European football refereeing system must change

I’ve been bitten recently by the NFL bug. American football was never something that interested me a great deal until recently, but over the past couple of years I’ve been slowly trying to watch it more, and now I’m really getting into it. I watched Super Bowl 51 earlier this year and enjoyed it tremendously. NFL also does this great thing where they post recent games in full on YouTube, so you can sit back and enjoy them at your leisure.

More recently, after being immersed for a while in the NFL, I watched the Manchester United vs West Brom match, which finished in a scoreless draw. It was watching this match that made me realize something that I hadn’t really thought of before. I found myself getting irrationally and explosively angry at the referee, Mike Dean. Funny thing is, Dean wasn’t in any way egregiously bad. He was your average Premier League referee: some mistakes that go for or against both sides, overall fairly decent. But the mistakes he did make – and the 50/50 decisions that went against United – made me angry at him in a way that went beyond reason. And I realized: it’s because one guy – just one guy – in a stadium of 80,000 with millions more watching is tasked with making life-or-death decisions over a match in one of the biggest sports leagues in the world, with no outside help other than the two linesmen who spend most of the match nowhere near the ball, and the goal-line thing that was introduced with such reluctance and hand-wringing. This realization finally came after 20 years of watching football because, I think, I have been experiencing just how unemotional the officiating in the NFL makes me. In the NFL, technology is integral to officiating: iffy calls can be challenged by the teams, videos are utilized directly by the officials, and the giant screens in stadiums show very detailed replays for players and fans alike. After decisions are made on the challenged calls, the chief official in the NFL explains it with clarity and brevity over the PA system, minimizing any second-guessing by viewers. But it’s more than technology; it’s the number of officials on the field. NFL has 7 officials on the field overseeing a very stop-start sport. MLB has 4 on the field in the slowest major sport in North America. Football has 4 overall, but only one on the field; the 2 linesmen are – and should be – consumed with being level with the last player for offside calls, and the fourth official is a joke, so everything falls on the referee alone to cover the vast tracts of land and keep up with world-class athletes while making split-second decisions. It’s a wonder that referees don’t completely fall apart every game, because everything is so stacked against them. I’m sure NFL officials make mistakes too, but I don’t remember getting particularly upset with them. My anger, if any, is spread across 7 people, and anyway they individually have contingencies: a better-positioned official can override a decision, coaches can challenge, videos can be used, and you get to explain yourself to the world after each important call.

The Man United – West Brom match made me come to a conclusion that it is just incredibly shoddy that the refereeing system has changed so little over the years, especially taking into account the immense changes football has undergone since the early 1990s. Players are fitter, matches are faster, cameras are more numerous / better positioned / in higher definition, infinitely greater sums of money are riding on each match, and fans have access to much more information much more readily. The only meaningful change to the way referees officiate in all these years, however, has been the goal-line technology. In so many ways, this is a ludicrous situation, and has been so long before yesterday’s Champions League match between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.

The arguments against more technology have always been: 1) refereeing mistakes are a part of football, 2) things even themselves out in the end, 3) more technology would slow down the game, and 4) there are so many grey areas that even technology wouldn’t help. Arguments 1 and 2 are nonsense, as this Reddit user explains passionately:

‘The referee has become a gigantic and harmful dinosaur at this stage of football. When Marcelo passed to Ronaldo, the linesman was almost ten meters away from where he should be. It is a disgrace at this level of football.

‘The amounts of wrong decisions by referees these past years have become a disaster and it only tarnishes the game. Yes, video-help removes a certain human factor of the game, but it removes a cancer that had to be there, because it was inoperable. The players are like machines, and a lot of referees can’t keep up with them anymore.’

Arguments 3 and 4 are certainly valid, but they should not prevent efforts to improve the refereeing system in football. Simply put, referees need more help, both technological and human. Aside from the obvious tech-driven solutions like replays, just having more human input would immeasurably improve things. Have 2 referees – or just more sets of eyes – on the field with ability to override previous calls, allow managers 2 challenges per half, mic-up the refs so they can explain their decisions on challenges, etc. If nothing else, having more refs on the field would drastically reduce referee-hounding by players.

In Super Bowl 51, Julian Edelman made an incredible catch as part of New England Patriots’ game-tying drive in the fourth quarter. That catch was near-impossible to fully appreciate in real time: only the replays would show just how improbable it really was. Officials ruled it a catch1, Atlanta Falcons challenged, and after review the call stood. What if the ball hit the ground before ending up in Edelman’s arms? Or what if the officials had ruled it an incomplete pass? The combination of greater human presence and technology ensured that one of the great plays in Super Bowl history was allowed to impact the game with fair integrity. If a similar play had happened in European football, it would fall to just one set of eyes to make a call, and there would be no recourse if it was wrong. That’s got to change.


  1. In the clip, three officials first hove into view, then two more who are clearly sure that it was a catch. 5 sets of eyes on that play.

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