Criticism of Premier League Referees: Deserving or Overblown?
Criticized and ridiculed on Twitter by players and fans, frequently put down by managers and under constant scrutiny from every conceivable television camera angle, the life of an English football referee can be a tough one.
Andre Marriner, Phil Dowd, Martin Atkinson and Howard Webb are just a few of the officials who regularly incur the wrath of almost every Premier League manager, from Tony Pulis and David Moyes to Alan Pardew and, of course, Sir Alex Ferguson.
Overblown criticism of Premier League referees is predicated upon the assumption that there was once a "golden age" of refereeing. And that what we have witnessed is a continual slide downwards in the standard of officialdom.
This is, of course, completely absurd.
There never has been a golden age of refereeing: Mistakes have always been made, and in fact, refereeing is probably at the highest standards there has ever been.
However, rising standards have been completely overtaken by technology and the increased speed of the game. Instant replays from every conceivable angle, which the referee ironically has no access to, can now be used to lambast a referee from the comfort of a half time studio. Gamesmanship and cheating are also on the increase, making the game harder for a referee.
It's conveniently overlooked that it is the players who have primary responsibility to ensure the game is played in the proper manner, not the referee. And this is where referees are let down by the media.
Pundits consistently ignore diving, gamesmanship and cheating by the players to focus on the referee's performance in order to look like serious analysts with criticisms and to avoid embarrassment when they meet the professionals they should have criticized outside the game.
Referees are the convenient punchbag for Premier League managers, media and biased fans. It conveniently deflects attention from their own shortcomings or acceptance of losses.
Moreover, the bullying and intimidation of referees has gotten steadily worse. It is the norm nowadays to see a player or manager scream a load of expletives in an official's face with no action taken against them. Some managers even start their mind games in the press before a ball has been kicked.
They need to be as tough as old boots. They need to have iron constitution, nerves of steel and the ability to keep a cool head in the face of opposition from tens of thousands of screaming fans.
Not even the most ardent of referee-basher can suggest that refs have an easy job, not least given the levels of deliberate cheating they have to factor in to making every decision. They have a thankless job, and there will always be someone or the other they have upset.
Sometimes, it's everyone.
Of course, this isn't to say that all referee errors should be overlooked and forgiven.
Referees are on the pitch to do a certain job, and while overblown criticism is over the top, the impact their decisions have on a game certainly cannot be ignored.
Also, as some have suggested, decisions do not even themselves out over the season. Every game is a separate entity, and different outcomes alter the very fabric of the league table. Is it justified that a team could be relegated on the last day because of a obviously wrong decision? If an obvious penalty is missed, that is surely the referee's fault, and it could determine the outcome of the game.
Football is all about the teams on the pitch and how their tactics, skill level and desire to compete develop the game over the course of 90 minutes. It should not be overshadowed by the decisions of a referee who is there solely to ensure the match is played within the laws of the game.
But merely whining and complaining over the decisions made is getting us nowhere.
The vast majority criticizing have never come up with any solution to improve it. It's almost like they think somehow they can will the referees to be better. Or that if only we could get rid of the referees we have now, much better referees are just waiting out there somewhere, being deliberately oppressed for no apparent reason.
Of course, everyone knows what is lacking in football now: technology.
Sports like cricket, rugby and tennis have done brilliantly in embracing technological assistance in decision making and have heavily profited from it. Yet football continues to lag behind, leaving referees and their assistants to rely solely on their eyes and ears to make judgments.
After huge outcries following goal-line incidents, such as Lampard's disallowed goal at the 2010 World Cup or Chelsea's hugely controversial second goal against Tottenham in the FA Cup semifinal this year, goal-line technology will be implemented very soon, looking at the updates from FIFA.
But even though it will help in eradicating a number of mistakes regarding goal-line incidents, what happens when a blatant handball or a foul has been missed by the referee in the buildup to the incident? How do we review the fouls, throw-ins and corners, which can also arguably have a big impact on the game?
And therein lies the problem with implementing technology in football.
The difference between football and EVERY other sport that uses technology is that football is a fluid game that does not have frequent natural breaks in the way that tennis, cricket, American Football, rugby, etc. all have.
How often have we heard a referee praised or criticized because he did or didn't "allow the game to flow"? It's fundamental to the popularity of the sport. Stopping the game every now and then to review decisions that may or may not have been given does not seem logical.
Whether the ball crossed the line or not requires no interpretation. It is something that can be measured with 100-percent accuracy on almost every occasion. But whether or not an incident warrants a penalty or a red card is completely subjective. Technology cannot provide an immediate "yes or no" answer and would only serve to slow down the game without completely eradicating the controversy caused by differing interpretations.
How many times in the post-match discussion have we heard the pundits debating a decision, with differing opinions on what the outcome should have been? We can all think of decisions that were glaring errors with an obvious alternative outcome that technology would have corrected, but the reality is that such errors are the massive exception, rather than the rule.
In most cases, all we would be doing would be substituting a slightly more considered "controversial" decision for one taken in real time.
Also, it has to be ensured that when the technology comes in, it should be implemented at every level.
Football is the most popular sport in the world because it is so universal, and all leagues are treated exactly the same. A league game on a dust-pitch in Delhi has the same rules and regulations as the Champions League final.
The moment you go down the road of beefing up the technology in affluent leagues (as only they could afford them), is the moment our beautiful game loses its universal appeal, with different leagues playing different rules. Football is popular because of its simplicity and adding technology in a select few leagues would harm that.
The stakes are just as high for the likes of Barnet and Hereford United as they are for Tottenham and Barcelona.
Talking about additional help for the referees, they could easily benefit from an additional 22 assistants, who are even closer to play than those on the touchline: the players.
Mistakes are part of any game. Technology will never eliminate them as we see quite regularly from cricket; what is lacking is player honesty.
It is probably unfashionable to place blame on players, but it would make the lives of referees much easier if players stopped cheating and trying to con the referee.
The number of times that players deliberately try to fool the referee by diving, holding their faces when they haven't been touched, appealing for things they know are not theirs and secretively holding onto the shirts of an opponent, means that a referee has far more to do than if the players behaved honorably.
If the players merely behaved properly, the referee would have less to do and therefore would get more things right, and technology would perhaps not be needed.
Relatively few refereeing decisions go unquestioned by the players on the pitch. There's hardly a free-kick or throw-in decision that goes uncontested. The players apply all the gamesmanship they can muster all the time.
The offense of unsportsmanlike conduct is almost never applied in such circumstances. Referees are under enough pressure as it is, and this is unscrupulously exploited by the players.
Sometime in the next 50 years or so, players will have technology in their shirts, boots, and hair bands. There will be big screens which will instantly blow shrill whistles if the player is a millimeter offside. The possible trajectory of a tackle will be projected, the intent of players analyzed, and decisions made based on that.
Until then, we will have to live with our human referees.
Of course, having criticized fans for being critical without providing solutions, it would be hypocrisy on my part to not try and think of one.
What I have tried to address is the number of controversial decisions in the middle of the pitch, such as wrongly awarded throw ins, or off-the-ball incidents captured on camera. When the match is taking place, the fifth or sixth referee constantly monitors the game on television. Each time the ball goes out of play, a new review phase begins, starting from the refereeing decision that preceded the new phase.
It's not going to wipe out debates over the decisions made. But it would lessen them. The aim is to obliterate poor officiating. Referees will continue to protect goal-keepers. You're still going to see Nigel De Jong booked for a perfectly good tackle in the middle of the park.
But that's for another day.
Back to my point. Let's say Leighton Baines tries to whip a cross in from Chelsea's goal line, and the ball strikes Ivanovic and ricochets back off Baines out for what should be a goal kick. The referee gives a corner. The following could happen :
“Each time the ball goes out of play, a new review phase begins starting from the refereeing decision that preceded the new phase." Baines walks to the corner flag with the ball, about to take a beautifully accurate corner, only to be stopped by the referee's whistle. The nth official has reviewed the tussle between Baines and Ivanovic and concluded quite easily that the ball indeed hit Baines last. Goal kick.
Or, the corner is taken and Petr Cech catches the ball. Play goes on and no review is necessary; no harm no foul. Advantage.
Or, the corner is taken and Jelavic fairly heads the ball in for a goal. The review should have already taken place; goal kick to Chelsea.
Quite literally, every single replay, therefore every event contentious or not, we see on television every single game. In the events where a decision cannot be made impartially, the 50-50 ones, the decision made by the on-field referee is upheld.
Perhaps referees would take a more of a passive role on the pitch, there as a mediator rather than a petulant policeman, kind of like how Pierlugi Collina was.
You know a good referee when you don't notice he is there.
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