'Thanks, ref' -- two simple words to boost the game

Last week I refereed a boys under-19 cup game here in Frankfurt, Germany, and it was as intense and competitive as I'd expected. There were eight yellow cards, one five-minute time penalty, and a dismissal. It was the home team that took the red card, and also conceded two penalties in the course of their 6-2 defeat. They'd have conceded a third if I hadn't played advantage. All this made me slightly apprehensive as I went to fetch my game fee, always paid in cash by the home team after the final whistle.

What does an amateur referee earn in the German state of Hessen? Not enough, is the short answer. For this 90-minute game the fee was €14 (around $17), plus €6 travel expenses. For a men's game we get paid between $26 and $30 plus travel, depending on the level. While picking up your pay, it's not uncommon to face questions about the game, some less politely expressed than others. On this particular night, though, the home team officials thank me, despite the game's outcome, and then add a €5 tip. I try to refuse it, but they insist. It pays for dinner on my way home.

It's that kind of gesture that can make refereeing all the more worthwhile. At this level it's not the money but the appreciation that counts. The feeling that no matter how dissatisfied a club might have been with your decisions (and several of the home players were far more vocal than their courteous coach), they know that without you there would have been no game tonight. In such moments I'm prone to declaring that I'd be happy to referee for free. For the love of the game and all that.

Is that really true, though? When I left Washington, D.C., in 2014, I could make $170 for an afternoon's refereeing across three games -- two as an AR, one as the center ref. That was exhausting, and by the final half of my third game it was a struggle to stay mentally switched on. At the same time, it was a significant salary boost when taken across several weekends. There are different ways of being appreciated.

Money, though, should not be the prime motivation for taking up the whistle. Teenagers who take the course just to earn extra pocket money don't last for long. You have to list several other positives before you write the word 'cash.' These include: keeping fit; keeping involved in the game; contributing to the soccer community; and a sense of accomplishment at a game well managed.

Yet there are days when you feel exploited. Those tend to be the days when there's a lot of moaning, and no one comes to shake your hand or bump your elbow at the end of the game. I can't stress enough how important that is to a referee. Just to hear the simple words, "Thanks, ref," from half a dozen players and both coaches means everything to us. Even better -- though it rarely happens -- is when you're offered post-game food and drink, and the chance to chat about the game in an honest but amiable fashion.

When that basic human interaction doesn't happen, you start to feel resentment and wonder if it's all worth the effort for such a meager financial return. A smile and two words of appreciation are all that it takes. Coaches -- this is one of the most valuable lessons you can teach to your players and parents, and you should insist that they do it after every game, especially when they have lost. This will help to keep referees in the game, and believe me -- the referee will not only value it, but will remember your face and the name of your club.

Last year, a youth team refused to pay me because I had red-carded their coach for irresponsible behavior (he was subsequently banned for three months -- it was not his first offense). One of his players came into my locker room and asked me if it was true that I hadn't been paid. When I confirmed that was the case, he placed a two-cent coin on my table. Unfortunately for him, I still had the player passes and was able to identify him for what turned out to be a lengthy disciplinary report.

Despite a series of e-mails, that club has still not paid me -- 15 months later. I haven't forgotten their name, though, and I've told the story of their failure to reimburse me a total of $23 to numerous other referees in the city. I hope they think it was worth it. It's not about the money, of course, but the lack of respect and sporting values. Appreciate your referees, even if now and then you have to bite your tongue when you do it. 'Thanks, ref.' Or, 'Thanks, ref. Good game.' If we haven't had an off day. We have those too, just like the players, and usually we know it. A couple of kind words help us prepare already for the next game.

(Ian Plenderleith's game-by-game blog, Referee Tales, documents his experiences officiating in Germany's amateur leagues. Warning: contains foul and frank language, and occasional left-wing opinions.)

7 comments about "'Thanks, ref' -- two simple words to boost the game".
  1. R2 Dad, September 15, 2020 at 6:22 p.m.

    $17? That is quite a bit less than what a teen AR can make--typically $25-$30. Then again, maybe there are more referees inGermany than Cal-N. But we don't get lockers/dressing rooms/showers, or food/drink afterwards, either. Or national health care. Probably a wash, all tolled.
    good summary!

  2. Randy Vogt, September 16, 2020 at 7:28 a.m.

    Nice article, Ian! I've been refereeing for 40+ years and we refs receive an inflationary raise every year here in New York. Earning much more than refs in Germany although nobody is becoming rich from reffing soccer games. With no post-game handshakes because of the pandemic, refs are not being thanked as much or told "Good game." I encourage people on soccer fields to remember the ref and if you cannot (in your opinio)n say "Good game," you can at least say "Thank you." I like to thank the coaches when their team is sporting so I'm now seeking them out after the game to do it and generally receiving nice comments in return so that's a possible way to still have positive comments after the match.

  3. Bob Ashpole, September 17, 2020 at 2:15 a.m.

    Ian, on this we agree completely. My practice was to thank the officials after each half. "Thank you for keeping us safe." It worked on so many different levels.

    Assignors never had a problem finding officials for our matches.

  4. Wooden Ships, September 17, 2020 at 11:45 a.m.

    Nice read. I've held all roles in soccer over the years and have always appreciated those officiating. It's a no brainer, has to be. I remember in 2000 while recruiting two good juco teams, both had strong programs. The officiating crew didn't show, miscommunication, and they were going to cancel the match. I stepped up and volunteered. They were confused as to my offer. I told them that I had traveled specifically to recruit/observe their players. Long story short, I centered in Bermuda shorts, button up shirt and samba shoes. It was over 100 degrees. I was spent afterward. But, 2 players from each team signed with me. That was my thanks. To all that officiate, thank you, thank you.

  5. Paul Cox, September 17, 2020 at 12:44 p.m.

    I always greatly appreciate it when teams thank the ref. I think lots of people forget why referees started in the first place; it was because players tried to "call their own", and that went about as well as you could expect.

    Imagine if they were like that today, if players just called their own fouls. I don't know, maybe it would be better? In the hypercompetitive, crazed-adults-sidelines types of places, I cannot believe that it would be. I think it would be a bloodbath.

    But holy crap, 20 euros for a U19 cup game? That's ridiculous. You must have a zillion referees to be making so little money.

  6. Mike Lynch, September 17, 2020 at 12:44 p.m.

    Thank you Ian and all who officiate. 4 Roles at every game - Player, Coach, Referee, and Spectator. After players, next on the priority for official matches are the Refs. The game can go on fine without coaches and fans.

    Back in the 70's when I was a youth player, my club team from Ohio went to Germany to play soccer. I recall many things on that trip including the excellent refereeing, especially in a match versus a small town club in Neustadt. Not sure the resume of the ref of our game but I do recall thinking he must be a Bundesliga ref! I'm sure he wasn't but his professionalism and performance was that it forever left an impression on me: short, crisp whistle, little conversation, kept the game flowing and under control ... an environment for both teams to compete and enjoy. Your description of reffing these lower division, town matches reminded me of my trip. I don't think our ref that day was the exception but the norm. 

    Competitive sport demands rules and rules requires officials. Thank you Ian and all Refs for stepping up and filling this important role. 

  7. Ian Plenderleith, September 18, 2020 at 3:15 a.m.

    Thank you to all above for the kind comments. Yes, the pay is very poor even compared with other German states. There is a major upside to that, though - amateur and youth soccer in Germany is cheap (around $80-100 per year, per player) and participation is therefore open to all. Clubs are community-based and run on super-tight budgets, so if you take that into account then the poor pay is easier to accept. There is no surplus of refs, in fact numbers are going down quite dramatically - from 80,000 to 58,000 nationwide over the past few years. But then the number of clubs/teams is likewise decreasing. There are monthly online exams as well as an annual exam and a fitness test, plus obligatory training meetings (minimum attendance - five a year). Basically, the game relies on deep-seated love. Whether that one-sided relationship is increasingly testing the devotion of the game's multiple volunteers (be they refs, coaches or club officials) is an ongoing discussion here.  

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