long form / not cricket

Football and the Authority of Referees

Football is a game that has problems with authority. Players openly cheat and dive. Referee’s decisions are met by howls of protest from players, sometimes even resulting in bookings for backchat. Managers abuse the linesmen. Worse still, when an incorrect decision is made there is no shortage of critics, from commentators, reporters, players and sometimes even managers at the press conference afterwards. Something needs to change. The disgraceful scenes of dissent that have become the norm on football fields are unsporting and crass.

A referee is in an extremely difficult position. They work without the benefit of any televisual aid, and must make snap decisions based at best on the information provided by their own eyes and their linesmen. Goal line technology is in the process of being slowly introduced, but this is just one area where technology could assist referees. Goals are important, sure, but what about a technological solution to fouls, offsides and diving? And what if, through that solution, the childish dissent so often seen on football fields was cut down?

In this context, football could take a cue from cricket or tennis and institute a decision review system. In both sports it works thus, when a player feels like a call made against them has been unequivocally incorrect, they have the right to challenge it. In cricket the system has largely worked to eliminate the truly awful decisions that will inevitably occur occasionally. There were originally concerns that easy access to reviews would cause them to become an abused tool of timewasting and gamesmanship, but that largely hasn’t happened since the number of reviews available per innings was reduced to 2. There were also concerns that the authority of umpires would be undermined if players could challenge decisions, but that hasn’t been the case.

Instead, the review system has worked because it is a tacit admission that umpires are human. They make mistakes, and that is okay. In general the best umpires will make the right decisions, but all will have moments where they get it wrong. The solution to that is not to pretend that the mistake hasn’t happened, it is to allow the players some form of redress, and then the game can move on. There review system has made cricket a more fair sport, and if anything has protected the authority of umpires. Now players have far less reason to snipe and chip away at umpires after poor decisions, if they think they know better they can always check the replay. If they are right, of course.

Which brings us nicely back to football. So often when fouls and offsides are awarded, or not as the case may be, the referee is then swamped by players haranguing and shouting. After the decision the telecast will show the incident, and if the ref is wrong everyone will condemn him. It undermines the referees far more than a review system would undermine them, as under the current system there is no recourse for players or fans who feel hard done by. All they can do is talk about how useless the referee is. This helps nobody, except the permanently embittered cynics.

Players who complain about a decision should be forced to front up and ask for a review, rather than petulantly rage at the officials. Give teams two potential unsuccessful reviews per game, and take any dissent directed at the referee as a wish for a review. If the decision is upheld by the replay, then the player who showed dissent will have cost their team a valuable resource. If the player was right, the decision should be reversed. If this was implemented it would change the way that players and referees interact, and potentially stamp out the ugly scenes of dissent that plague the game. The other benefit would be that players would finally be able to reverse decisions that they know to be incorrect, potentially restoring the faith of many jaded fans in referees.

Take for example this scenario. Player A is chasing player B, who suddenly takes a tumble. As B was clear on goal, A is given a red card. However, A protests, and asks for a review. The replay shows that there was no contact between the players at the moment B went down, and as such he had dived. The red card against A is rescinded, and B is booked for diving. This is unarguably the correct outcome from the incident, but it only came to light after technological intervention. The intervention has also saved the game from being blighted by a single poor decision, as many games are.

Goal-line tracking is one very small area that FIFA are investigating. I think they should go further and implement the review system outlined above. It would not be possible to completely eliminate the referee’s own judgement from officiating the game, nor would it be wise to. However, when the status quo allows frequent matches decided by refereeing error to occur, then something has to change. This would be a great option for football to investigate, and could go a long way towards addressing the problems of ugly undisciplined disrespect towards officials.

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