Double standards

Can you imagine what it would be like to have two referees on the pitch? Well David Wangerin knows just what it's like and is pretty sure it that the proposal is simply yet another bad idea from Sepp Blatter

The Times headline was unequivocal: Two-referee system would stop the cheats. “We all know that in almost every match we see,” asserted the columnist, “there should be three or four penalties, for instance, yet often there are none; that unseen fouls are inflicted off the ball; that forwards are subtly nudged from behind in such a way that the referee 30 yards away cannot hope to detect. This imbalance in favour of defenders and of negative play could be ended almost overnight by the introduction of two referees instead of one.”

The date of this critique might surprise you; it’s from David Miller’s column of February 18, 1989. Impressed by a two-ref system trialled at a five-a-side tournament in Holland, Miller wrote hopefully of “a mood among FIFA circles to investigate the possibility of change”. That investigation may not have led to much, but 17 years on the ever-fanciful Sepp Blatter seems to have picked up the baton. Musing over the “pace” of the World Cup and discounting the view of Pierluigi Collina that “there can only be one man”, Blatter and his minions – apparently urged on by Miller – have put an extra whistle-blower up for discussion by the International Board this autumn.

Tandem refereeing systems have been around for decades – the British Army FA seem to have developed one in the 1950s and the United States has used them (without linesmen) for as long as anyone can remember. It’s interesting to note, though, that while American college soccer continues along its idiosyncratic path, the two-ref method has fallen out of favour there, with the principal collegiate body now solemnly decreeing that “the three-person, diagonal system of control (DSC) is preferred”. Why the change? Certainly my brief time as a US Soccer Federation referee persuaded me of the folly of allowing more than one whistle on the pitch. And that was 20 years ago.

Folly? Well, you be the ref – or, in this case, one of the two refs. A player takes a tumble in the centre circle. Theoretically, the official with the best view makes the decision… but which of you has it, and how does the other know? You blow for a free-kick; it’s a foul. Or is it? Your colleague spotted a dive and thinks a booking is in order. One of you must give in, but you’ll need a little chat first – and maybe a long one if a sending-off is at stake. Ref versus ref; imagine Mick McCarthy’s reaction at the next World Cup.

Consider, too, the stoppages in play the extra whistle-blower will invariably create. Many will be unwarranted, since the ref with the better view of an incident who allows play to continue often finds the other blowing for a marginal infringement.

Perhaps most important of all, though – and surely part of the legislative wisdom of football – is that refs are able (or should be able) to apply the rules as they see fit. A half-decent ref quickly develops a feel for each game and governs it accordingly; no two will control the same match in quite the same way. One official’s doubtless breach can be another’s quiet word and neither is necessarily wrong. In games I worked, a divergence of interpretation between the two guys in black proved mildly frustrating to the players. The reaction from World Cup combatants is likely to be more pronounced.

If 21st-century football seems blighted by “controversial” decisions, then the omnipresence of television, not the competence of the man in the middle, has brought them on. Each new camera angle reveals more undetected fouls – and more clamouring for “better” referees. It may be naive to restrict the number of cameras inside the ground (though I’d certainly be willing to give it a go) but it’s even more naive to expect players to forgo the sly dives and shirt-tugs merely for the sake of fair play, particularly with a World Cup at stake. Two referees, or three, or 20 all with eyes in the back of their head, won’t bring back the Corinthians. They will, though, stop the game more often.

A committee to wade through slow-motion replays and hand out dissuasive fines and suspensions in time for the next match may seem like posthumous justice – particularly to the losers – but the idea is surely more deserving of a trial run than an extra official. Perhaps, too, instead of piling even more pressure on beleaguered match officials, FIFA should be reminding broadcasters that refereeing decisions, like hitting the woodwork, will always be part of the bounce of the ball.

From WSC 235 September 2006. What was happening this month