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Russell Berrisford

Russell Berrisford

Russell’s support of Derby County eventually led him to leave the country. He has lived in Canada since 2007 and currently writes about soccer for The Vancouver Sun.


Do Referees Have Too Much Power?

Written by on January 10, 2011 | 11 Comments »
Posted in General, The Officials' View

Another weekend and the officials were under fire again. Russell Berrisford considers the scope granted to soccer officials.

There is no official in world sport that has as much influence as the soccer referee, and there is no sport in the world more accepting of the subjectivity of the decisions of its officials than soccer.

Perhaps the Spain versus Netherlands showdown in South Africa was the prime example of how this actually works, for whilst many people were critical of referee Howard Webb’s performance on that day, virtually everybody acknowledged the mitigating factor that his decisions were influenced (and altered) by the fact that he was in charge of the World Cup Final.

Similarly anybody who has tuned into watch a major European club clash on TV will almost certainly have heard a commentator make the point that the man in the middle realizes that he is refereeing a “big game” and therefore needs to modify his decisions with regard to yellow cards and how to react to the ferocity of tackles in general.

I will leave you to decide how much this practice benefits the likes of Manchester United and Real Madrid who, by their very nature, play more high-profile games than other clubs, but it is somewhat bizarre that the culture of soccer has become so readily accepting of this kind of differentiation.

Even stranger perhaps is the fact that it is not just the type of match that is being played that seems to affect the referee’s thinking but also the when and where a particular incident happens. “That would have been a yellow card later in the game.” is an often heard phrase, as is “He would have given a foul for that if it had happened outside the penalty area.”

Try transposing that line of thinking to other sports. Would a line judge in tennis be more inclined to call a serve “in” if it was the first set rather than the fifth? Would Tiger Woods be less likely to be punished for an infringement if it happened on the tee rather than the green? Of course not.

The soccer referee is even the sole arbiter of how long a game lasts, to the extent that time added on has become a frequent cause for debate and accusation.

So is placing so much power in one man’s hands good for the game?

The main argument against this approach is that it frequently results in unfair outcomes. If an officials decision-making process is so arbitrary then there can be no consistency from game to game (or even, as we have seen, from minute to minute). This leads to frustration from both players and fans alike, and not only undermines the integrity of the particular referee but also the sport as a whole.

How often do we see a highlight package that emphasises two seemingly identical situations that result in different decisions? All of this makes soccer infuriating for newcomers to the sport, and even casual observers, who have more than likely grown accustomed to not only consistency from officials but also the use of technology to correct any errors.

The argument for allowing so much discretion is that each situation is different and that whenever in the past a governing body has become over zealous in insisting that referees act in unison the results have been a shambles, with players being dismissed and games being ruined where common sense should prevail.

The point is also often made that controversy is the life blood of the game and that refereeing decisions in soccer spark far more interest and debate than they do in other sports. Take away the human element and you take away a crucial aspect of the match day experience.

In fact soccer doesn’t just overlook bad decisions it embraces them and makes them a part of the folklore of the game, to the extent that two disallowed USA goals in South Africa 2010 have become almost as iconic in the teams history as Landon Donovan’s late strike against Algeria, and every fan of every country and every club will have similar tales of woe that they will recount with morbid delight.

I’m in the latter camp and do my best to remember that the old cliché “It all evens out over a season” isn’t far from the truth, but sometimes that can be a hard faith to follow.

Whichever side you take though, the fact that FIFA continues to drag its heels over the introduction of goal line technology (let alone video replays) makes it pretty clear that the man with the whistle is going to remain the most important, and most talked about, official in world sport for some time to come.

Russell  currently writes about soccer for The Vancouver Sun.

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11 responses to “Do Referees Have Too Much Power?”

  1. Ursusarctos says:

    I recall several years back reading a statistical analysis of EPL referee decisions over several years (by a couple of academics at a British uni IIRC – sadly I don’t appear to have kept a link or pdf of the paper).

    The two conclusions from the study I remember were that referees’ decisions consistently favoured home teams – but that the general home team “bias” was much more important than any differences between specific teams – and that the degree of home team “bias” varied greatly by individual official.

    In other words, home teams get the breaks, and some refs consistently give more than others, but no home team appears to get a greatly disproportionate number of them.

    Given the balanced EPL schedule, therefore, on average every team would benefit from (and suffer) roughly the same home team “bias” against every other team every season – assuming they had the same officials for both home and away legs.

    The problem, of course, is that with only one home match against each opponent each year, aggregated “on average” expectations rarely match the unique actual annual lived experience.

  2. Russell Berrisford says:

    Ursusarctos- There was also a study on Italian soccer that showed that when a game was being played in an empty stadium (due to previous crowd trouble) the home side were punished more than average and the away side less.

    We probably all know that the crowd influences decisions but, as you say, the lived experience just seems to magnify the aberrations of officials.

  3. TomL says:

    I find it surprising that you don’t mention the one area where soccer referees have far more power than in any other sport. And that power is an unfortunate result to the laws of the game. I’m referring to the ability to award a penalty kick. In a sport in which about 2.5 goals/game are scored from open play, awarding a penalty kick is worth around 0.8 goals to a team. It’s the equivalent of a basketball referee calling a foul and having the fouled team shooting 25 or 30 foul shots. Given the profound impact a penalty award has on the outcome of a game, it’s no surprise that players dive to draw one. The bigger surprise is that there so many people who are so strongly opposed to the use of video replay to make sure that the penalty awards are correct (yes, I mean you, Bobby).

    Given the effect of a penalty award we should be very thankful that referees don’t award fouls for actions that “would have been fouls outside the area”. Otherwise, most games would end up with scores of 7-5 (ten of the goals on penalties) instead of 2-1.

    And I don’t think most of the other complaints are unique to soccer. There is widely considered to be a home team bias in every professional sport. And the “that would be a yellow later in the game ” complaint has its reverse equivalent in ice hockey. Many times late in a game, I hear commentators noting how the referee has “swallowed his whistle”, i.e., refused to call an obvious foul (and award a power play) on the (dubious) logic that he “doesn’t want to decide the game.”

  4. RabidDeathMoose says:

    “Given the effect of a penalty award we should be very thankful that referees don’t award fouls for actions that “would have been fouls outside the area”. Otherwise, most games would end up with scores of 7-5 (ten of the goals on penalties) instead of 2-1.”

    Maybe if the rules of the game were enforced to the letter at all levels of play, kids growing up and pros playing for their livelihood would exhibit more respect towards the rules of the game instead of constantly trying to circumvent them?

    Just a thought, the whole concept of applying “common sense” and “in the spirit of the game” on a consistent and unbiased basis is as close to a definition of impossible as I’ve seen as it relates to soccer.

  5. Axel says:

    After watching the last World Cup it was painfully obvious that referees make mistakes. This was demonstrated thru multiple camera views and slow motion replays none of which are available to the ref’s. The ref’s are expected to make honest consistent calls while 50,000 spectators scream and boo. Mean while the announcers use all the modern technology to pontificate on how dreadful a job the ref is doing. Give the guys on the field some technology before you criticize.

  6. Russell Berrisford says:

    TomL- You are right that this is not a solely soccer problem but I think it has an exaggerated effect in soccer.

    Rabbiddeathmoose- It would be interesting to see a season in a league where the laws were applied as written and how that changed the game.

  7. Ursusarctos says:


    “… the use of video replay to make sure that the penalty awards are correct”

    You assume that video replay would allow for a definitive determination in all cases. The ongoing debates that one sees in the media and blogosphere about penalty/ non-penalty decisions – even after days of reviewing the events in slowest slo-mo and from a multitude of angles – puts the lie to that hopeful assumption.

    Video replay might help match officials make better decisions in some cases, but at what cost? Do we replay every penalty decision – and if not, that implies a human judgement about which decisions require video replay in the first place, and which don’t. More controversy …

    What about non-penalty decisions, where one might have been called but wasn’t – do we review those as well? Given the very high penalty conversion rate, non-calls can have as great an impact on a match (by denying an almost certain goal) as a penalty call – but whose human judgement decides when a non-call is reviewable and when not? More controversy …

    And what happens in those cases where even video replay is not clearcut – who decides that there is not clear evidence for/ against a penalty, and that human judgement will have to make a final call? More controversy …

    The point is that video replay is not a “solution” that gets rid of flawed human judgement – it only pushes that human decision-making into a second order problem (how and when to apply replays, ad how to interpret them). The controversies and “wrong” decisions will continue (for example: ref should have reviewed that penalty call, but he didn’t because he said it was clear …).

  8. TomL says:

    Rabiddeathmoose – I agree with you that a harder line on calling penalties would, to a degree, clean up the repeated fouling that largely goes unpunished. One obvious example is shirt-pulling, which is very straightforward to call (not much gray area at all). If referees religiously called a foul every time a shirt was pulled (and a penalty awarded, if in the area) shirt pulling would almost cease to exist. (The uproar while players adjusted to the new way of calling the game would be amusing to watch, too.) It has somewhat cleaned up players’ habit of jumping into headers while leading with their forearm/elbow. A problem that I felt had gotten totally out of hand five years ago has been greatly reduced by referees taking a harder line. But again that is a reasonably straightforward call, lead with your elbow and hit an opponent in the head – foul. But it doesn’t work nearly so neatly with a lot of fouls that occur. Sliding tackle and the attacker goes down. Foul or not? Player goes up for a header and goes over his opponent. Foul or backing in? Most foul calls still rely on the ref’s judgment. And these are professional players, so they will take every advantage they can get away with. And it’s naive to think they’ll ever do otherwise.

    ursusarctos – You’re correct. I should have said “will reduce the number of obviously wrong calls”. For the reasons you mention, I think video replay should probably be limited to questionable goal line determinations (over the line or not) and review of all penalties. First, because the impact is so large (goal or not – again out of an average of 2.6 per game). Second, the game is stopped at that point anyway.

    The rugby, hockey and American football use of video shows that it can work reasonably well for such a limited set of questions. Over-the-line determinations are usually straightforward. Penalty vs. dive is harder, but I think that refs and players could arrive at a reasonably consistent definition of which is which and the refs could apply it consistently using the criteria of “clear and convincing evidence”, i.e., the call is obviously incorrect. And it would punish divers on the spot, making them less likely to do it in the first place. BTW, I’d take a hard line. If you take an action that you’d never take if there were no expectation to draw a penalty, e.g., kicking the ball over the end line, then dragging your toes so you fall over the keeper, then it’s diving, not “drawing the foul”.

    I agree that there may not be a good solution for the penalty “no-call” scenario. However, an uncalled legitimate penalty probably costs a team only a small fraction of a goal (without the foul, they usually won’t score anyway). However, an incorrect penalty will usually cost the wronged team a goal. At least the worst problem would be addressed.

    Video replay as I’ve described won’t fix everything, but it will at least eliminate most of the egregious errors. And probably cut down on diving.

  9. Ursusarctos says:


    “video replay should probably be limited to questionable goal line determinations (over the line or not) and …”

    I have no problem with helping match officials get goal line calls right – I’m just not convinced video replay is to best way to do that. I’d like to know that we’ve exhausted every possible implementation of a tennis-like technological solution (e.g., chip in the ball) that would give an instant and non-reviewable indication, before even talking about time-consuming and potentially controversial replays for human review.

    “video replay should probably be limited to … and review of all penalties.”

    This is where we disagree. I’ll explain:

    “The rugby, hockey and American football use of video shows that it can work reasonably well for such a limited set of questions… refs could apply [a reasonably consistent definition of penalty vs. dive] consistently using the criteria of “clear and convincing evidence”, i.e., the call is obviously incorrect.”

    How often have you seen a difficult try call drag on for several minutes as the TMO reviews the footage over and over? Even in a semi-fluid sport like Union football that can be a momentum and excitement killer (although I admit they usually do seem to get the calls right beyond any real complaint) … in fluid Association football it would be far worse.

    There is no way you really want to compare the NFL to football to justify replays – NFL refs spending several minutes under the hood subtracts nothing from the “game”, since that time is just a slight extension of the usual break needed for each coach to micro-manage the next 4 second phase of play (just writing about the NFL makes me yawn …). And as you know, even after video replay review calls can still be controversial.

    The point is this: over/ not-over the goal line is a simple factual question, and so is amenable to a technological solution (as per tennis) – but a penalty call is not. No matter how much we dress up video replays as “technology” (meaning it must, of course, be better …) and use legal-sounding language to disguise the human element, in the end penalty/ non-penalty comes down to a human judgement call.

    All the technology in the world will NEVER remove controversy from football penalties, because all it does is push human judgement – with all its variability and unpredictability – from the initial step of making the snap decision, to the second order one of assessing the video. There is no guarantee at all that two referees will make the same penalty call from the same video replay. And that replay will have been at the cost of slowing down one of the world’s most fluid games.

  10. TomL says:

    I agree the review of the call could still be argued, since many are based on interpretation. But I’m quite confident that calls based on a review of video would be, on average, a fair degree better than calls based on a snap judgment from a ref who may be 30 yards away, at a bad angle, out of position, or have his vision blocked. At a minimum, truly glaring errors would be fixed. And again, considering the effect of one goal in soccer compared to even a TD in football, the need to get the call as close to right as possible is far more important. When one call will, on average, determine more than one third of the scoring in a game, I feel it would even be worth a five minute delay to get it (closer to) right. And it wouldn’t take anywhere near five minutes.

    I have to laugh about “slowing down the world’s most fluid game”, though. Considering that most penalty calls result in: a) a minute or more of players surrounding and berating the ref, b) 30 seconds of spotting the ball/staring down the keeper/ feinting, c) 2 seconds to shoot (5 for Ronaldo) and d) 30 seconds of celebrating, I think time could be found to look at the video.

  11. Gbenga says:

    Some of the referring especially in the EPL is atrocious… Some dubious calls every time and Manchester United seem to be the beneficiary of these calls when Howard Webb and other referees officiate their games.

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