The requirements of modern soccer officiating (2)

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.

  1. Using Resources from Other Disciplines

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. 

  1. Proper pre-Game Preparation

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.

  1. A few pieces of advice

Here are a few pieces of personal advices to referees who want to go up the ladder:

  • Do not forget that nobody comes to the game to watch you –- except maybe a few people like me. You’re the servant of the game not the boss. Although you have unbelievable authority and jurisdiction over the game, use it sparingly and fairly. Do not try to put yourself under the limelight.
  • For games without the VAR, during the game try to see things that everyone else can see. Otherwise, you might put yourself into trouble since you will have hard time selling your call. 
  • Do not let calls that you were indecisive about haunt you through the game. Use methods available from sports psychologists to occlude or block your memory lane regarding the incident.
  • If possible, try to find a former referee you can trust who understands the modern game as your personal mentor if the Federation does not assign you one. Make sure you get a video copy of each game and watch the game with the mentor listening to his/her comments.
  • Last but not the least, your mannerism off the field is as important as on the field.

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. 

3 comments about "The requirements of modern soccer officiating (2)".
  1. Randy Vogt, June 21, 2019 at 6:33 a.m.

    Ahmet, this is excellent advice!! It's so much harder to advance now than when I was doing so way-back-when (1980's), partly because of more demands made of refs today plus soccer is a much larger sport in the US than those days. Jack McCabe was a well-respected ref who officiated pro games and was part of the committee that brought the World Cup to the USA in 1994. He had heard some good things about me so he watched me ref a youth game in a tournament when I was in my early twenties, then gave me some advice after its conclusion. It was not a formal assessment. After that, while registering, Jack said to me, "Randy, don't you want to become a State Ref?" I told him that I did but had no idea how. "Then give me five more dollars," and when I did, he said, "Congratulations, you are now a State Ref." I don't believe that I was ever assessed up to then. It's a much more formal process to advance today.

  2. R2 Dad, June 21, 2019 at 1:16 p.m.

    IFAB is not done buggering the World Cup!:

  3. Kent James, June 21, 2019 at 2:44 p.m.

    Calling what everybody sees is probably good advice, but for those of us who believe in objective justice, it's a tough one.  I was refereeing a challenging college men's match, and I thought I was doing a good job, staying right on top of things when a ball was heading towards a midfield player and his opponent slightly deflected the ball away from him with his hand.  The player who was going to recieve the ball tried to adjust to the deflection and ended up tripping the player who hit the ball.  I was very proud of myself for calling the initial handling infraction, but to everyone but the 3 of us involved, it looked like I just called a foul on the guy who got fouled right in front of me.  After that, the game was quite challenging.  I do think you want to call the fouls as you see them, but it is important to keep them in context, and maybe fudge a bit at the margins to make match control eaiser....

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