Football shock! Referees turn out to be clever people


Study finds soccer officials look at the big picture rather than the details. Andrew Patterson reports.


A football referee is often the object of ridicule and anger, but the reputation is undeserved, research shows.

A football referee is often the object of ridicule and anger, but the reputation is undeserved, research shows.

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From the grandest stadia to the shabbiest park pitches, the job of soccer referees is a difficult and often thankless task, with coaches, players, supporters, journalists and even peers always ready to criticise their work.

Scott Russell is an active member of this much-maligned breed, officiating matches regularly at a semi-professional level. In his day job as researcher at Australia’s Queensland University of Technology (QUT), he has considered exactly why officials make the decisions they do.

With support from governing associations at city, state and national level, Russell interviewed nine professional referees aged between 23 and 35 years, drawn from the local Brisbane Premier League and the A-League, Australia’s highest national tier of professional football.

Russell’s findings, published in the journal Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, indicated that far from simply identifying instances of foul play, referees were focussed on maintaining control of the match in progress, and preserving the integrity of the game.

Four key pillars were used to inform judgements – safety, fairness, accuracy and entertainment.

Contrary to the popular view of a referee as a pedantic killjoy spoiling everyone’s fun, Russell believes officials try to make the same “as great as it can be” for players and spectators.

“Referees often let minor infringements go if it means upholding one of the pillars, such as keeping the game flowing for an entertaining match,” Russell explains. “Interestingly, a lot of referees said a key goal was to keep players on the park because they believed that’s what spectators want to see.

“But in some incidents, there is no room for bad behaviour – like when a player punches an opponent in the head. It just has to be the red card. No one wants to see that and so the referee must act.”

The findings also show that building trust is a key component of refereeing. Russell explains that instilling faith in the players that they will be protected by judicious officiating in the early stages of a match can ensure a fair, flowing game is played out.

“Referees carry the heart of the game with their decisions,” Russell says.

  1. https://www.theguardian.com/football/2004/oct/29/sport.comment
  2. https://www.bbc.com/sport/football/30704681
  3. https://doi.org/10.1080/2159676X.2018.1493525
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