A question of fairness – how refereeing must evolve

A football pitch can be for some a canvas for sporting artistry, free flowing creativity oozing of the page. Though, for some it can be the most lonely place in the world. No more so than match-day officials, cutting the most isolated of figures. Cajoled by players and berated by fans, with mistakes magnified in column inches and heightened sound bites.


In truth, referees may not be particularly well liked amongst fans but most football supporters agree they are a vital component of the game. In recent memory officials have been front and centre for vilification by fans, which has led to some unseemly behaviour.

One recalls former Swedish referee Anders Frisk resigning his position amongst European elite officials after receiving death threats towards his family, after he sent off Didier Drogba in a Champions League semi-final.

Such emotive, unjustified and unlawful threats are seen throughout the world. It will inevitably remain one of the darker elements of the sport, all stemming from perceived poor officiating. However, in truth, despite FIFA and the Football Association both maintaining standards will improve this firmly is not the case, this season certainly standards have slipped. With each poor or controversial decision, the trust is eroded even more.

Referees are arguably in a pressure situation from the very first whistle. Some, not all of that pressure comes from players haranguing and cajoling the referee. Despite this even former referees chief Keith Hackett, spoke out against his former colleagues over the Christmas period. Calling some performances as “bordering on the appalling”.

Focusing in on Anthony Taylors dismissal of Swansea Wayne Routledge for his reaction to a hefty challenge by QPR is Karl Henry for special mention. Routledge later had his red card rescinded by the Independent Regulatory commission.

Recently, the ever outspoken Jose Mourinho lamented Martin Atkinson’s performance in Chelsea’s 1-1 draw against Burnley by recounting the specific minutes the referee failed in his duty of care. The Portuguese was well within his rights to critique Atkinson. Nemanja Matic’s reaction to Ashley Barnes horror tackle by the letter of the law,warranted a red card.

However, inconsistency in the decision-making process struck again as Barnes escaped any retrospective action. Many would discount the Blues boss, however there was a sense that Chelsea had been very harshly treated. It’s no wonder many are growing increasingly frustrated with the quality of match-day officials.

No sooner had the dust settled, at Old Trafford, match referee Roger East had sent off the wrong man. Sunderland’s Wes Brown saw red in more ways than one after being wrongly dismissed. If ever proof was needed for video replays this was it.

Black Cats captain John O’Shea clearly fouled Radamel Falcao. The tricky Colombian turned O’Shea and the defender prevented him from a clear goal scoring opportunity. Whilst Brown was very much close quarters to Falcao he did not commit the crucial error. Everyone at Old Trafford could see it apart from the man who truly mattered.


A simple video review could have determined O’Shea was the offending party. Even the Irishman told East he committed the foul. The incident only further underlines the fragility of the argument that football does not need video review.

If referees are in any shadow of doubt, they should be in a position to consult any media at their disposal. East could have rectified his mistake within moments of review. Brown would not have been dismissed and O’Shea given a suspension. All down to common sense and use of technology.

Others have been outspoken on the issue with Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers expressing his frustration at officials this season. Swansea boss Garry Monk, has gone further and feels he is “losing faith” in the standard of the decision-making process. But what can be done?

Firstly take away the quite frankly ludicrous system of fining managers for daring to criticise officials. It’s counterproductive – referees should be allowed to be judged without players and managers fearful of disciplinary action. Understandably judging the quality of refereeing decisions is the assessor’s role, but anyone connected to the game should be engaged in an open dialogue

Praise where praise is due, criticism where criticism is due. How else can the game function if sections of the very organisations governing the game want to quell any dissent within its ranks? It’s no way on improving standards and just creates distrust in the entire system.

Television match officials have been a successful mainstay of Rugby for a number of years. It has enabled the integrity of the game to be upheld, fostered respect in the decision-making process and has earned the respect of players. Whilst Rugby and Tennis associations have embraced new burgeoning technologies. FIFA are worryingly out of step.

FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valckel outlined his stance, on further use of technology to assist officials.

I think it needs a lot of discussion – if the referee just relies on information that he is getting. Is there a risk he becomes not as strong and always asks for confirmation ? It’s the biggest decision which will come out of IFAB ever. It’s not a question of years – it’s making the biggest decision ever in the way football is played.

Football cannot be fearful of change, it has to evolve to keep pace. If law makers believe it will undermine their role, the sport is never going to change.

Managers do support at least in principle a wider use of technology and additional officials. Leicester city boss Nigel Pearson signalled his support:

Officials are there to do a job and we could make it much easier if technology was utilised. It takes a couple of seconds.

The use of the age-old argument, decisions take time out of the game does not wash. Additional time at the end of the game to compensate is a common sense approach. Along with taking steps to maintain the integrity of the game and to build trust back into the system.

Whilst some posit retrospective action as an alternative, yet the blatant issue is that irregardless of the retrospective decision the result will still stand, points will have been won or lost. For the very integrity of the game, FIFA and International Football ­Association Board must stop ignoring the issue. They must take decisive action. In minutes a correct decision can be made with the aid of technology. This does not undermine officials, but instead can be used as an extra safeguard to ensure that the end result fairly reflects the play that preceded it.

There does seem to be reason for optimism as Jim Boyce FIFA’s referee’s chairman seemingly warming to the idea of a wider use of technology. Speaking to the associated press he outlined his thawing stance on the issue.

I was always in favour of goal-line technology but not other forms of technology but I have started to change my mind. I believe that if there are major decisions on incidents in the 18-yard box and technology is available then I think the time has come that it should be used.

Plans to roll out further use of technology, have seemingly been shelved by the IFAB panel. The Royal Dutch Football Association had wanted to trial video replays to assist officials, in the KNVB Cup. FIFA have demanded a 12 month postponement to acquire more information.

It’s those sorts of delays to actual evolution of the game, that not only creates friction, but adds fuel to the argument FIFA cannot properly address growing concerns from member associations.

There needs to be a concerted effort by national associations, to form a consensus of approach. To pile pressure on law makers and FIFA to trial video replays. Minor tournaments could be used to test the water, with s view to a complete roll out soon after. Before this happens there needs to be a joined up approach by the core of the sport. From The FA to the Brazilian Football Confederation.


The most likely source of pressure for video review will come from the UEFA member block. Surely pressure from the traditional powerhouses of world football will be to hard to ignore? National associations including the FFF, FIGC, DFB, KNVB, The FA and RFEF really hold significant power to lobby. To appeal in unison for change,only then will FIFA and the IFAB finally implement video technology.

Football always has been big business, but it’s brand is tainted by the inability to deal with a core element of its product. Especially when you see the dawn of the new television deal for the Premier league at a staggering £5 billion+.

Those clubs, the people supporting and those running them deserve better referee decisions. That goes from the top of the footballing pyramid right down to the very bottom. There is certainly a lack of transparency. It also seems as if referees cannot be questioned for fear at best undermining officials.

It is a very complex issue for the sport to get a grip of. Painstaking progress is being made. Mistakes by officials have been a part and parcel off the game for decades. Given the technology at the games disposal there is now no excuse for poor decision-making.

The Author

Lisa Higgins

Appreciator of the finer elements of la Liga, Seria A, MLS, bundesliga and Ligue 1. Women's football proponent. Published on the BBC, football supporters magazine, she kicks.net and many more. Views are my own, you may not agree but hey we live in a democracy, so I'll take it on the chin if you don't. But we all know we love the beautiful game.

One thought on “A question of fairness – how refereeing must evolve

  1. I don’t think England referees are top of the game with their bias in officiating. FIFA must step in unless they are also corrupt like them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *