Time to Give the Referees a Break

The FIFA World Cup is the world’s biggest and most popular sports competition. Held only every four years, the tournament is a showcase for all the world’s best and most talented players, and the knock-out format ensures lots of excitement and drama. This year’s World Cup, held in Brazil from June 12th – July 14th, was no exception. Unfortunately, some of the drama has occurred as a direct result of controversy surrounding calls made (or not made) by referees at the World Cup. This year, refereeing decisions seem to have been a bit of a ‘hot-button’ issue with fans and the media, partly because of our endless access to picture and video replays of incidents, and partly because of the number of controversial calls made in the tournament.

Referees at the World Cup – and in soccer in general – have a very challenging job. Physically, they are being placed under enormous stress, and are still expected to perform almost flawlessly if they are to avoid criticism. I attended a match at this year’s World Cup (Match #58, the quarter final between France and Germany) and after taking an up-close look at the referee at this game, I can attest to just how difficult the job really is. This article will examine some of the difficulties of refereeing soccer at the highest level, and suggest some possible alternatives that could be incorporated in the future.

Physical Demands of Refereeing in Soccer:
Several studies using time motion analysis on top level referees, including some recent ones done in Denmark by Bangsbo et. Al (2001) and in Brazil by Da Silva et. Al. (2008) have determined that the amount of running, done by top level referees, as well as their running speed, is not very different from the amount and speed of running done by outfield players. Bangsbo’s studies for example, found that referees from Denmark’s first division covered an average distance of 10.07 kilometres per match, of which 1.97 kilometres was of a high intensity (fast running or sprinting). Similarly, Da Silva’s studies found that top level Brazilian referees covered an average of 9.5 kilometres in a match, and that their high intensity running was 1.80 kilometres per match. These numbers are slightly lower than the average amounts of running and high intensity running done by outfield players in top level leagues, but not by much. A number of studies done using time motion analysis of outfield players in various top level leagues including England, Italy, and Spain, have found that players run, on average, a minimum of 9 and maximum of 15 kilometres per game, and the amount of high intensity running can vary from 1-4 kilometres (depending on playing position, and several other in-game factors). Thus an argument can be made that the physical demands of top-level soccer refereeing are similar, yet slightly less, than those of top level outfield players. During the quarter-final in Rio De Janeiro that I attended, I observed the referee make several dozen fast runs/sprints to keep up with the ball and play as it moved, so I would definitely agree that from my own personal experience, referees do a lot of high intensity running.

The Problem with the Physical Demands of Refereeing:
Unfortunately for referees, their advanced age puts them at a significant disadvantage with regards to the ability to perform high intensity running. In the two studies mentioned, the average age of top-level referees was 42 (Denmark) and 39 (Brazil). This means that on average, referees are 10-20 years older than the average outfield player. Most players do not continue to play into their 30’s, and almost no outfield player continues to play until the age of 42, yet somehow top level referees are expected to cover almost as much distance, and to do almost as much high intensity running, at this advanced age. Compounding the problem for referees is that they are expected to be literally perfect (to always make the correct decision on the pitch), regardless of how much running they have done. There is a very clear relationship between amount of running done in a match and fatigue, and consequently, a very strong relationship between fatigue and mistakes made in soccer (as well as in other sports). Thus referees are not only expected to be perfect, they are somehow expected to be perfect while performing under extreme fatigue. It is difficult to impossible to imagine a team of outfield players in their early 40’s, competing against and running almost as much as top level players 10-20 years younger, and playing for 90 minutes without making a single mistake, yet that is exactly what most fans and the media expect from top level referees.

Soccer is the only major sport that puts this much pressure on its officials. In contrast, think for a moment about Canada’s most popular professional sport, ice hockey. The playing area is about one 3rd the size of a soccer field, yet in NHL hockey there are a total of six officials; two on-ice officials, two linesman (responsible for calling ‘off-side’), and two goal judges (responsible for determining whether or not the puck has crossed the goal-line). Furthermore, in hockey the action is much more intermittent than in soccer, so that while the two on-ice referees do have to perform a significant amount of skating, they are given frequent breaks from play in which they can recover. An analysis of the other popular North American sports (football, basketball, and baseball) shows that these sports also have more on-field officials than soccer, and these officials do significantly less running and physical work (in the case of baseball, almost no physical work) than do soccer referees.

The Possible Solution(s):
In my opinion, the governing bodies in soccer (namely FIFA and UEFA) should try to tackle the refereeing problem from two angles:

  1. Add video replay to assist in decision-making by allowing each coach to challenge 1 on-field call per half (4 challenges in total per game). This is already done in American football, and in soccer I believe that giving a tired referee the ability to watch one or two quick replays of a specific incident before possibly changing his or her mind on the call would be simple, easy and most importantly quick to do. It should not take an experienced referee more than about 30-60 seconds of watching a video replay to either stand by, or reverse, their decision.
  2. Add a second referee on the field of play, and assign each referee to only one half of the field. This change would significantly decrease the total amount of running done by referees, and therefore also significantly decrease referee fatigue. Since fatigue plays such an important role in ability to perform both physically and mentally, adding a second referee should also significantly decrease the amount of mistakes referees make in each game.

At the end of the day, soccer fans and media will always be critical of referees and their decisions. In some ways this criticism also adds to the spectacle and overall interest of the sport as a whole. In my opinion, however, the physical burden placed on top level referees makes meeting fans’ and the media’s expectations impossible to achieve. FIFA has already taken a huge step in the right direction by introducing goal line technology at the World Cup for the first time this year. Hopefully they will also consider making the changes recommended above to help improve the quality of the beautiful game, and give all referees a needed break.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic.  Drop me a line here to get the conversation started.

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