After I finished writing the first part of this series, there were some developments in our soccer officiating world. U.S. Soccer announced its new classification levels for refereeing. The interested non-referee readers can read the details, but basically we have only four categories of referees now: Grassroots, Regional, National and PRO. There are no more Grades 8, 7, 6, 5 etc. as I mentioned in my earlier article. For example, Grade 5 and 6 are now Regional Referee. This article was written for those referees who have an ambition to become a PRO and/or FIFA referee and for those non-referee readers to realize how difficult it is to become a top level referee; the physical, mental, cognitive, intellectual and economic dimensions of it and the sacrifices it will require to become one. Let us not forget that the voyage to the PRO or FIFA refereeing starts at the Grassroots level.
Also during the last two weeks, I have witnessed two incredible refereeing by one of our own: Ismael Elfath. During the U-20 World Cup, the two incredible games he refereed were the quarterfinal game between Mali and Italy and the final South Korea vs. Ukraine. If nothing else, one can use the level of respect that Ismael received from both Ukrainian and South Korean players during and after the final game as a litmus test of excellent officiating. I have actually predicted that he will referee the final game after the quarter finals and shared this prediction in my twitter account. Ismael has everything the Pierluigi Collina – the boss of the FIFA referees – and modern refereeing is looking for, so I foresee a very bright future for Ismael. I now predict that he will be one of the princes of Collina. So the great honor goes to Ismael and his crew, to STSR (South Texas Soccer Referees), The U.S. Soccer (both the NRC and the Referee Development Department), last but not least to PRO, which shined the gem they were handed over to perfection.
Let us go back to the main objective of the article series: The Requirements of Modern Soccer Officiating. Needless to say to become a top-level referee you need to have the talent which is embedded in the appropriate personality. Ismael and Michael Oliver are living proofs of what this article is preaching about.
In the first part of series we have talked about the Laws of the Game (LOTG) and its application / interpretation. Now we will talk about other aspects of modern-day officiating which is not related to the LOTG.
The physical demands of today’s soccer officiating is immense. A top level referee -- who could be as old as 45 or more -- in a top level professional game will run anywhere from 10-12 kilometers. An assistant referee will have to run with a sprint as fast as any attacking player to be in line for offside. Unless you receive proper guidance through sports scientists that level of physical fitness is very difficult to achieve. Many professional referee organizations – including PRO – provide sports scientist services to its referees. The service includes individualized training program for officials as well as monitoring through polar watches and other similar equipment their progresses through the program. Even if you are a Regional or a National referee who has an aspiration to become a PRO and/or FIFA referee, I strongly advise you get individual help – or through a group – from sports scientists. Part of physical fitness requirements is proper diet, so including dietitian in their lives directly or indirectly will help the referees a lot.
Another important aspect of refereeing is mental endurance and this could be provided through sports psychologists. Things like lack of concentration, visualization of high-pressure decision-making, conflict management, emotion and anger management, and dealing with stress during the game are some of the areas that sports psychologists can help the referees with.
If you think that by just using the whistle and the cards you can control a game at the highest levels, you are mistaken. You need the appropriate body language, gestures and language to manage a game properly. Although some of these are built into your personality, still a great portion of those can be developed and improved. Unfortunately, we usually are not aware of our body language, gestures and their potential consequences. A professional soccer game is also a show business; you will have to learn where you stand in this show. That means you will need to act when needed through your body language, gestures and language. When you are “mad” at players, if your body language reflects that anger then you might not be able control the players. You should learn not to show your true emotions. So it is possible that you might have to learn to act as if you are not angry when you are angry or just the other way around. You should know when to look humble and when to act arrogant. This will require that you might get help from drama classes or from an appropriate communication specialist or even a psychologist. Although English is the language of international refereeing and to some extent the game itself, I would strongly advise that referees who wants to advance to learn Spanish also. Appropriate and effective body language and gestures are keys to successful match control. Properly communicating with the players via a language - preferably in a language they understand- will be the icing on the cake.
All the italicized professions in this article are resources from other disciplines that the modern referee might like to keep in his/her repertoire.
If you think that a 30 minute pre game officials talk is what I mean by this part you are also mistaken. Even for a competitive amateur game you need to do more than just showing up to the game an hour before and talk to your crew. You need to do a small research on teams, their standings, their previous games etc. For the professional game this becomes far outreaching. Once you are assigned to a game you have to start looking into both teams, their game tactics, their set play options, their players, their technical staff and even the stadium. You should at least look at the final two games of both teams taking notes and making sure you are not biased during the game for individuals but rather use this process as a precautionary measure. Some of the top level referees I know of have a group less senior referees that do the initial analysis of both teams and present it to the crew. It might be worthwhile to include a coach in your analysis of both teams, their tactics and set play options. A good preparation will take a few days before the kickoff. The more prepared you are, the more confident you will feel at the game.
Here are a few pieces of personal advices to referees who want to go up the ladder:
I hope this article will shed some light on referees who have high ambitions in their refereeing life. For the non-referee readers it will hopefully show them how difficult today’s refereeing is, the challenges the difficulties and the sacrifices the referees have to endure. A call is just not a call at that level as one might like to think.