I always had an affinity with numbers. Numbers and data never frightened me. Instead, they empowered me. I believe data and related statistics in soccer are of great value. Using statistics does empower club management teams and hence they are necessary tools, but no need to say they are not sufficient by themselves for the success of a team. Seeing the business prospect various companies now provide clubs, federations and Leagues with data-based analysis tools as well as the relevant data and statistics. Some of the statistics are also shared with TV broadcasters to inform the spectators, like Whoscored, Soccerbase and Optasports.
Although club management teams have access to mega amounts of data and related statistics – as long as they pay for it – one of most important stakeholders and sometimes the scapegoats of the game, referees, have very little access to data and related statistics. If you look at the statistics during TV broadcasts, the only statistics related to refereeing you will get are the number of goals, fouls, penalty kicks, corner kicks, off-sides, yellow and red cards. If you are lucky, you might learn how much the referee ran during the game. That is it.
If you look at some websites that provide information about refereeing based on the professional leagues, you can also find out some statistics for the individual referees like average number of yellow cards, red cards, penalty kicks, and fouls as well as home/away win percentages. Aren’t these useful for the referees and leagues? Yes, they are but their use is pretty limited.
Naturally the statistics companies do not see a demand and hence an opportunity for business to collect and feed data into their system only relevant to refereeing. Some of the data that they might like to gather is rather subjective in nature. The system can tell percentage of correct passes for a player or as a team since that data is based on objective data. Similarly they can collect the data for fouls but not the accuracy of the fouls called or no calls for fouls since they are subjective in nature. There are some statistics based on research showing the percentage of correct foul calls (72%) using three experts to judge. Still, it is based on three experts watching the game or the video and hence very much subjective in nature. Naturally, if you increase the amount of experts, then the percentage might vary.
After the 2018 World Cup, FIFA's Pierluigi Collina claimed that “99.3 percent of "match-changing" decisions were called correctly at the World Cup -- "very, very close to perfection" -- based on assessments by him and other senior ex-referees." Still both the research and the claim are based on experts’ assessments and hence very much subjective in nature. One can easily conclude that subjective decisions should be kept out of the scope of refereeing statistics. One also might ask what other data and related statistics could be useful for the referees.
There are two areas such data and related statistics which might be very useful. One is for the referee and/or the referee coach during and after the game to help to control the game or develop the referee. The other area is for the leagues/federations to see where their standards stand with the rest of the world. So that they can tune and develop some of their applications if there is a need or use it to convince the public that their applications/interpretations are in line with the rest of the world.
Let us have a look at the first area. It is clear that the best tool for referee coaching in the professional game is the video recording. But some data might also help that is not inherently obvious in a recording. In an earlier article, I had proposed that the total number of fouls of committed per team as well as which players committed how many fouls – plus the nature of the foul, handball or foul against an opponent -- and against which players might be very useful data for game control and this data should be collected. This data is not readily available; the standard statistics will give the referee crew just the number of fouls in a game. If the above data is compiled it could be used at half time for the crew to understand and plan their game control strategy. After the game the referee coach can use this data to see whether the referee was aware of the game control issues in the game and coach him/her accordingly.
Also other than the standard game data, the referees and their coaches should have access to statistics regarding their movements and positioning through the game. This data should include the relative positioning of the assistant referees with respect to the ball or the second to last defender whichever is closer to the goal line, giving the average distance off the proposed correct positioning of the assistant referees, especially during fast counterattacks. This data is readily available in today’s technology for the players so the same should be applied to the crew and shared.
I can also add to my wish list the true distance between the ball and the wall during ceremonial free kicks. The current technology can easily measure that.
The second area is the result of the recent changes to the Laws of the Game and especially the VAR application.
There are no statistics related to the VAR protocol for the below collected by all the leagues. Some leagues have them but they are not generally available to the refereeing community.
I believe the above should be mandated by FIFA to all leagues/federations to be collected and shared for a successful and standard overall application of the VAR protocol.
If you are a league/federation that would like to see and compare some data with other leagues/federations instead of relying on anecdotal information then you are at the mercy of statistics platforms that focus on the teams/players. For example, the following data and related statistics in leagues are not available:
You can add others to the above list. As long as the companies rely on professional clubs for revenues, it will be difficult to convince a company to have a refereeing version of their product. Actually except for collecting the data regarding the fouls – who and against who – most of the refereeing data can be collected using the technology available to all companies.
I believe after the pandemic in a few years there will enough demand from leagues and federations for the companies to collect data relevant to refereeing and create statistics to produce a refereeing statistics product.
Ahmet Guvener (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former Secretary General and the Chief Soccer Officer of Turkish FA. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in Georgetown, TX.