Abuse towards referees seems normal in football. The working environment of referees and the climate they operate in isn’t always looking bright. “And if people keep seeing abuse, nobody says: I want to referee”, says Dr Tom Webb, who started the Referee and Match Official Research Network in 2017 and has just published his book entitled ‘Elite Soccer Referees: Officiating in the Premier League, La Liga and Serie A’, which you can get at Routledge. “Unfortunately there’s a trend that it’s okay to be abusive towards referees. We need a cultural change, but that can take decades.”
Webb had played to a good standard, but has never been a referee. He got involved with referee-related research when he did his Master’s degree at the University of Gloucestershire. Back in 2003 there was a huge problem with recruiting and retaining referees in England. In 2017 he started the Referee and Match Official Research Network to “bring together academics and others interested in the development and associated research concerning the match official within a variety of sports.” He wants to develop a greater understanding around how referees operate, what their experiences are and what the differences are between officiating in different countries and sports.
Back in history
To get an idea of where the abuse comes from, you have to go back in time. In 1863 the Football Association was founded and the game became predominantly working-class over time. The Rugby Football Union (RFU) was formed in 1871 by middle- to upper-class people, “Therefore respect was maintained”, says Webb. “Football professionalised much earlier than rugby union too, because more money was involved in the game. Rugby was a long way behind.”
Verbal abuse seems acceptable
Although rugby is perceived as a sport with more respect, abuse towards referees is a growing issue, says Webb. “In football, just under 20% of the referees say they have been physically abused. In rugby that percentage gets nowhere near that. It’s just 3%.” But there’s a similar level of verbal abuse, like swearing at the ref. “Football players are more used to do it, but it doesn’t mean it’s acceptable. Verbal abuse seems like something we accept. Although the Respect Programme by the FA had some success, we need a cultural change. And that takes a long time to take effect.”
Above: famous clip with rugby referee Nigel Owens where he explains a difference between rugby and soccer.
Volunteering as ref in pub leagues
Refereeing isn’t just about top level refereeing, don’t forget the pub leagues on Sunday. “That’s a whole different culture”, says Webb. “At a majority of the game referees get some expenses, but they’re basically volunteers. It’s very important to have a look at the working environment of referees there as well. It’s influenced by how we talk towards the referee. That’s actually one of the biggest issues there.”
Status quo in referee numbers
Webb says a similar number of referees that got recruited also quit. “They don’t want to be sworn at”. Earlier this year there was a huge strike amongst referees. “It’s sad it comes to that point. It’s a last resort. The refs don’t want to do that, they love refereeing.” A problem is, according to Webb, that referees feel disengaged in for example the Respect Programme or they don’t feel helped in the disciplinary process. It’s them versus players and lots of fans.
Difference between countries
Webb wants to know what’s the difference between refereeing is in different countries. For example, the way they officiate and prepare. If there’s a difference between games in their own country or in a Champions League game, do they get other directives or use different technology, “There’s a lack of research on these topics, lots of subjects haven’t been covered yet.”
Dealing with simulation is not the same in Europe
There’s a big difference in how players deal with players, says Webb. “Spanish and Italian referees often use more deterrents towards players. In England you’ll notice more talking.” Webb gives another example: simulation. “Players in southern-European countries are more likely to deceive the referee. In Spain or Italy players get applauded if they conned the referee. It’s the referee to blame that he didn’t spot it.
The working environment of refs
A few more differences that influence how referees (re)act and that create a positive or negative environment for match officials to act within. The role of the media is also not the same. “This can be shown with names like ‘the trial’ which focuses only on errors”, says Webb. “Some referees got the idea they can’t do anything right. They even prefer to referee in the Champions League and Europa League instead of in the domestic league.” And what about maintaining the quality of refs? “In England and Italy referees from all over the country meet every two weeks, but that’s less frequent in Spain. Does that influence the training quality?” That’s something Webb wants to compare and see what it means for refereeing.
Disrupting the flow of the game
And don’t forget the current ‘hot’ topic. How will technology influence the game? “Rugby is more stop-start, football is quicker”, says Webb. Despite the cry for the use of technology getting louder, will the game benefit from the Video Assistant Referee? There’s much at stake in football. One goal can mean the difference between earning millions or nothing. “But using technology could also disrupt the flow of the game. That could be a problem.”
Refereeing in other sports
In recent research Webb didn’t only look at football, but also at four other sports:
- Cricket. “Historically that sport embraced technology the most. They have even chosen shorter formats due to technology for example.”
- Squash. “Match officials are only involved if there’s a let situation, otherwise the players decide who wins the point”. That’s for example when a player thinks he is obstructed by his opponent so he wasn’t able to play a ball.
- Ultimate Frisbee. “A sport officiated by the players”
“In the latter there’s a big problem while trying to professionalize the sport, especially in America”, says Webb. “It’s difficult to introduce referees on the pitch in a sport that’s normally officiated by the players.”
“And in all sports we see sportsmanship changes over time. Research shows refs notice less sportsmanship when a sport becomes more professionalized. Every path and game is important for players for their career. A bad decision can mean they become runners up or won’t earn a contract. That makes it inevitable that sportsmanship declines.”
Sportsmanship is easier when winning
Going back to football. It’s very kind to kick the ball out when one of your opponents is down with an injury. “It actually happens more often than not”, says Webb. “But will they also do that 10 minutes before the end of the game? It all goes back to respect for the match official. The referees are there to uphold the Laws of the Game. But sportsmanship is easier when a team is winning or at the start of the game.”
The cultural change
The culture of a sport is difficult to change. “It takes effort and investment in time and money”, says Webb. “The Respect Program is not even 10 years old. It can take decades for the culture to change. I’d like to see respect woven into the fabric of the game.”