Refereeing as an industry is suffering something of a crisis


Manchester United's Paul Pogba. (Martin Rickett/AP)

For as long as soccer has been played, referees have been complained about.

It has become an intrinsic part of the game, with some even against the implementation of video technology so as not to eliminate the pub chatter that revolves around officiating. Soccer, they say, would lose something if we could no longer blame the man in the middle.

But even those who defend the right to criticize referees must be growing tired of criticizing them quite so much. Not a week goes by without a refereeing controversy, with most weeks now witnessing more than one. It’s not an illusion; as observers of the sport we have never before spoken so much about the whistlers.

Take last weekend’s game between Manchester United and Bournemouth, for instance, when Kevin Friend failed to send off both Tyrone Mings and Zlatan Ibrahimovic for engaging in the kind of combat that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a UFC octagon. Or the Premier League clash between Swansea City and Burnley on the same day, when Anthony Taylor awarded Swansea a penalty for a clear handball by a Burnley player.

Then there was the questionable officiating in Arsenal’s Champions League loss to Bayern Munich on Tuesday which certainly deserved scrutiny, albeit not to the level Arsene Wenger suggested afterwards. Whether it’s in the Premier League, the Champions League or even Major League Soccer, where complaints against the officials are common, refereeing is in crisis all over the sport.

So, what can be done to reverse such deterioration? Is it down to the training referees are given? Premier League referees, considered among the very best in the sport, are essentially left to their own devices, coming up with their own training programs, studying in the comfort of their own home, jogging in their local park. Should there be more structure to their day-to-day routine?

Others will point to the increased tempo and pace of the modern game as an explanation for the number of refereeing blunders being made. Are elite referees fit enough to keep up with elite soccer players? While players’ careers tend to wind down after turning 30, referees’ careers tend to reach maturation at that age. Are whistlers too old for the modern game?

Former Premier League referee Graham Poll says the treatment of officials by governing bodies is a factor.

“I walked away when I was 42, totally disillusioned with the way referees were treated by the FA,” he said in an interview last month. “Surely the powers-that-be must see there is a damning pattern and investigate the entire set-up. There is an ever-weakening select group of referees and a dearth of talent to replace them.”

All the while the discussion over the modernization of refereeing continues. Goal line technology has proven a success since its installation at Premier League stadiums three-and-a-half years ago, with MLS now experimenting with video assistance. The tipping point has been reached. 

Pub chatter over the judgement of referees is fine and well when it concerns the kind of decisions that are down to individual interpretation, but the blunders being made are increasingly of the black and white variety. If an organic solution can’t be found to improve the standard of officiating in the sport, then video assistance must finally be implemented. Referees need help and the technology is there to give them it.

Until then, however, the downward curve in the decreasing quality of top-tier referees shows no sign of plateauing. There will be more decisions like the one that saw Ibrahimovic and Mings avoid red cards, or the one that saw Swansea punished for an opposition player handling the ball in their box. Refereeing as an industry is suffering something of a crisis and some crisis management is needed.

Sportsnet's Soccer Central podcast (featuring James Sharman, Thomas Dobby, Brendan Dunlop, and John Molinaro) takes an in-depth look at the beautiful game and offers timely and thoughtful analysis on the sport's biggest issues.

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