Bundesliga Ghost Games highlight a refereeing problem

So -- games without fans? Like them or (more probably) not, these German “ghost games” have presented soccer with a unique opportunity to explore one of its most contentious areas: trying to decide whether referees are significantly affected by crowd noise.

An opportunity that soccer, with its finely tuned ability to not notice such opportunities, will of course ignore.

I think that’s what has been happening. Because the early stats reveal -- or, in the sly way that stats have, appear to reveal -- an extraordinary state of affairs.

Under normal conditions (i.e. with fan-filled stadiums), 40% of Bundesliga games are won by the home team. But the first 46 ghost games produced only 10 home winners, virtually halving that 40% down to 22%. That is a pretty remarkable swing.

To get one thing out of the way -- the 22% figure is shocking, but I’ll confess that I find the original 40% troublesome too. My feeling -- nothing more than that, a feeling -- has been for a long time, many decades, that roughly half of all pro games result in home wins. Evidently, not in Germany.

Feeling, as one is inclined to, that I couldn’t have got things that wrong, I worked out the percentage of home wins during the most recent complete English Premier League season, 2018-2019: 180 home wins in 380 games -- which, to my relief, works out at 47%, much closer to my feeling of how things ought to be.

Given that comforting revelation, how much importance should one attach to the ghost-game stat? Not too much, I’d say. Not yet, anyway. Forty-six games is too small a sampling to be trustworthy, stat-wise. But the sheer magnitude of the dropoff gives one pause.

Assuming that something must have caused it, then it has to be the lack of fans. Which can then be viewed as possibly disruptive in several ways: causing the home team, deprived of a wall of boisterously supportive noise, to play feebly; or causing the away team, no longer faced with a barrage of raucously hostile yelling, to up the caliber of its play; or a mixture of both of the above.

Or maybe we can blame the virus directly, maybe all that social distancing (“wellness distancing” is what my bank has taken to calling it), and all those tiresome masks and gloves have upset the previously smooth routine of playing at home?

Then again, perhaps there was a major conjunction of three planets in Aquarius, causing a deadly corruption in the air. Well, why not -- that was what a learned committee of the very best doctors in 1348 Paris solemnly offered as an explanation for the great plague then ravishing the city.

OK, enough with the fanciful conjectures. I’ll reclaim reality ... by looking at the referees. Actually, they were always the most likely suspect, but blaming the referee always seems to me to be just too easy. I wanted to identify other sources of bias before tackling the ref situation. Which is tricky, and rather delicate.

No referee that I have ever interviewed or read about has admitted that he is influenced by crowd noise. Quite the opposite, they usually make a forceful denial of any such possibility. Well, they have to, don’t they? Any top referee making, publicly, such an admission would not be a top referee for much longer. It is an absolute tenet of the profession: a referee’s on-field decisions must be free of “outside” influences -- which obviously include crowd noise.

It is asking rather a lot. Consider basketball, with its smaller and much more intimate venues ... “When a home crowd keeps roaring, all through a game, all in one direction, very few referees can resist the subliminal effect so vehemently rejected by their conscious minds.” The words of the late Leonard Koppett, who covered basketball from its earliest days, for the New York Times.

That was one of the first expressions of what is heard repeatedly these days. That yes, referee decisions are sometimes influenced by crowd noise, but what do you expect? You are asking referees, who are human beings, to behave with inhuman restraint.

When disagreements arise over the interpretation and enforcement of soccer’s rules, I usually side with the referees. Simply because they are knowledgeable, they know the rules. Their challengers -- often players and coaches -- are notoriously weak in that area. Note: I may well disagree with the rules themselves, but that is not the same thing as finding fault with the referees whose job is to enforce them.

It’s well known by now that any survey of soccer fans will end up showing that a high percentage of them believe that refs are influenced by stadium crowds. A 2006 study in England revealed almost total agreement -- 98% of the 2,500 fans consulted said the refs were influenced. That was confirmation of work done four years earlier -- an academic study by Professor Alan Neville at the University of Wolverhampton.

But fewer than half of those 2,500 fans saw the bias as a problem. It was simply accepted as part of the game. The “home-field advantage.”

So we have a situation where fans seem quite ready to accept that their own efforts to exhort their team may well shape referee decisions. How can it be unfair when every team, at every one of its home games, has the same opportunity to influence the officials? Or is it to intimidate? Which doesn’t sound acceptable at all.

It is also a situation that the referees themselves seem able to live with. In fact, they have backed themselves into a corner where they must accept it. Their stance being a flat-out denial that they are ever influenced, or intimidated, by hostile crowd noise.

They see any weakening of that stance as the thin end of a wedge that would ultimately destroy their authority. I have seen no response from referees to the ghost-game stats, so stark in the suggestion that removing the fans from the stadiums leads to a much less pro-home-team type of refereeing. But I can be quite sure that referees will oppose the evidence -- how can they do otherwise when they have spent decades denying that their calls tend to favor home teams?

Referees need not feel too threatened by the ghost game stats. They involve only a small number of games. And the feeling is -- mine certainly is -- that they will be tempered as more fan-free results are assessed.

Taken by themselves, the ghost-game stats are almost too insignificant to bother about. The difficulty is that they amplify -- in a quite dramatic way -- evidence we already have from other studies of the topic. Most of these studies are small, many not well designed. Each one can probably be dismissed as faulty in some way. But it is the cumulative weight of the studies that impresses.

Virtually all of the studies conclude that referees are influenced by crowd noise. As the referees continue to maintain that this is not so, a workable compromise emerges. The referees do their best, they are not consciously helping home teams, but subliminally their decisions shift in that direction.

Even that -- a verdict that leaves the referees’ integrity unsullied -- will not appeal to referees. Because they feel (actually, they know, and they are right) that it is a verdict that threatens their future.

That future is already under the shadow of VAR -- a system that, however it is viewed, involves taking key decisions away from the field referee and handing them over to a referee who may be watching on a television screen in a booth hundreds of miles away. Whose decisions, of course, are not subject to crowd influence.

The most recent study I have seen on bias in referee decisions comes from Norway. Well-organized (I mean, full of mathematical equations and obscure references -- which make it, shall I say, not easy to read), but, yet again, a small-scale affair, involving one season in the Norwegian Premier League.

The idea was to find out whether referees favored successful teams in the awarding penalty kicks. The result: yes, they do, by quite a margin.

As it happens, a 2013 trial had already reported that Norwegian referees are impervious to crowd pressure -- though most of the evidence supporting that conclusion came from the referees themselves.

The 2020 trial looked at penalty kicks. It found that the two successful teams (Rosenberg and Molde) were involved in 43 possible PK situations. The on-field referees called only 12 of these, giving 11 to Rosenberg and Molde, and 1 to their opponents. When the survey’s expert panel (four anonymous referees) looked at the same incidents, they judged that Rosenberg and Molde deserved 10 penalties (they got 11, or 110%) while their opponents deserved 8 (they got 1, or 12.5%).

The difference between getting 110% of justifiable penalty kicks, and only 12.5% is grotesque. Some sort of referee bias had to be at work here -- and it was not bias in favor of the home team. Six of Molde’s and Rosenberg’s 11 penalties were awarded when those teams were playing away.

The study’s authors, as anxious as anyone to protect the reputation of the referees concludes that “these results are likely explained by referees’ decisions being subconsciously influenced by social forces” (in this case, the reputation of a successful team).

The referee is again absolved of bias. In which case, one must ask: what needs to be done to ensure that the referee overrides the insidious prompts of his subconscious? The report suggests “relevant training methods so that referees can better resist the influences of social forces.” But it also brings up another possible approach: “The findings may also highlight a potential benefit of VAR referees, who should be less exposed to social influences compared with referees on the pitch.”

That possibility has been there right from the start of the VAR era. It is as threatening to conventional refereeing as it ever was. Because it has logic on its side. What it lacks is the reality of the sport. The referee on the field knows all about that. He should be listened to. I think he would be -- were he to speak out.

We have now seen enough of VAR in action to form useful opinions. I was originally a strong supporter of VAR. I am much less committed now. I have found myself greatly irritated by VAR’s tendencies to get far more involved than I think it should be, and to specialize in crucial decisions based on absurdly small measurements. Laboratory decisions that delay games and destroy excitement.

I want the referee on the field to be the main man, not the guy in the booth. The field ref is a part of the game. Yes, do what you can to increase his awareness of bias problems, but rely, as the sport always has done, on his integrity.

My one big disagreement with referees continues to be their devotion to secrecy. This is a hangover from Victorian days, this belief that referees have a right not to be questioned. It smacks of privilege, of class superiority, of just plain snobbery.

It does not, in these decidedly non-Victorian times, win the referees any favors. I have for decades been urging soccer referees (particularly the Americans) to draw up a list of signals -- it would not be a long one -- indicating which offense had just been penalized. Not to explain a call, simply to identify it. (Something, incidentally, that college soccer has been doing for over 60 years).

I can’t recall any referee -- out of scores -- who has not, immediately, said no. For “immediately,” read “without giving thought”; they believe they are being asked for an explanation of what they’re doing, and they are anti immediately. I point out that I’m not seeking an explanation, but merely an identification, but it makes no difference. I am seeking to break through their treasured omertá and must therefore be anti-referee.

That is not true. I believe in the “man in the middle,” the referee on the field. The alternative, the virtual referee, cocooned in his booth, protected from the sights, smells and sounds of the real game, does not appeal to me.

But it is increasingly difficult to support a group that insists on using the privileges of 19th century Victorianism to hide its activities, and evidently believes that this “detachment” somehow gives validity to its 21st century decisions.

No, it is engagement that is needed. Facing up to the problem that the ghost games has highlighted -- that of unintended bias in referee calls -- would be a good start. Insisting that the problem does not exist, when virtually everyone else is quite certain that it does, is not a policy that can bring benefit to referees.

6 comments about "Bundesliga Ghost Games highlight a refereeing problem".
  1. Wooden Ships, June 13, 2020 at 10:55 a.m.

    I really enjoy your prose Mr. Gardner. In a strange way I prefer no referee signals, as it causes fans/viewers to think more regarding what they saw. For anyone growing up steeped in the sport and most especially as a player, one knows what the infraction was. I want more and more people to to ponder the subtleties of the game. What I would desire the most is for referees to to greatly curb the player protests. Allow a Captain to have a word, briefly, then get on with things. I've always been respectful of their role and it's difficulty. 

    In my university coaching years none of our referee's used signals, nor do I remember signals being used in the 60's, 70's St. Louis soccer matches. I'm still anti VAR. Poor decisions by players, coaches and referees are part of the game, like life, and it's not possible to remove the human element. 

  2. R2 Dad, June 14, 2020 at 7:51 a.m.

    Those PK numbers do look bad, I have to say. So there does appear to be a skewed application that is probably not limited to Norway.
    I will be curious to see the final numbers at the end of this season. It seems to me players are less aggitated without the crowds and are getting fewer red cards as a result.
    But even without the crowds, VAR under the current situation finds a way to deny "what the game wants"--check out the goal denied to Guerreiro on Saturday (BVB v Dusseldorf) due to a handling call no one saw, no opponents protested and yet VAR called. No matter to the final result, and VAR is correctly applying the new IFAB handling guidelines--but IMHO still wrong.

  3. Paul Cox, June 14, 2020 at 8:54 a.m.

    There's a pretty huge problem with this whole column, and that is the fact that there's 22 other human beings out there running around the pitch that might be affected by having tens of thousands of people screaming at them.

    This extends to the issue even of fouls and penalties. The studies that have after-the-fact observers look at incidents and decide whether they would have given a penalty are probably the best, because in theory they should remove the crowd element altogether.

    But maybe players just play better at home, and don't foul as much. I mean, the reason referees don't seem to call as many fouls on the home side could literally be that simple. Or maybe they run a little bit faster, or jump a little bit higher, or... you get the idea.

    My personal feeling is that the crowd provides a very small push, but in all factors of the game. Referees are included, of course, but even the studies that seem to show referees get biased in favor of home sides have some issues that don't always take into account the notion that the *players* are also being influenced.

  4. Paul Cox replied, June 14, 2020 at 8:54 a.m.

    One thing for sure- by the END of the current seasons, assumning no fans are let into any of these big leagues' matches, we'll have enough data for some interesting studies.

  5. beautiful game, June 15, 2020 at 9:24 p.m.

    Thank you Paul for your insightful observations. I too ses VAR as a detriment to the heartbeat of the game. LOTG need to be re-ddressed in order to reinvent and simply.  

  6. E Velazquez, June 23, 2020 at 3:16 p.m.

    It looks that Ederson knew what he was doing,therefore he needs to be repriminded  and the rules should  be reviewed. A goalkeeper  should not jump up with his flexed and  elevated knee that per se contitutes a weapon and a major risk for the  player next to him. 

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