Ref Watch: Soccer's tolerance of referee-mobbing is a disgrace and has a far reach

On a Saturday I reffed U-19 boys and on Sunday U-9 girls. 

It’s something I enjoy most about refereeing. Getting a close-up view of soccer's different types and levels. Usually it's older kids on Saturday and younger ones on Sunday. 

On the Sundays I don't expect to hear much from the players, and very rarely do. With those U-9s, the only time a player addressed me was when a 7-year-old ran straight up to me after being subbed in and asked:

“Do you know what side is right?” Caught off guard, I bent down some and said, "What's that?”

She repeated, “Do you know what side is right?”

Then it clicked that her coach told her to play right back. I pointed to the right while facing the other team’s goal.

When I ref teenage boys on Saturdays, I brace myself for hearing a lot more from the players.

I find the amount of dissent from teenage boys appalling and remarkable. There can’t be other situations in their lives where they feel free to scream angrily at an adult, can there?

But I get why they think it’s OK. They watch soccer at its highest levels, with the biggest stars, and elite referees — and see even aggressive dissent tolerated.

The sport’s leaders should be ashamed that players screaming into a referee’s face or a gang of them surrounding the ref is commonly seen soccer.

The second “cautionable” offense in the rulebook has long been "dissent by word or action," but rarely are yellow cards shown. It may be the least enforced rule in the rulebook.

Year after year we hear of “respect” campaigns and directives from leagues and the sport’s governing bodies promising clampdowns that aren't followed up on. A sampling:

UEFA to punish referee hounds (2012)
UEFA warns against referee ´mobbing´ (2016)
FIFA to clamp down on mobbing of ref (2017)
IFAB considers instructions to referees to caution players sooner for dissent (2018)
IFAB will continue to look at measures within the Laws of the Game to tackle mobbing of match officials and confrontations between players which should have no place in the game (2020).

Obviously, refs don’t feel they have their bosses' support to enforce the caution dissent rule. And as my colleague Beau Dure put so well, "We’re seeing players who think referees are their indentured servants."

There should be a worldwide directive from FIFA — supported by all leagues and confederations — that dissent will be cautioned as spelled out in the "Laws of the Game." There will be a  flurry of yellow cards in the next weekend's games, and many matches abandoned for lack of players, because of the second yellows shown for the players' response to the first.

But from then on, the sport will be rid this disgraceful behavior.

Players are good at figuring out what they can get away with and what they can’t.

A further step would be a rugby-like rule in which captains can query refs in a civil manner and any other player gets immediately cautioned if they approach the referee. (see: "Rugby can show soccer the way on 'emotional' dissent" by Ian Plenderleith).

IFAB should also, as Paul Gardner has advocated for decades, create signals for referees to explain their calls ("Referees have some explaining to do"). It should be the right of players, coaches and fans to know what foul was called, and clearer communication could temper misguided dissent.

There is no doubt in my mind — in most cases — that boys who are otherwise respectful, believe that dissent is a part of the game. Why wouldn’t they, when it’s what they see their soccer role models do on TV?

On the Saturday, with the U-19s, during player check-in, I tweaked my pregame talk. I held up the rulebook and asked them if any of them had read it. I tried to use a friendly tone. The coach chuckled, after the boys’ blank stares, and said, “None of them have.”

I smiled — aiming not be schoolmasterly — and said, “OK, I know you pretty much know the rules, but there are always tricky calls, like handballs, and soccer has rules that are very hard to judge perfectly all the time. And sometimes I won't see exactly what happened.

“I don’t like to be yelled at. Actually, I hate to be yelled at. I’ll try to quickly explain my calls, and if there’s a question, one player, like your captain, can ask me when there’s a stop in play.”

It ended up being one of my better games. In one case, the team’s captain asked why I didn’t call a penalty kick. I told him, “My view was blocked by another player. I saw the forward fall but didn’t see what the defender did.” After the game, he thanked me for reffing. You may be surprised how rare refs get a postgame thank you.

I’m not naïve enough to believe you can build a rapport with players that survives the heat of the game. But the referees’ work at our level would be much easier if professional refs didn’t submit so cravenly to the millionaire players kids look up to.

* * * * * * * * * *

Refereeing in Soccer America

Among our recent ref, rules and officiating coverage and commentary:

1. Soccer in the Balance By Paul Gardner 

2Handball, or not? Even pro refs haven't a clue By Ian Plenderleith

3TV commentators' over-the-top VAR criticism has far-reaching impact on ref bashing By Beau Dure

4. Two U.S. VARs headed to 2022 U-17 Women's World Cup By Mike Woitalla

5Howard Webb leaves PRO, returns to England for chief referee job By Mike Woitalla

13 comments about "Ref Watch: Soccer's tolerance of referee-mobbing is a disgrace and has a far reach".
  1. Gordon Holt, September 24, 2022 at 12:34 p.m.

    Often wondered why refs don't simply loft their little yellow cards immediately when loudmouths go at him/her nose to nose. And spread it around... You? You? And  you? You're next? Even to the bench and the coach's corral. This ain't hockey. So why the reluctance?

  2. Ben Myers, September 24, 2022 at 12:58 p.m.

    Referees in our high school Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association are supposed to use hand signals for fouls but often do not. Any explanation of these hand signals is buried somewhere in the MIAA web site, so even if we saw a hand signal, we might not know what it means.  The most frequent ones are arms crossed and raised above the head to signal a clock stoppage followed by waving one arm in a circular motion to start the clock again. For the others, who knows?  Do the coaches know?

    But, yes, stuck-in-the-20th-century FIFA would do us all a favor by coming up with a few visible hand signals easy to do and easy to recognize for fouls, adding them to LOTG.  Or maybe USSF could do it all by itself?

  3. Craig Cummings, September 24, 2022 at 7:06 p.m.

    You are spot on MIKE. I like to show yellows for discent but most of my fellow refs do not. Great read.

  4. Kent James, September 25, 2022 at 10:54 a.m.

    I came to refereeing as a player, and when I reffed, I wanted to be a "players' ref," one who understood the game and what mattered. I was going to stop the players whose illegal efforts impacted the game, and ignore the piddling "by the book" concerns about sock length.  Growing up one of four boys, I could handle criticism and verbal abuse did not bother me; I wanted to give cards for fouls, not what people said.  I realized pretty quickly that while complaints about calls might not bother me or affect the way I reffed, if unaddressed, soon everybody was yelling and focusing on the refereeing, not the game.  When one team complains, the other team feels the need to counter that complaint with their own.  So I recognized that cards for dissent could be just as important as cards for fouls, in terms of game management.  

    Of course, the difficulty of sanctioning dissent is how much is allowed?  The simplest (and easiest to enforce) is none is allowed.  Players are not allowed to say anything to the referee about calls made (or not made).  This would require a change in the culture, but could be made to work. But are you going to card a player who says "it's our ball ref, it nicked off of him just before it went out"?  It might be awkward at first, but players would adjust.  Such a draconian approach may not be necessary, but it would be interesting to see if it worked.

    As a player (who was a ref), I certainly engaged with the referees duirng the game, always respectfully and only to give them feedback so they might improve the accuracy of their future calls (:-)).  If all players acted like that, it might not be so bad. On the other hand, I do think the game would be better if no one was allowed to dissent, since allowing some does open up a whole can of worms.  Better to take the issue off the table.

    Even that is not without challenges; how do you deal with a player who says to his teammate (not the referee), but within earshot of the referee, "boy, the ref missed that one; the ball clearly went off their player last..."  People will always push the boundaries, but at least setting the bar high (no dissent), we'd have room to give before chaos reigns...

  5. R2 Dad replied, September 25, 2022 at 3:01 p.m.

    "But are you going to card a player who says "it's our ball ref, it nicked off of him just before it went out"?  It might be awkward at first, but players would adjust." As with all soccer-related issues, the US is so large, with so many leagues, clubs and organizations involved, that getting any kind of consistency is the primary challenge. Props to you for making suggestions to improve the situation, as difficult as it might be to implement such changes.

  6. Wooden Ships, September 25, 2022 at 11:56 a.m.

    In the 60's, 70's only the Captain was allowed to talk to the ref. It worked great. 

  7. R2 Dad, September 25, 2022 at 1:46 p.m.

    "least enforced rule in the rulebook." I beg to differ: persistent infringement!

  8. Mike Lynch, September 25, 2022 at 2:04 p.m.

    How about a 4 pronged approach based on each sticking to their primary role at a game (adopted from Bruce Brown)? 
    1) Refs need to enforce the LOTG and tolerate little to no dissent. No consequences, expect dissent.
    2) Coaches need to coach their team, not ref the game.
    3) Players need to select a Captain who can represent them to the referee. 
    4) Spectators ... thank you for coming to the game. If a parent, think about about what dissent signals to your child

  9. John Polis, September 25, 2022 at 6:53 p.m.

    As a long-term observer of the game, and in the last six years an MLS season-ticket holder, I've often wondered about the lack of enforcement on dissent. The rule makers long ago discovered that you can't have players popping off at the referee for every little thing that happens in a game. But having watched MLS for a lot of years, I find that this particular league is one of the worst perpetrators of allowing dissent. It's almost as if the referees have to be buddies with the players to explain this and that ad nauseam. Every season it seems, sometimes on the most obvious calls, the referee blows the whistle and the coach in the coaching box and at least five players around the referee all have their hands in the air like they've just been told that they've been handed out jail terms. It results in a great deal of time wasting. It's bad for kids watching the games who then take that to their own fields of play. And it's just bad refereeing. Players don't need to discuss every call with the referee. Of course there are times at which they're upset, but this notion of being upset every time the referee blows his whistle isn't good for the game. Most of the time it's phony gamesmanship. The game would be better off without it. But it won't get any better until the referees stand up and let the players know that they're not going to take a whole lot of dissent. They should do this not only for the good of the game, but also because the way the game was meant to be played, with a minimum of stoppages, especially those caused by disingenuous, who-me histrionics.

  10. humble 1, September 26, 2022 at 11:24 a.m.

    Led by England Premier League, which I am convinced harvests dissent as part of their differentiation 'entertainment' package, soccer is on it's way to becoming like the NBA was at the height of flopology.  The flop in soccer is everywhere today, attackers and defenders flop at the slightest touch.  For me, dissent is part of the greater problem arbitrating games.  So we have soccer on TV which is entertainment, then we have amatuer soccer which is sport.  There is a difference, a big difference, but the kids don't get this.  The key actors in this that we cannot control are parents and coaches.  My son's coach won't have his players disenting to refs, he'll pull them.  He's the exception.  In a lot of clubs, you pull a player, the parent pulls their player.  These are all contributing factors.  Thank you to all who referee games! 

  11. Wooden Ships replied, September 26, 2022 at 2:01 p.m.

    While coaching at the University level, I too pulled any of my players that had a word or complaint to the referee. Only my Captain was allowed to approach. 

  12. William White, September 27, 2022 at 10:04 a.m.

    I was a very active youth referee until about 10 years ago.  I wish I'd kept better track of the number of games I handled, but it was undoubtedly hundreds, if not 1,000+.
    I generally agree with Mr. W, but I do have two points of DISSENT (sorry, couldn't resist).
    1) I haven't seen Mr Gardner's articles about adding hand signals, but I'd hate to see that happen. Here in NJ, as, I imagine, is the case in most other states, high school soccer is (stupidly) played under unique, non-FIFA rules. Part of those rules here in the Garden State is that referees have certain signals they make to indicate the nature of the foul they have called. To my taste the employment of those signals is anything from comical to grotesque.  
    If you know the game it is almost always the case that you can see why a referee has called a foul. Of course, you may not agree (because, after all, why is it always MY team that gets called for ticky-tack fouls when the opponent is out there breezily committing assault and battery?), but that is different from not understanding the call. Further, what I would do, and other referees instinctively do, is to give an informal signal when you suspect the infraction is not clear - or when a coach yells, "What was the call, Ref?"  
    One of the aspects of soccer which I love is the continuity of action. Football, baseball, basketball all have breaks which afford players & coaches almost unfettered opportunities to engage game officials in polite, dispassionate, Socratic discussions about that official's latest ruling. Soccer?  Nope - we get on with play. Don't understand the call?  Well, as any referee has said more than once, "Coach?  Your job is to coach, mine is to ref.  I'll stick to my job, you stick to yours."
    2) Mr. W talks about a pre-game talk he gives.  I highly recommend a pre-game talk I settled on very early in my reffing career: "Good luck."
    To my mind, there are only 2 possible outcomes to anything more elaborate: a) You are going to misquote one of the LOTG, b) you engender unneeded criticism when a coach or player perceives that you have not officiated as you said you would. 
    For instance, a common youth referee pre-game admonition is, "Keep your arms down when fighting for the ball."  Yet, nothing on the LOTG talks about the need to keep one's arms down. Further, the first time player A gets his arm up a bit to shield away player B - and you don't blow your whistle - well, your pre-game talk has sewn the seeds fir dissent that you would not otherwise face.
    So....  having picked those 2 nits, I otherwise completely agree with Mr. W.
    ~Peace and love

  13. humble 1 replied, September 29, 2022 at 11:30 a.m.

    Great comments Mr. White.  Thank you! My son is one of those players you probably encountered, radar for everything, knows the laws of the game and he's clever and tricky and plays very physical and will open a dialogue with the ref, even in Spanish, which is his first language.  Had more than his share of double yellows and straight reds, he stands up for teammates in an old fashioned way.  He's been mistreated by many refs, used to go headgone - but - he's mature well - and keeps his head even when things don't go his way - more than criticize these days, he seems to know perfect game will never come - and he shows appreciation for a well arbitrated game. He's trying for college now, and one of his game highlight reels we sent out, where he played an unbeleivable game, I show him in going right to refs post game to shake hands, he's the first.  He was annoyed that I put that in, I did it to emphsize to him, and to coaches, good sportsmanship and thankfulness.  Great to get your perspective after your countless number of games!  I will share this with the young man. 

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