Commentary

'League refereeing' vs. 'International refereeing'

I do not know how many of the readers remember Gordon Hill -- a legendary English referee in the 1970s. He worked many Football League games (1966-1975) as well as some NASL games (1975-1976) while serving as the NASL’s director of officials. He had an un-orthodox style of refereeing. I attended one of his conferences in the '80s and he told us that he had sent off only one player -- for a second ‘booking’ as he called it -- in his nine years of officiating in the Football Leagues.  He had an incredible sense of humor, a very positive body language and he was a very articulate person. He rarely used his cards -- though through part of his tenure there were no cards -- to control a game, instead he relied on his communication skills. He admitted that these skills did not help him in the international arena and he was never appointed to the FIFA list. He is the prime example of a “league” referee. The “league” referees are not confined to the English leagues although we will have a look at the current status of the EPL later on. 

In Turkey, we had some referees whose styles of refereeing were also unorthodox but they were able to get the respect of the players. Most of them never got a FIFA badge; the only exception who had a FIFA badge got the lowest grade for a Turkish referee from an assessor at a UEFA game.  The referee in question couldn’t communicate with players the way he used to in the Turkish League. Their styles were not reminiscent of Gordon Hill’s style but rather an “a la Turca” style; a style reflecting the cultural norms of the country. In the last 10 years, we do not see that style any more since the majority of players in the Super League are not Turkish. Although there is still a minute but noticeable difference between the way the Turkish FIFA referees officiate in the Turkish League and the International games.

Everyone is aware of the fact that the refereeing in the EPL is different than the rest of the world, at least the rest of Europe. Some people like it; some people do not. I am not a great fan of the EPL style of refereeing. That style is what one would call a “league” refereeing. What Gordon Hill has started has now become a norm in the EPL. 

VAR has changed a lot in refereeing. The number of fouls, cautions and sending offs per game has reduced. So in order to compare the refereeing in EPL with the other major leagues in Europe, we need to wait for the implementation of VAR in EPL to compare apples with apples.  

In an earlier article in 2017, I have compared refereeing data from various European leagues. In the 2015-2016 season, EPL had the lowest number of fouls and cautions per game and the second lowest sending offs per game. In that season, none of the leagues used VAR so the comparisons are valid.

League

Fouls per game

YCs per game

RCs per game

EPL

21.57

3.12

0.16

La Liga

27.28

5.29

0.29

Serie A

30.41

4.86

0.34

Bundesliga

29.16

3.81

0.13

Ligue 1

26.76

3.79

0.31

*Champions League

24.75

3.96

0.17

*Europa League

26.88

3.93

0.23

AVERAGE

26.68

4.10

0.23

* Group stage.

The Laws of the Game (LOTG) are the same in all leagues. Currently only six managers (30%) of the EPL are English. The EPL has far more international players than English players; so the style of play is not unique to EPL and comparable to the rest of the other leagues. The data from 2015-16 clearly indicates that the interpretation of the LOTG in England is different than the rest of Europe. The interpretation is more lenient trying to keep both sides at 11 players and having more playing time with less fouls. This is what the EPL and the owners want. The only difference between the other four big leagues in Europe and the EPL is that the referees in the EPL are managed by PGMOL – a limited company formed and funded by the Premier League, Football League and the FA. PGMOL represents the “league refereeing” at its best. 

What about the “international refereeing”? The smart PGMOL FIFA referees adapt to the refereeing in UEFA competitions. The metric for the success of “international refereeing” is the quantity and the quality of the FIFA referees in international competitions. Although UEFA is a very difficult confederation for the referees to move into the highest competition -- namely the World Cup -- England always managed to have a referee -- or a crew of referees -- in the World Cup during the last decades except the World Cup in 2018. Also right now, there are only six FIFA referees on the FIFA list for 2019. This needs some explanation. FIFA has a FIFA referee quota for all national associations. The national association can assign referees that meet the standards up to that limit each year. This quota is never published by FIFA but the national associations are informed about their limit for each category. All the leading national associations in Europe have 10 FIFA referees (Italy, Spain, Germany and France). I am sure England has a quota of 10 also, as it did in the past. The FA could not name and submit to FIFA four more referees for the 2019 list. All top-level referees are PGMOL referees and get their advanced development through the EPL games. It is evident that PGMOL while trying to develop “league referees’ did not adhere to standards of “international refereeing”. As a result of this referee development philosophy over the years, England for the first time in decades did not send a referee to the World Cup and the FIFA list was restricted to six in 2019. (In 2018, England had seven FIFA referees). 

Let us not forget that it is the responsibility of the federations to develop soccer -- players, coaches and referees a like. Organizations like PGMOL come at the later stages of the referee development process. The FA and PGMOL have to find primary mutual interests for the development of referees. Primarily, if PGMOL focuses to fulfill the demands of the EPL then those demands might not be in coherence with what the “international refereeing” demands. The only remedy is to create a seamless environment between the FA and PGMOL in the development of referees. 

If you go to the other side of Atlantic, you come up with PRO which is nearly a carbon copy of PGMOL. PRO’s former director Peter Walton and current director Howard Webb are products of both EPL and PGMOL. The overall level of refereeing in the USA and the level of soccer in MLS is not up to par with England or EPL. One should not forget this fact when applying the same principles of “league refereeing’ to MLS. 

I have praised the performance of the referees of U.S. Soccer (FIFA referees represent the country and their federation) in 2018 in my last article. Unfortunately, sustaining this level will not be easy; I see the same sort of problems of PGMOL and FA is facing today in the years to come. 

The highest local competition for a referee in the USA is to referee the MLS Cup Final. In the last three years, the finals were refereed by two PRO referees Alan Kelly (2016 and 2018) and Allen Chapman (2017). Neither one was a FIFA referee; neither had they had a chance to become a FIFA referee due to their age and citizenship status. They represented the best of “league refereeing” in the country. The best of “international refereeing” are represented by the FIFA referees. I do not know how our FIFA referees felt when the finals were refereed by their PRO colleagues. 

In 2019, we have five FIFA referees on the list. (With the recent retirement of Geiger we are down to four). Although I am not sure about our quota, I am sure it is not less than seven. (As a note, our primary rival in Concacaf, Mexico, has 10 referees on the FIFA list). The only country with two representatives in the FIFA referee committee (Brian Hall and Sandra Hunt) and two representatives in the World Cup 2018 cannot have a quota less than seven and it could well be more than seven. 

U.S. Soccer through the National Referee Committee (NRC) could not find more than five candidates that are suitable to be a FIFA referee in 2018 and 2019. The similarity where FA and U.S. Soccer stand in terms of the number of FIFA referees is astounding. Both are manifestations of the conflict between ‘league refereeing” and “international refereeing”. If the national governing bodies of two countries (USA and England) who have recently and historically developed high-caliber FIFA referees cannot name at least seven referees for the FIFA list, then there is a problem with the system. The facts indicate that the autonomous -- having autonomy from the respective federations -- models of PGMOL and PRO are not conducive to the development of top-level international referees. The remedies I suggested for FA and PGMOL are the same for U.S. Soccer and PRO: More communication between PRO and the NRC and a seamless environment of referee development between U.S. Soccer and PRO. Actually, the NRC took a historical step by inviting Howard Webb to be a consultant for the NRC. Another important but symbolical step would be to remove the offices of PRO from the same building as MLS. 

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.

5 comments about "'League refereeing' vs. 'International refereeing'".
  1. R2 Dad, January 25, 2019 at 1 a.m.

    Great column, AG. Your insights confirm what our eyes have been telling us regarding US officiating. I'd love to see a follow-up on US officials as they relate to the standards of Concacaf. 

    We have a good group of young Hispanic officials in this country who could become the next generation of FIFA officials, but navigating the chaotic league structures without a clear path to the first division is a huge impediment here. We talk about El Tri reaching for our best Hispanic youth players--is that going on in the officiating ranks as well? There could very well be a better path to the pros in Mexico for our young officials, too.

  2. John Polis, January 25, 2019 at 8:56 a.m.

    Great read, Ahmet. Met and spoke with Gordon Hill many times, especially when we were both connected with Umbro. I kept looking for the foul/card stats for MLS. I would have enjoyed seeing those numbers alongside the other leagues. I wonder how it stacks up, especially for fouls and yellow.

  3. frank schoon, January 25, 2019 at 9:31 a.m.

    Good Stuff, Ahmet, again well researched, thanks for the info. I do know that in Holland we look at English referees to call less fouls then Dutch refs. English refs have that "stiff upper lip" mentality :)

  4. Bob Ashpole, January 26, 2019 at 1:49 p.m.

    Thanks Ahmet. I don't know anything about professional soccer, but I have had experience with referees of all levels up to and including a former white badge referee.

    The one thing that they all had in common, and I do mean all, was that they enjoyed fair, skillful play as much as anyone and probably appreciated it a lot more than the fans.

  5. Paul Berry, January 26, 2019 at 5:50 p.m.

    I think MLS refereeing is excellent and has been proven so by VAR. I've been watching soccer since the 1960s but only MLS since 2015.

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