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.
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.
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.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.