Refereeing education: The present and future (Part 1)

“IFAB, FIFA, Confederations and the Leagues should focus on the “spirit of the Game “and “what football expects” as much as spending time and effort to create criteria to standardize calls.

The readers will have to wait for a few weeks to follow what I mean by modifying the approach to modern professional refereeing education.”

This is how my latest article ended about a month ago. 

I have been following a number of social media soccer refereeing platforms. In those platforms someone, puts up a clip and asks whether the correct decision should be a yellow card, red card, penalty kick, no foul etc. The same is true in a number high level refereeing clinics I attended. In those clinics, the person in charge of the clinic after reviewing the clip and getting various feedback form the participants says, “UEFA/FIFA/PRO – or whatever organization is organizing the event – wants a yellow card for this tackle because …..”  After because …  they reference either the letter of the LOTG or criteria set by the organizing body to interpret the subjective decision. 

So every clip has an approved decision by the organizing body. Most of these clips are about black-white decisions. They try to avoid gray decisions which happens far too often in actual games. In real life, none of the incidents that you as a referee or VAR face are ever exactly the same to any of those clips. So you make a decision based on your understanding of a similar situation shown in one of those clips. Is it that simple? No, it is NOT. Every decision you make as an official should go through the process if interpreting the LOTG and/or the criteria set forward for that subjective decision. Interpreting the Law or the criteria requires an extensive understanding of the development of the letter through the history of the LOTG as well as understanding the spirit of the Law or the criteria.

The interpretation process will take thorough the letter, spirit of the Law and/or criteria as well as “what football expects”. Unfortunately, our refereeing education system takes an easy route of what I explained above. 

Both the spirit of the LOTG as well as the criteria and “what football expects” are left to the understanding of the referees. In a general educational environment where the question of “what” takes precedence over “why,” it is not surprising that referee education system takes this easier route. If we do not reform our refereeing educational system soon, robots and AI will take over subjective decisions also. Today, to follow the letter of the Law and/or criteria is required from the referees with the hope of standardizing subjective decisions. Let me reiterate that standardizing all subjective decisions in soccer is IMPOSSIBLE. 

So how can we reform our soccer refereeing educational system?

The first step is to teach them the correct way of interpreting the LOTG, which starts with the understanding of the spirit of the LOTG.

Clearly through the referee education platform, as you go up the hierarchy you should first learn the letter of the LOTG, then the spirit and eventually you should learn “what football expects”. Law 18 which is considered by most people as the Common Sense Law, once viewed from the lens of Football will lead you to “what football expects.”

Learning the letter of the LOTG is rather easy, but understanding the spirit of the LOTG is not an easy task. Unfortunately, although the LOTG says “decisions will be made to the best of the referee's ability according to the Laws of the Game and the ‘spirit of the game’ and will be based on the opinion of the referee, who has the discretion to take appropriate action within the framework of the Laws of the Game,” there is no reference to what the spirit of the LOTG in the book itself. 

Merit-Webster dictionary defines the spirit of the Law as: “the aim or purpose of a law when it was written”. So a referee should ask for every Law of the Game why it was written the way it was written. For example, why does the LOTG say  “All balls must be spherical“?  The referee should start thinking of why the letter of the LOTG was written and how it developed into the current wording. Why does the ball have to spherical and not elliptical or cube shaped? 

They should start asking the question of “why” starting with the most basic Laws. When instructed to show a yellow card after a clip they should ask the instructor why a yellow card? “Reckless challenge” should not be good answer, the instructor should explain in detail why it is a reckless challenge, including why a reckless challenge should be a yellow card. In essence, then, the instructor will be explaining the spirit of the Law and/or the criteria. This way when the referee sees a SIMILAR challenge in a game, he/she can decide whether it fits with the letter and the spirit of the Law and/or criteria.

The curriculum should be modified with clips that manifest correct decisions based on the spirit of the Law and/or criteria even though if it was based on the letter another decision would have been made. 

The next step is to educate them with “what football expects”. There might be situations where both the letter and the spirit of the Law and/or criteria might dictate a decision where “football does not expect” that decision. 

For example, in this year’s Champion League the semifinal game between Chelsea and Real Madrid – with Chelsea leading and an aggregate of 3-1 – in the closing seconds of added time -- to be exact, five seconds before the final whistle -- the Italian referee Daniele Orsata played on a foul by a Real Madrid defender against a Chelsea player in Real Madrid’s penalty area.  According to both the letter and the spirit of the LOTG, that was a clear penalty kick and coupled possibly with a red or yellow card, based on how he interprets the challenge for DOGSO. He did not call it because football did not expect him to make that call. Chelsea had already advanced to the final and the penalty kick would not have changed the outcome in any meaningful way. Orsata’s decision was a great example of “what football expects.”

Finding such situations and clips is not a very easy task but still such situations and clips should be in the curriculum to present the officials with concept of “what football expects."

So the next step in educating soccer referees after teaching them how to interpret situations based on the spirit of the LOTG and what football expects would come in two different areas:

  1. Preventive officiating;
  2. The use of statistical data for personal development and group development

You will have to wait a couple of weeks to read about those. Until then….

Ahmet Guvener ( 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.

1 comment about "Refereeing education: The present and future (Part 1)".
  1. R2 Dad, June 6, 2021 at 2:28 a.m.

    I'm following along at home; look forward to your next column on this topic.
    However, here's my problem with What Football Expects.
    Let's say your confederation is dominated by a couple big countries, but you want to improve the odds of the many minnows that dominate the rest of the confederation. So what that means is you allow your officials to enable rougher play to even the score for those little kickball countries that are small and don't develop many world-class players. Your world cup qualification cycle resembles a roman gladiator tornament where outlasting the opponent abuse means every four years a marginal team gets to qualify for that next World Cup. Everyone expects red cards to be yellow, yellow cards to be fouls and every ball that hits an arm is Handling/Hand Ball. Throw in a few bags of urine and you have Azteca. A confederation's virtue-signaling for a more enclusive World Cup gets turned into the most unwatchable soccer of almost all the confederations. 
    What do you do when What Football Expects is carnage?

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