12 December ~ Much of the football broadcasting on the first weekend in December was devoted to criticising what had been, by common consensus, a terrible couple of days for refereeing. Indignation levels soared. Each supposed howler – Gary Cahill being sent off, David Luiz staying on the pitch, the non-penalty awarded to Sunderland – was subjected to a mixture of uncomprehending ridicule and scorn. How could top-level referees make such obvious mistakes? The simple explanation, of course, is that they are doing an extremely difficult job. They’re trying to control a game played at high speed, by top athletes, who are often trying deliberately to deceive them.

Referees don’t have access to the instant replays upon which Alan Green surely bases his unshakeable belief in his own infallibility. They will, inevitably, make mistakes and some of those mistakes will have a significant impact on the outcomes of matches. Referees shouldn't be above criticism but they should not be subjected to a level of criticism far in excess of that directed at players and managers, either.

When a player misplaces a simple pass, falls over his own feet or misses an open goal, the criticism is leavened with sympathy. He has simply had an "off day". When a referee makes a mistake, more sinister motives are ascribed. He is trying to make himself the centre of attention. He is incompetent. Petty. Probably perverted.

It is not hard to see why hammering the referee is seductive for those directly connected to the game. For managers and players, it is a convenient smokescreen, especially when the alternative involves taking personal responsibility for a defeat or offering a resigned shrug followed by the explanation: "Yes, we lost, but what do you expect? We have Lee Cattermole in our team."

More insidious are those ex-players now working in the media, who instinctively side with former colleagues rather than officials. This professional solidarity doesn't apply if the player deserving criticism is foreign and psychologically vulnerable, like David de Gea or Fernando Torres. Pundits don't regularly bump into these players on the after-dinner circuit or at pro-celeb golf tournaments, so they are fair game.

Which means it is down to the independent voices – journalists and broadcasters who haven't been directly involved with football – to ensure that the criticism directed at referees is proportional to that levelled at players – to suggest that, occasionally, a team may have lost for reasons other than the incompetence of an official, even when that official has made a mistake.

If those on the playing side of the game won't reduce their criticism of referees from the vitriolic to the merely unsympathetic, the level of scorn directed at player errors should be raised correspondingly. In this brave and brutal new world, there would be no escape for anybody.

After Bolton's 3-0 defeat to Spurs, for instance, the journalist interviewing Owen Coyle would have refused to be deflected by Coyle's complaints about Gary Cahill's sending off, and instead asked: "Why was Gary Cahill trying to perform a Cruyff turn in his own half anyway? He's not suffering from a delusion that he is Johan Cruyff, is he? He does realise he is Gary Cahill, with all the limitations that implies?"

Highlights and analysis that refused to devote a disproportionate amount of time to scrutinising the officials' shortcomings would be able to run extended blooper reels of the glaring cock-ups committed by even the best players every week. As well as being great fun, this would give a far more accurate picture of how most games are lost – an accumulation of minor individual and collective errors, rather than dramatic blunders by referees.

Adjusting the balance of criticism between referees and players and managers won't be easy. Referees don't help themselves. Rather than humbly regarding themselves as necessary evils, they trot around with a pomposity that comes from knowing they are the only person on the pitch with their name sewn into their underpants.

Broadcasters can criticise them with impunity, knowing that upsetting Mark Clattenburg won't have the same implications for their programme as upsetting Kenny Dalglish or Alex Ferguson. But while referees aren't glamorous, or even particularly sympathetic, we shouldn't passively allow their mistakes to be exaggerated or distorted to serve other agendas. Ed Wilson

Comments (22)
Comment by Jongudmund 2011-12-12 12:54:08

Indeed, yes. I get very fed up with managers complaining about one refereeing mistake in a game as if that was the sole deciding point.

"We were denied a clear penalty!" Well, maybe, but you had 89 other minutes to try and score and didn't do much with it, so perhaps you should take a long, hard look at yourself.

Comment by Paul Rowland 2011-12-12 12:56:47

...and don't forget the fans, Ed. Yes, that's right - you and me. We often think we see things which the ref has missed, and promptly shower him with a volley of good ol' anglo-saxon bile, only to discover that when we get home and watch it again - he was right and we were wrong.

Or maybe we were right and he WAS wrong - he did give that throw-in on the half-way line to the wrong side - but so what? It seemed like a big deal at the time, but now things have cooled down, it doesn't really matter all that much. It didn't really change anything, did it? And that is the bottom line. Refs, pundits, players, managers, fans - we're all equally incompetent.

As the good Lord said, let he who is without sin cast the first stone...

Comment by Kid A 2011-12-12 13:26:00

I heartily agree with this piece. And of course what happens at the top of the game is imitated all the way down to the refs at park level, who get abuse for not being perfect from players who can barely manage a ten yard pass to a teammate. But the inadequacies of my park team are not the subject here...

Comment by jonmid 2011-12-12 13:43:19

Paul's correct about the involvement of fans in this situtation. The problem with referees is that we have two extremes on the one hand we have the let's get the ref and blame him routine on the other hand we have the referee is always right and eveeryone else is wrong. What is needed is balance

Comment by erwin 2011-12-12 14:37:38

I think we should, in fact, expect perfection from the referee, who's a judge, after all. Imagine being on the losing end of a court decision which was skewed by a misinterpretation by the judge and saying: "Ah well, no one's perfect. I'll do my time and lump it."

Players and manager's are expected to be flawed, but referees, no. Having said that, yes, I agree; players and managers can't blame a defeat solely on the ref if they themselves have been incompetent. But if they've been competent, played exactly to their plan but are undone by a blatantly bad decision from the ref? What then? Lump it?

Comment by Coral 2011-12-12 15:23:57

Judges don't have counsel stood in their way when trying to see the evidence, they don't have the defence shouting in their face each time an objection is upheld, the public gallery aren't calling him a wanker and leaving him needing a police escort from the ground, and more importantly it is not him who makes the decision. That is for the Jury under the direction of the Judge. Aside from all that, thankfully legal justice is not needed within 5 seconds of the offence.

The fact you use that analogy, although amusing, hints on some level how seriously some people view football and the decisions that go with it.

Comment by erwin 2011-12-12 15:41:14

@ Coral

Ah ... "That is for the Jury under the direction of the Judge." ... not where I live - Portugal. In fact here, 'o árbitro' (the football referee) is often referred to as 'o juiz' (the judge).

Of course my analogy was an exaggeration (and defective for those not familiar with the Portuguese legal sytem), but I do insist that we should start from a point where the referee is expected to be perfect, then bring our expectations down given the distracting circumstances you mention. What the referee cannot be equated with, it seems to me, is players and managers, who are expected to err from the outset.

Comment by Coral 2011-12-12 16:13:42

I think they can be equated with players and managers, but as I mention with your analogy the key part is time. I have watched players in training tonk a ball into the top corner by themselves time after time. When they are rushed and have people all over the place they tend to miss. There is no place for such a court room analogy, whichever country, because of the period of time on which it focuses. A court room is looking at something from a frozen state and picking over it. A football pitch is a moving series of time with judgements effecting the future picture and detailed anaylsis passed over in favour of punctuality of decisions. We could ensure all decisions are given the level of scrutiny seen in the court room, we get that at half time. It takes often 10 minutes of views and counter views. You may desire that perfection, I would rather it was done in a second and we move on safe in the knowledge that it is sport and what is important is decided in a court room and what is a release and trivial is decided on a pitch.

Comment by erwin 2011-12-12 16:26:10

"You may desire that perfection, I would rather it was done in a second and we move on safe in the knowledge that it is sport and what is important is decided in a court room and what is a release and trivial is decided on a pitch."

Yes, I desire that (admittedly unattainable) perfection, so that as far as possible games are decided on the relative merits of the two sides, and not on the referees' failings (or something more sinister).

(btw Nowhere have I said that I thought a game of footy was more important that what went on in a court room. I don't know where you go that from.)

Comment by imp 2011-12-12 16:34:33

Erwin, you implied it as soon as you drew the comparison. The demand for perfection from referees is plainly ridiculous - it's just not physically possible for the referee to see absolutely everything that goes on in the course of a game involving a fast ball and 22 extremely fit players. It would help, though, if referees were allowed to account more for their decisions in post-match interviews, explaining calls and admitting that they made mistakes. And if players, fans, managers and journalists would all pipe down.

Mind you, if I was a Spurs fan I'd still be weeping uncontrollably at the officiating in the second half at Stoke yesterday. There's imperfection, and there's just plain horrible refereeing.

Comment by erwin 2011-12-12 16:49:06

"Erwin, you implied it ['football is more important than what goes on in courts'] as soon as you drew the comparison."
- No, sorry, I don't think I implied that, imp.

"The demand for perfection from referees is plainly ridiculous - it's just not physically possible for the referee to see absolutely everything that goes on in the course of a game involving a fast ball and 22 extremely fit players."
- I concede that perfection is impossible ... but I'd still like the refs to get as close to it as possible, and it's what we as spectators expect at kick-off ... which, back to the other point, is invariably not what we expect of our team, knowing their failings as we do.

Comment by Nefertiti2 2011-12-12 16:53:54

Yes an excellent article.

One thing that does need attention is that Premier League referees come overwhelmingly from the northwest (Cheshire alone provides three referees - London and the South East none. There is no referee fromthe largest centre of poulation with five premier league clubs. So that ex player culture is also reinforced by the social prejudice of referees - how many Africans Eastern Europeans or South Americans are they likely to have encountered? PLus any attempts to change the ethnic make up of referees seems to have been forgotten as Premier league referees are drawn from a smaller and smaller geographic area and ethnic group.

Comment by Coral 2011-12-12 17:16:16

"I concede that perfection is impossible ... but I'd still like the refs to get as close to it as possible, and it's what we as spectators expect at kick-off" Yes and that is what the article is about that we shouldn't expect it because it is impossible. We expect Messi to score a wonder goal everytime, and he doesn't. The same as I expect Heskey to score from time to time.

You didn't say that you said it was more important but by drawing comparisson it is what people would think, same as people reference the amount of money as if that means football is not longer a sport but purely business.

Nefertitiz, why does it matter about the ethnic make up of referees? Our game is what it is a players from abroad have to adjust to it, it is the way the rules are interpretted by our FA. The same goes for an English player in Spain. That said, the exchange programme with Japan could produce some interesting results.

Comment by JimDavis 2011-12-12 18:10:03

It did make me laugh, the song and dance (and slide show) ol' Kenny brought out last week in his attempt to talk up a better deal for Liverpool over Christmas. He may think he's boys are hard done by, but even poor hard done by Liverpool were awarded a penalty at the Hawthorns, which just goes to show, they may no longer get the favourable split second decisions bestowed on the top 4 ('Arry's stolen Kenny's membership card!) but there are still a few more behind them in the current pecking order.

Comment by Nefertiti2 2011-12-12 19:11:28

becaause ethnic stereotyping means that for example certain players are given an unfair reputation for "diving" say Eduardo or currentyl Suarez, which when carried out by a British player would be called "going down a little easy".

Likewise the British footballing culture has more way of describing a foul without calling it as such than the Inuit have words for snow. "showing them you're there early doors" = kicking them" let them know they're been in a game" =Kicking them, and so on ad infinitum.

Comment by Coral 2011-12-13 09:41:24

And our "ethnics" who are into British football wouldn't understand that?

Comment by Nefertiti2 2011-12-13 10:52:17

1) British football has the same rule book as everywhere else

2) What I m saying is that the ex-player/ Cheshire ref culture alluded to in the article is more critical of foreign players a diving Rooney or kicking Shearer is acceptable. The same act when performed by a foreign player will see them pilloried in the press.

3) i don't know what you intend to imply by putting the word "ethnic" in quotation marks.

Comment by Coral 2011-12-13 13:54:24

3) Because you are doing inverse racism. Because they are from the North West those silly men can't understand that people are culturally different.

The rules in Britain are the same but the interpretation is different. For me as an English football fan, I am so glad we don't have the Spanish mode of reffing where fouls are more commonly given for a quick roll on the floor.

Comment by quoththeraven 2011-12-14 12:26:22

I quoth: "Indeed, yes. I get very fed up with managers complaining about one refereeing mistake in a game as if that was the sole deciding point.

"We were denied a clear penalty!" Well, maybe, but you had 89 other minutes to try and score and didn't do much with it, so perhaps you should take a long, hard look at yourself."

Likewise, when Norwich played Newcastle at the weekend and were given a corner that should not have been, and then scored from said corner, managers will always put their (at the time uncontested) point of view to the MotD interviewer, that the officiating mistake "cost their team the match". To make a less humorous point than the original article's Gary Cahill comments, surely in this case there would be entertainment from Alan Pardew's reaction to an interviewer saying, not unreasonably, that the real issue was not the decision, but the free header his team allowed an opponent, from a set piece they had adequate time to get set up for.

Comment by Peter_Bateman 2011-12-14 16:00:27

What makes top level sport such compelling drama (sometimes) is that is human beings in action with all their skill, courage, nobility, deceitfulness, dishonesty and yes, plain fallibility. Errors are as much part of the game as sublime skill. Football without mistakes, be they players's mistakes or referees' mistakes, simply wouldn't be worth watching. A bit like a version of Othello where he realises he's being most unreasonable and he and Desdemona live happpily ever after. And imagine not being able to blame the ref when your team loses!

Comment by Jongudmund 2011-12-15 13:29:11


How has Suarez got an unfair reputation for diving? I would say he has earned the right to be called a diver. And he's done it the hard way, by repeatedly tripping over invisible obstacles.

If anything he is generating a negative stereotype of Uruguayan behaviour. So if other Uruguayans fell over very easily in the box and then looked aorund immediately to the ref like a toddler seeking solace from mummy after taking a tumble in a supermarket aisle, then it becomes 'typical Uruguayan behaviour'.

Comment by tempestinaflathat 2011-12-16 15:10:34

Hallelujah to that. The top referees tend, if anything, to make rather fewer mistakes than the average player they oversee. And rather fewer than most managers, while you're at it.

So, your team has just drawn 0-0, and there was a borderline penalty decision which didn't go your way. How about, rather than saying that you were robbed, stop to consider why your team didn't score for the other 89'59"? Probably because they weren't good enough.

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