He runs just as much as anyone else on the pitch yet no one notices him. He starts and stops the play yet no one minds him. He makes the most important decisions on the field – yet no one observes him.
He is the 23rd man on the pitch. He is the referee – and it’s easy, almost convenient, to forget him.
And so, in an exclusive interview, I talked to Nicola Molinari, a former referee, to find out more.
When did you make the decision to pursue football refereeing and what motivated you to do so?
Well, I must be honest. As a 15-year-old, like almost anyone who starts that young, I started for money. I thought, how cool would it to earn my own money to buy my own stuff when you are at that age! Of course I learned pretty soon that refereeing was not only that. I could say I started for the money but after day one I stayed for what it meant to me.
I always like to be “in charge” and I really enjoyed the athletic aspects of it as well. At that time I was playing hockey and I decided to leave that sport to start this new career, and in hindsight, it was totally worth it. I learned so much – dealing with “grown up” people and having to constantly find the right balance between my decisions taught me many values I currently have in my life.
What was the experience like when you refereed a match for the first time?
Embarrassing! As you may know, substitutions must be done when the game is stopped – well, they asked me for a substitution when the keeper was holding the ball in his hands (hence still in game) and I asked him to throw the ball out to let the substitution happen! I will always remember that mistake!
But yeah, I mean, I was 15, and it was my first match, I had so many things to keep in mind already. I was entirely focused on getting all the procedures right and not making any technical mistakes. Apart from that mistake it went quite well, I remember I was quite satisfied with myself, probably one of the few times in my life. It is a good feeling when the coaches come to you at the end of the game to congratulate you because they know it is your first game. The actual soccer field was terrible, not even grass on it – but this is normal in such low tiers. I did not book anyone, it was a smooth game, and my mentor was really happy with me and made me feel important. I think it was quite a powerful experience for a 15 years old.
How did it feel to referee your first Serie D game?
A long time has passed since then. You have to learn so much from your first match, it is hard to explain and understand for someone who has not done something similar. It seems trivial, after all, all you need to have is a good knowledge of the rules right? Wrong. The difference between a good referee and an exceptional one is in the details – everyone knows the rules.
Soon after my first match I started to memorize the name of coaches, captains and vice-captains, by calling them by name they feel important and are more inclined to listen to you. I learned to be brief but effective in my talks with players. I learned to study the players psychology from the very first moment I arrived at the pitch to the last. I learned to do plenty of small things that make the game smoother. I learned that you have already refereed half of a game before you blow the whistle for the first time. I learned to deal with increasing number of fans outside the pitch and hence increasing pressure. I learned to collaborate with linesmen (you don’t have them at the lower levels). I learned to make mistakes. I learn to be careful with what I say. I learned to expect anything from everyone.
It is a difficult but rewarding career. The first time I entered in a proper stadium – it was really nice. You arrive in your changing room with your linesmen an hour and a half before the match, you find fruit and energy bars waiting for you, you find already a sample of the soccer shirts the teams will use, few times I found bathrobes and personalized soaps and all sort of things. People are serious here, quite a lot of money is involved (players-wise, basically none for the referee). It is nice, I don’t know how to describe it, you are forced to be in the center of the action all the time. You have to be way more trained than the players because they can rest, you cannot. Moreover you always have to have enough oxygen to make decisions with your brain. It is wonderful, and I loved every moment of it.
What is the situation of referees in Italy, as in payment compared to different leagues?
The situation is not really good. You are basically doing it for free until Serie B. Before that, you can just claim the expenses you had plus a small contribution (normally around €150-250 depending on the game). For a young referee, it can be really difficult. But not just from a monetary point of view.
You have to give up quite a big chunk of your life if you want to be successful – I learned this the hard way. I had to break up with my girlfriend. I had no free Sundays and quite often also Saturdays and our relationship really deteriorated because of that. You think you have only your Sunday game, but it is not like this. There are more games (at low level of course) than referees, hence they ask you to do more than one game a week and if you say no they are not happy and your promotions are less likely. It is either all or nothing, you have to sacrifice yourself, your life and people around you. I lost my friends because I was basically never able to go out with them.
I was not forced to do so, but in some sense I was – if I wanted to succeed. You pass long hours in a car driving to a far place where someone pretend to care about your judgement for an hour and a half and after that you have to drive back alone, in the dark, in the cold and sometime you wonder if what it takes to be successful is worth it. This is a lot to digest for a young referee, and if like me you can take it, it is hard to understand the consequences on your life. I learned a lot and at the same time I lost a lot. Did I learn from this? No, recently I made the same mistake, so probably I am like that – but it is hard.
Was it a difficult decision to quit refereeing, if only temporarily?
It was difficult, yes. I was personally quite addicted to this. I was unquestionably important – I was a mentor for young referees, I was considered a promise, I have refereed important games in my career. Leaving it was difficult, but again I think it is linked to what you had to give up to get there. Basically a lot of your routine falls apart. Luckily I didn’t have to do this because I was discarded by the selection process, and also because I decided to leave when I came to London for my Erasmus (student exchange program with Imperial College London).
When I arrived in London the first thing I did was contacting the FA and ask if they would take me into consideration. I just sent an email to a random address I found on the website, they never got back to me – and probably it was better this way. I must say, every time I watch a game on TV, I still kind of imagine myself as referee of that game so I haven’t really moved on I guess.
What are your plans for the future?
I have no plans for the future. As I said I tried contacting the FA with one email but they ignored me. It was four years ago now, quite a lot of time. If I will ever go back to Italy, even tomorrow, my career would be finished anyway – I’m way too old. They are very strict on this, if you miss the train, the train has gone, and someone else will take it next period.
Anything I haven’t covered and you would like me to mention?
Think carefully what you want from your life, most of the times there is no way back. My personality improved immensely and I learned many incredibly valuable lessons, but it did not come for free.
To a young referee starting now, I would cite Yoda: “Do or do not, there is no try.” and really there is no try. You have to learn fast and be willing to sacrifice big parts of your life and you will always have the scars of this on you. There is no such thing as free lunch, but earning it is probably way more rewarding, isn’t it? If you think so, go for it.
Nicola is now a PhD student at Imperial College London – you can find out more about his research here.