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.)