Greek tragedy and Irish ire but referees can never live up to our demands

In Greece and elsewhere, referees are again under intense scrutiny - but the expectations placed on them remain entirely absurd.
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Last week, the Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis waded into football, requesting that UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin provided elite European referees for remaining play-off matches in the Super League after controversial decisions in a match between Olympiacos and Volos. Mitsotakis’ spokesman said that the prime minister wanted “referees of a high standard whose prestige and effectiveness will not be questioned.”

Quite where the prime minister or the Greek FA expect to find referees whose effectiveness won’t be questioned is rather unclear. Nowhere in the world will you find a country where the fans and professional football fraternity believe their referees aren’t incompetent, or at least worse than could be found somewhere else.

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In the Republic of Ireland this weekend, Shelbourne manager Damien Duff criticised the standard of refereeing in the League of Ireland, saying the league was being “let down” by the officiating standards following a controversial red card in his side’s loss to Derry City. He stopped short of calling for overseas officials to be brought in, but that particular cry has been heard across the globe. It’s brought up regularly in the Indian Super League, Apollon Limassol raised the idea in Cyprus in 2021, Celtic were reportedly pushing for foreign referees in Scotland in 2019… it’s almost harder to find countries where fans or coaches haven’t indulged in magical thinking and called for the introduction of supposedly superior foreign referees.

Damien Duff is currently manager of ShelbourneDamien Duff is currently manager of Shelbourne
Damien Duff is currently manager of Shelbourne

In the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A – every week, there is a fresh controversy. Pundits describe every error as a fresh disgrace. Social media and fan message boards debate each refereeing appointment, recalling every time the official in question has wronged their team, shown their supposed biases with dodgy decisions, or just made borderline calls against them. If you believe the fan base, every referee in the Premier League has multiple vendettas and is entirely incapable of doing their job. The same goes for every referee in every league in the world.

So where does the Greek prime minister expect to find referees that won’t be questioned? In the Premier League, referees are subject to rigorous training and ongoing assessment. Those assessments judge that they typically get 95%+ of their decisions correct. In a lightning-fast game where there are not only a huge number of decisions to make but those decisions are almost all subjective, the numbers seem impressive. But if you put those figures in front of the fans, they would almost invariably be dismissed out of hand.

This is a job where every wrong – or even marginal – decision is remembered and held against the alleged perpetrator. Fans recall the time that Anthony Taylor or Michael Oliver or whoever else gave that penalty decision against them, and they are marked forever. Never mind that almost every foul decision involves subjectivity – a referee has to somehow not only spot contact in a fluid sport moving at great pace, but also to determine whether it was deliberate, whether there was excessive force, whether the tackler was in control, and so on. And even when they get every part of that right, the inherent bias of fans mean huge numbers will deem it wrong anyway.

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If the Greek Super League do bring in foreign officials they won’t suddenly find that every decision is correct, nor that controversy can be magically dispelled. Referees are human beings doing an incredibly difficult job. They will make mistakes. Perfect refereeing is an impossibility when put up against human fallibility, and fan bias means that even perfect refereeing would not be perceived as such.

Olympiacos and Nottingham Forest owner Evangelos MarinakisOlympiacos and Nottingham Forest owner Evangelos Marinakis
Olympiacos and Nottingham Forest owner Evangelos Marinakis

Nor would Greece be the first country to find all that out. Egypt has long brought in overseas referees for its biggest derby match, between Al Ahly and Zamalek, with threats of violence and absurd behaviour by officials from the clubs making the job almost impossible for local referees. In 1996, an Egyptian ref correctly allowed a goal for Ah Ahly, and the entire Zamalek team left the field in protest. In 1998, a Frenchman was placed in charge, gave a clear-cut red card, and the entire Zamalek team left the field in protest again. The unicorn that is the perfect referee wouldn’t change anything, in any league, and let us not forget that five years ago, in Greece, the owner of PAOK entered the field of play to remonstrate with the referee with a loaded handgun.

Besides, the Greek league’s refereeing body, the EPO, is already run by a foreign referee – former Premier League whistle-wafter Steve Bennett, presumably given the job in the hope of providing that mystical “prestige and effectiveness” that Greek football demands. Instead he is at the eye of the latest storm, the body he leads described by Olympiacos and Nottingham Forest owner Evangelos Marinakis as “the worst thing there is”. If an experienced Premier League referee, subjected to those years of rigorous training and assessment, can’t improve Greek refereeing, why would a different overseas appointment be any different?

Because while there are many things that can be done to improve refereeing, whether in England or elsewhere, the standard can never be set high enough to meet the impossible demands of football fans. Howard Webb, the new head of English referees, has acknowledged the likely need for the assessment methods used in England to be updated. Many other nations don’t have the resources to bring in the independent assessments and video monitoring that are required to uphold those sorts of standards anyway. It is fair to push for improved methods of training, to push for better support and infrastructure for referees. It just isn’t reasonable to expect perfection, which is what everyone does apparently expect.

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Webb himself was one of the very best referees in the world. He refereed the World Cup and Champions League final in the same year, proving that both FIFA and UEFA separately considered him to be the best possible candidate for the biggest jobs in the game. At the same time, Facebook groups posted endless photoshopped images of Webb in a Manchester United shirt. His alleged bias in favour of United was one of the most insistent memes in the English sport. He was pilloried relentlessly, week in and week out. Yet he was, according to the most qualified experts, better at that time than any other official in the entire game.

Former referee Howard WebbFormer referee Howard Webb
Former referee Howard Webb

So how can standards be raised, in England, or Greece, or anywhere else? The talent pool could be deepened, for starters. More budding officials means more chances of finding refs who have the talent, innate skills and dedication required to be the best in the field. But of course, refereeing numbers are in decline, as endless abuse and often physical violence is the reward for their work, even at the lowest levels of the amateur game. The FA are currently trialling bodycams in amateur football in England. That it should come to the point where bodycams are necessitated in leagues where the stakes are vanishingly small should be regarded as a grim indictment of the way players, fans and coaches treat people who are not only necessary for a game to be played, but who are usually also incredibly dedicated to it.

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Serious punishments need to be handed down to teams abusing or disrespecting referees up and down the football ladder. At the Premier League level, the example set by the players needs to be rewritten. Kids copy their heroes, and their heroes endlessly crowd referees, scream in their faces, swear at them and show total disregard for their decisions. Commensurately, at grassroots level, 93.7% of referees in England have been physically or verbally assaulted during a game according to one study, while another suggested that almost a third had been subjected to some form of physical abuse. Six per cent reported death threats. This is for kids’ games, matches played on Hackney Marshes, games in divisions so far down the football pyramid that they barely register on the FA’s databases.

Figure that out, and maybe refereeing will improve over time. Until then, the demand for better refereeing standards remains impossible and absurd, a wishful notion founded on an unattainable ideal.

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