    You've identified one of my primary gripes with officiating at the highest level; not enforcing the 10 yd distance, and essentially letting the team that has committed the foul to prevent a quick restart, forcing them into a "ceremonial" FK.  Is this part of the "what the game expects" argument?  Certainly, at this point, professional players ALWAYS go to the ball after a foul to prevent a quick restart, and are never punished for it.  Why have refs stopped enforcing this?  I don't think the players demand it (only the players on the team preventing the free kick don't want it enforced, but at this point, you would be crazy to abide by the rule since doing so (when the other team doesn't), puts your team at a disadvantage).  And this is not a tough call, and once it started to be enforced, the issue would go away.  Players take what the refs give them. The game would go more smoothly (less time wasted setting up walls) and you'd avoid the confrontations the inevitably ensue when a team wants to restart quickly and the defense gets in their way.

  11. Kent James, May 7, 2018 at 4:44 p.m.

    As usual, Ahmet has given us a lot to think about.  For me, in addition to player safety, the main purpose of the ref is to make sure the contest is fair, meaning the players play by the same set of rules.  So referees should enforce the rules consistently, unless there is a reason not to (usually by playing advantage or if an infraction is trifling).  While player "intent" has been written out of the rules, I still think it's an important concept in distinguishing between a foul that is a mistake made while a player is trying to play fairly vs. a player who is consciously trying to gain an advantage by violating the rules.  Games made up of players doing the former don't get out of control, games with players doing the latter, can, unless the referee prevents them from being successful (by issuing cards).  At the highest level, sometimes cards are issued to players trying to play fairly (because they mistimed a tackle, e.g.), but this is because they are held to a higher standard; they should have known better, since they're professionals.  But the key to game management is making sure players who do make a conscious decision to break the rules are punished for it, otherwise other players will follow their example, and the game will get out of control.  So in terms of "what the game expects", I think a lot of how a referee deals with a game has to do with what players are trying to do; they try to abide by the rules and occasionally make an error in judgment, they can be given some leeway.  But when "letting them play" means letting them ignore the rules, it has to be stopped.

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