The Times’ Henry Winter is always excellent and some weeks ago he wrote a superb piece (frustratingly behind a pay wall) that if even Petr Cech is losing it with referees, there is probably a serious problem.
Recent weeks alone have seen utterly ludicrous penalties being awarded, yellow cards being issued for gross tackles which endanger safety and should result in long-term bans, and dives going unpunished. Mr Winter makes the interesting point that a hugely disproportionate number of controversial (actually, plain wrong) decisions have occurred late in games.
The main issue here is that the advent of professional refereeing has not seen any increase in refereeing standards. The footballing authorities seem, therefore, to be questioning what they can do to improve standards. I wonder, however, if there is not another question: is it conceivable to raise standards beyond their current level?
To put this another way, does football need to consider more profoundly how the game is officiated?
A modern football match at the highest level now typically has four or five officials – a referee, two assistants running the line, and one or two more technical officials managing the dug-out, substitutions and so on. Again, however, none of this has in fact improved the standards of refereeing. Are we not wasting these extra officials?
For example, originally football had two umpires (as hockey still has). American Football actually makes use of no fewer than seven on-field officials.
To give a recent but common example of how this works, I was umpiring a hockey match recently where a shot on the far side of the circle was deflected behind by a defender, so awarded a hit from the 23-metre line to the attacking team (the standard restart when a defender plays the ball behind unintentionally). It had not, in all truth, even occurred to me that the play behind had been anything other than legal. Yet the attacking team politely appealed for a penalty corner, on the basis it had in fact hit the defender’s foot – something which, as I politely explained back, I could not possibly have seen from my angle given it had occurred on the far side of the player concerned. However, I then had the option of glancing at the other umpire, who although further away had the better angle, who was able to signal back that in fact a penalty corner should be awarded and I was able to overturn my original decision. In fact the team scored from the penalty corner, so the decision was critical – but it required two umpires, not one. So is it reasonable that we expect one referee alone to get everything right in football?
For a period in some competitions two more officials were added on the goal-line to see if the ball had fully crossed it. With video technology, this has now been rendered pointless, but I wonder if they should not be reintroduced, but on the far side of the goal from the assistant referee. That would give four officials on the lines, covering between them almost the whole field, who could assist the referee with key decisions. Mic them all up, and you would have a system which may just work considerably more effectively than the current one.
Take, for example, the controversial awarding of a penalty to West Bromwich Albion against Arsenal just before the New Year (the one which so angered Petr Cech). In that case, the ball was on the left-hand side of the penalty area (the far side from the assistant referee) and the referee himself was chasing play a good fifteen yards back, with a completely hopeless angle. The attacking player in fact did not even appeal for a penalty, wanting instead a corner. The referee must have believed that he saw a hand go out to an unnatural position or with the intent to play the ball, and thus awarded a decisive penalty – even though that is simply not what happened. The point here is that an official positioned on the goal line would have been nearer the incident and could have told the referee that that was not what happened; indeed, he would likely have signalled for a corner, suggesting plainly the referee that there was no case for awarding a penalty.
Thus, by adding two further assistants on the goal-line and enhancing the powers of all the assistants (rather than just wasting them solely on technical issues such as dug-out management), we would have a game in which the correct decision would be arrived at far more often. The final arbiter would remain the referee, but he (or she) would no longer be making judgements solely based on what they have seen often from tens of yards away.
We need, at the very least, to re-frame the question. One human being can only observe so much. This is not so much about refereeing standards, as about refereeing systems.