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Blowing the whistle on refs... and clubs, fans and federations

by Teo Pellizzeri on May 31, 2011

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There is no silver bullet to improve the standards of refereeing. As we sink into the depths of winter, dissatisfaction with all things officiating is that little bit easier to find. With the chaos going on within FIFA at the moment, it may seem very small-time to focus on the referee at the local park. But there are six key stakeholders in refereeing standards that we should keep an eye on.

Inspired by this mind-boggling story about a referee bashing in Adelaide, I think it’s time to look at which parties need to take responsibility in the refereeing debate.
Is there a category missing? Is one of the stakeholders not holding up its end of the bargain? We welcome your comments below.

Fans
Where do you start? The above article is an extreme instance yes, but from the Premier Leagues to provisional competitions the abuse leveled at referees from the fans (at least in Victoria) has gone beyond banter, or insulting and is simply sad to witness.

Exactly what a fan gets out of shouting, abusing and threatening a linesman, barely two meters away from him over the fence for 90 minutes, is beyond me. Asking (or as some state federation rules have established, threatening) fans to lift their behaviour at grass roots level seems like a pointless exercise because the message simply wont get through. Dishing out penalties to clubs whose "club associates" (read, fans) is simply worsening the relationship between fans and the game's authorities. I'd like to see any statistical evidence from any of the state federations with such rules in place that it is acting as a deterrent.

Clubs

Some clubs garner reputations for successfully intimidating referees at their home venue. Some turn it into an art form. The bottom line is enough decisions in any given game are wrong, or debatable enough for clubs and their fans to feel aggrieved, and accumulate the feeling of being hard-done-by over time.

Administration

The number-one conclusion of the fan who feels the referee did a poor job is that it's the administration's fault. Lack of funding, lack of training, lack of human resources. Whether this is true or not for any given state federation, it is the perception among the fan populous.

At the Melbourne Fan Forum in February, panel member Mark van Aken asked the room are the referees in the A-League really any worse than those making the wrong calls in the (English) Premier League every week?He was met with a venomous and immediate ‘yes' (they are worse) from the crowd. Is there a correlation between spending on and investment in referees, and the appeasement of fans?

Players
The lack of back-chat to referees in Rugby Union always fascinates me. It is a genuine situation of knowing that your conduct interacting with a referee will not influence an outcome of a game. Certainly not like say, baseball, where even if you're wrong, you argue for the next call in order to get inside the referee's head. It is, in my opinion, completely unrealistic to aspire to football at any level, elite or amateur, having a level of referee treatment similar to Rugby Union.

This is not to say there aren’t clubs whose captains and players do not treat the referee with the utmost respect, do not question decisions and in general, get on with it. But for every club like this, they will face clubs that do harass and intimidate referees. If a club garners a reputation for being gracious losers, what exactly is the benefit for them when they face a club that will do anything to win?

Media

The media has every right to scrutinise closely the decisions in internationals and the A-League and provide well-constructed analysis as to why decision are right or wrong. Referee performance at grass roots level is not held to the same standard, given the lack of widespread and established media. Crowds, clubs and players however, are held to high standards at grass roots level. The referee's influence on a performance will rarely be reported at state or suburban level. Crowd misbehaviour, player and club tribunals however does garner attention. The glare of the media spotlight is, from what I've seen, rarely if ever applied to referees the same way it is to other participants on and off the field.

Referees
And of course, the referees themselves need to take a level of responsibility for their own performances. My personal view is that at grass roots level they act as best they can under duress. But I have seen first-hand instances of naivety, bias, grandstanding and not knowing the rules. We all have. Referees need to take pride in their performance and be responsible with the powers they do have.