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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.


Empathy for the Official

Written by on April 2, 2012 | 9 Comments »
Posted in The Officials' View

During the Champions League games of last week Bobby tweeted the thought that it would be interesting to see how the television commentators would fare if they were allowed to referee a game every now and then.

Obviously the many upsides of this experiment appealed to me.

The hilarity of watching people who seem to have barely glanced at the laws of the game trying to make split second decisions would be one of them, as would the simple fact that we would no longer have to listen to them while the game was taking place.

But then I became more self-reflective and began to wonder how I would fare if I were given the stopwatch and whistle?

How would any of us who watch the game for enjoyment cope with unique pressure of the role?

The truth is that very few of us can can give an accurate or honest answer to that question because we have never actually experienced what it’s like to be a referee.

Conversely I know for a fact that I would be a disaster playing the holding midfield role for Barcelona because I’ve kicked a ball about on a pitch and have had ample proof that I’m not as good as Mascherano, but I’ve never once tried to make a real live penalty decision at any level so have no idea how that feels or what the difficulties are.

Similarly the playing experience that the vast majority of fans have (no matter what the level) helps to inform them about other aspects of the game.

They know that a forward who has hit the ball high over the bar did so because he was leaning back, they know that a defender who has lost his man has done so because he was watching the ball and not the player.

Yet they are often willing to forgive these transgressions because they themselves have, in some small way, made the same mistakes.

But how many of us really know why a referee missed the pull of a shirt, or awarded a corner when replays clearly show that it was a goal-kick?

How many of us know the correct position that the referee should take at corner kicks or could say with certainty that a crucial decision was missed for a specific reason?

And because we don’t know why these mistakes were made, because we can’t empathise with the referee’s predicament we assign their failure to simple incompetence rather than showing the generosity of spirit that we give to (much more highly paid) players.

How frustrating must it be for the modern-day match officials when so few of us actually have a clue what the role really involves and so many of us are so quick to condemn them?

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9 responses to “Empathy for the Official”

  1. Erik says:

    I officiate basketball in the So Cal area and have done High School games for the last 10 years. You have no idea the kind of crap I put up with – and ignore – all the time. People think I am blind and missed a call that went against them. Contrary to what they might think I saw the play and saw it better than they did because I was 5-feet away from it with an unblocked view while you in the stands were 30+ feet away (at best). In soccer it might work the other way where those in the stands see things better than those on the pitch but for those who think they are better than the officials on the playing surface – prove us wrong. AYSO is always looking for officials – so contact them and say you want to officiate a game. Odds are most won’t last more than a few games, if that because for most getting in shape to cover that ground eliminates their ability to do any games as is. Same with basketball – go work some Youth League games and see how “easy” it is. People need to STFU when it comes to the officials unless they have “been there/done that” and for almost everyone out there – they haven’t and never will

  2. tatiG says:

    well, for basketball it’s inexcusable since you guys have video replay. it’s even worse in American Football, where the game stops every minute to review plays.

    In soccer, I would be willing to give the refs the benefits of the doubts. But, this is the same reason why there need to be video replays in soccer, so that this blaming ref thing would at least be reduced.

    Some people say if you introduce video replays will slow down soccer. But soccer is slow game anyway. In a 45min half in Italian league, they only play like 22min of action. The rest is out bounce, players laying on the pitch, etc…

    So, why not review the decisions on PK. it only takes 45 seconds from the review official upstairs, communicate the decision downstairs. Same thing for allowed goals. There is stoppage of play, review it in that stoppage.

    The continued disdain for technology in soccer, is what makes me more inclined to watch NFL. I mean, the game has come to who can trick the refs best, not who is actually talented.

  3. Grant says:

    Good article. Needed to be said. I find most of the criticism of officials is just lazy media coverage. Time to find a way to have technology help officials instead of using it to humiliate them or impugn their integrity. I like the idea of a video official who can contact the ref if an obvious mistake is made. And one appeal to video per half by each manager. With sanction if appeal is considered frivolous.

  4. John Bladen says:

    Many times it is difficult to determine whether the official was right or wrong when looking at close up slo-mo replays… and yet the commentators routinely castigate officials for “not seeing that”.

    I agree 100%. Fans forgive players who make perfectly stupid (or even plain lazy) mistakes… but refs somehow have to be perfect (in actuality, it’s amazing that they are right 99.9% of the time given the pace of the game, the number of things they have to watch, and the ‘gifted fakery artists’ we have playing today).

    It seems likely some form of replay will be permitted in the near future. I’m ambivalent about that, as having limited replay available for only certain kinds of calls and at certain times arguably can make the game less fair, rather than more. Far more goals result from missed offside or incorrectly awarded corner kicks than are lost from poor goal line decisions.

    No replay system in the world will put right an onside break incorrectly whistled down.

  5. Russell Berrisford says:

    Erik- the abuse of the official seems even less acceptable at High School level so kudos to you for putting up with it – I’m not advocating that a partisan home soccer crowd shouldn’t get on the referee’s back every now and then but that the whole emphasis on the faults of the ref be toned down with some measure of understanding of how difficult the job is.

    Grant & John- personally I think instant video evidence will create as many problems as it solves but that is probably a debate for another day!

  6. Clay says:

    Another insightful piece Russell although I don’t think human fallibility or even pressure should be an excuse for the decision-making capability of top-level referees. I have watched live (not TV) MLS, A-League and international games with a close friend who is a top-level ref himself – and I have learned a lot. He shuts down my criticism by pointing out what the ref saw and I, obviously, didn’t. It is always a humbling eye-opener. However, one thing even he says is that a referee should be consistent in how they apply the laws. Too often we see the same rule applied differently in the same game by the same ref. Any wonder why (true) fans still become annoyed at officiating? I recall the Whitecaps/Fire game last season when the ref made it clear in the first few minutes he would put up with no crap. He refused to stop play for fake injuries and told players not to stall, feign or complain. The result? It stopped and the game was fun to watch. Key message – the best referee is the one you don’t even know exists.

  7. Erik says:

    Tatig: On the H.S. level going to Replay is 100% BANNED! If the game is being televised (99.999% aren’t) we can’t go to a monitor and see a replay and make a call based on that. We have to call it as we see it and hope we got it right

    Russell: They aren’t yelling at me – they are yelling at my shirt. When I was in the stands before the game no one said a word to me but once the shirt goes on – that all changes. It’s not personal so I ignore it because I know the SECOND I acknowlegde them I am 100% wrong. I might be 100% right but acknowledging them means I am wrong unless they go waaaaaaay over the line. I have tossed 1 parent from a game – about 10-ish years ago. It was a Youth Game – maybe 5/6th graders. The game was played in So Cal and the parent was for a team from Vegas. I ran him after I gave him plenty of warnings. I ran him on a Saturday. The next day I did more game and spoke to a fellow official and said I tossed someone. We talked more about it and it turns out my partner had the same team earlier in the day and ran the SAME EXACT PARENT that I did

  8. John Bladen says:

    Erik: Spike Lee??? nah, it couldn’t be…

    But your description of amateur basketball reffing is similar to my limited experiences in other sports.

    I understand it’s an emotional thing, especially for parents. But my goodness, I’m always shocked that any sane person could believe that volunteer refs give up their free time just to intentionally interfere with the outcome of rec league games…

    Having said that, the only time I was ever red carded (many years ago – and deservedly so) was for suggesting the ref in my game might have been doing just that… I guess it’s one of those perspective things…

  9. Astronomer says:

    I agree with your call for video technology. Too many finely-balanced games are destroyed by controversial penalty kicks and red cards. Penalty kicks (especially of the “soft” variety) are an absolute killer in a low-scoring sport, like soccer.

    For instance, today, the CL game between Barcelona and Milan was transpiring to be a real edge-of-the-seat affair and then the referee gave a controversial second penalty to Barcelona. It was controversial because many other referees would not have given a penalty for that particular infringement (Nesta on Busquets). After that second penalty, the game basically fizzled out.

    This happens all the time in soccer.

    But I am not too optimistic about video technology coming to soccer to the extent it is present in US sports. In Europe, both the fans and the sport’s administrators are much more tradition-bound than their American counterparts (with the exception of maybe baseball) and the argument that video replays will slow down the game will continue to prevail over there for a much longer time (maybe a couple of more decades).

    Sad, but that is part of the reality we face.

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