We hear a lot -- maybe too much -- from the coaches and players. They do press and TV interviews, they sit on TV guru panels, they write books, they twitter and tweet, they are rarely out of the headlines.
But we hear next to nothing from the referees, the key figures among the officials. This is traditional. It has long been considered that the best referee is one whom nobody notices, who glides almost unseen and unheard through a game, keeping his interventions to the minimum necessary to allow the smooth progress of a cleanly played game.
This softly-softly approach has a lot to recommend it. It has worked well enough during most of soccer’s 150 year life. Or so it seems.
Yet that doesn’t sound right. How many other institutions, born 150 years ago in Victorian England, survive virtually unchanged? Hell, even the supposedly invincible British empire itself has vanished.
In this modern world of fast-moving changes, soccer itself has changed considerably, adapting to outside pressures and influences. But within the sport the notion of the anonymous, silent referee persists.
Should that be so? Does it make any sense that the man in charge of a highly organized professional activity in 2019 should still be acting like a Victorian father figure? By which I mean, one who does not need to explain or justify his decisions? One whose word is Law.
Soccer’s rules are still, ludicrously, called Laws -- a sure sign that cob-webbed Victorian attitudes persist. Those attitudes should not be seen as cutely old-fashioned. They have an objectionable edge to them, as they reflect privilege. The class privilege that was at the core of Victorian England.
In that context the referee was a superior being, an autocrat whose decisions were Law. They were not to be questioned, and he was not obliged to explain them.
The great unwashed -- that includes you, and me, and almost everyone else -- must not be allowed to know how a referee arrives at his decisions, or even what those decisions are. Throughout soccer’s long history, there has never been an officially recognized set of signals by which a referee could immediately identify his calls.
There has in fact been a totally hostile attitude to such an idea, and you don’t have to go back too far for the proof. In the 1970s a FIFA Referees Memorandum warned sternly: “It is not the duty of the referee nor is it a useful function to explain his decisions to the players or spectators. Any attempt to do so can lead to confusion, uncertainty and delay.”
Things had not improved by 1997 when UEFA issued an “Instruction to Referees” memo stating: “In numerous cases one sees too many gestures of any kind or particularly theatrical behavior of the referees.”
Are things any better today? Slightly. The rules of the game do include more signals for referees and ARs. But there is still no comprehensive list -- meaning there is no official signal for offside, or for tripping, or for dangerous play.
This is inexcusable. Referees are being asked to identify their calls. That is all. Not to explain them. My feeling is that it would take less than a week’s work for a group -- not more than four, I think -- of experienced referees to come up with the required list of signals.
Yet this has never been attempted. Not even discussed as far as I know. So we must be left in the dark about crucial calls.
But this rearguard action by referees, trying to retain privileges they should not have, is on the verge of being blown apart.
Technology is to blame, in the person of the VAR. The VAR will reveal all. Make it plain what the call was, and prove it with TV images.
So far so good. Goodbye to unnecessary secrecy. Goodbye to serious errors. But we’ve learned by now that the VAR and his phalanx of helpers and TV monitors cannot stop there. We are now quite familiar with long delays as the VAR looks at offside calls -- and eventually manages to nix a goal because of a millimetric infringement. These millimetric -- call them sillymetric -- calls have taken offside calls away from the referee. They now belong to technology. Look, see that foot there, at least 6 inches over the offside line ... and of course we can also prove the exact instant when the ball was passed forward, so why would a referee even think about quibbling?
Come to that, why would his AR bother to flag those close offside calls? Just leave it to the boffins. This is actually a better way of handling things -- let play go on and if a goal is scored let VAR decide whether it’s legit or not.
Logically, then, all close offside calls should be handled by the VAR and his gang. Meaning that play would always be allowed to continue (maybe with “a flag on the play” a la NFL)) and then reviewed.
Thus, slowly, insidiously, VAR technology will take over and the on field referee will have little to do except maybe keeping order at throw-ins.
A new order of referees has arrived, superior in their high-level view of things, superior in their measured judgments, superior in that their decisions are the ones that get accepted. If that is what is happening, it is inevitable that this new clique of superior air-conditioned, replay-watching, technology-backed referees will replace the sweaty whistle-blowers as the sport’s elite officials.
No, I don’t like that scenario at all. I believe in the traditional referee. The referee on the field, part of the action. But that referee needs to abandon his aloofness, to adopt a more human profile.
It is inexplicable that referees never speak out (or don’t do so until they’ve retired), that we never hear about topics of interest or concern to referees. There is no leadership among referees. By trying to retain their Victorian air of privilege and superiority they have succeeded only in becoming a silent group whose work and reliability are taken for granted.
A supine attitude that seems quite wrong for this large and intelligent part of the soccer scene, failing to see themselves in the same light as others so often see them: as faithful acolytes cowed into silence by their monopolistic bosses, fearful that any dissenting words will result in them being blackballed, never to be given another meaningful game assignment.
Now, as technology enlarges its grasp, the referees -- the real on-field referees -- face the threat of becoming superfluous. An internal threat of being replaced not by computers, but by a new tier of elite referees. The VARs.
Whatever the advantages offered by VAR -- and I can think of several important ones -- I’m left wondering whether they are worth my watching the painful sight of an on-field referee delaying a game as he listens obediently to the VAR on his headset, then trots off to watch a replay, then returns to cancel a call he has already made. An experienced referee at the beck and call of a superior VAR. I don’t like it. Everything about it feels wrong. Especially this wretched referee silence.