It was matchday yesterday, and believe me when I tell you it was a big one. I understood very well how high the stakes were for that: we are halfway through the season and this is a game opposing the first- and third-placed teams in the league table. Both teams have presented a decent run of form as the season has progressed since August. With just a mere three-point difference – a gap that can be bridged with just one win -, all parties involved knew that we were in for a highly competitive game.
The game was set to start at three in the afternoon, which meant I was expected to arrive at the field at a quarter to two. A cold winter day was about to host a heated encounter between two of the best teams in the league so far. Through the glimpse of rain, the sudden and skin icing winds, as well as the constantly dropping temperature, it took every ounce of self-control within me to isolate my mind from the outside world. Sure I joked around with the other players and the coaches in order to deal with the rising pressure around the green field, but all that had to disappear once I got into my dressing room. The mentality has to follow: I cannot bother my mind with the things I am unable to control, however the one thing within my grasp is my preparation for one of my biggest football games since I moved to France. I had to be ready as much as possible to face all the challenges that would come my way. It is always easier to get ready for a game when you have your teammates around you getting into the same vibe for fun. That was not my case: I did not come to have fun, nor was I here to play. For you see, I was appointed to referee the game taking place.
In June of 2021, I underwent a seminar in order to become an official football referee in France. One of the first things that we learned during that seminar is the habit of being alone, from the moment we leave our houses to the moment we exit the football field after the game is over. The motivation has to really come from within at all times. Sure we warm up during the same time frame that both teams are doing, however we find ourselves doing all the exercises on our own. Our focus is to regulate our breathing with the aim to keep our head cool and manage the game in the best possible way. The way a referee determines whether they had a good game is based on their ability to manage the players, making sure that no fights break out and no player gets severely injured. Obviously, we want to have a perfect game and not make mistakes when blowing – or not – the whistle, although there will always be one side unsatisfied with the decision. Of course, it is neither as easy nor as simple as it sounds. Then again, this is what I signed up for, right?
“Sporting behaviour means fair behaviour. This is the player’s task, not the referee’s.”
– Philipp Lahm
A referee’s job is the most thankless one in the sports world, even more so than a team’s manager. The official is often disregarded when the team has won, and always the scapegoat and centre of criticism when the team has lost. Most of the time, the pressure and criticism takes place while the game is still going on. The most challenging part of it all is the strength of pushing through the fact that you are alone on that field. Sure, you do have the assistant referees helping with the decisions, unfortunately they are not the ones who have to calm the players down while getting submerged with complaints, insults, and names. It is like a me-against-the-world for 90 minutes and sometimes even beyond, where decisions have to be taken in the fraction of a second. It feels like an army made of players, coaches, and fans are attacking from all sides at once. The first two sides can be dealt with in the event they cross the line through their actions and words, however nothing can be done when it comes to fans.
At this level, it is only normal that a person becomes emotionally worn out and can only carry so much on their shoulders, nevertheless referees are expected to keep their cool and lead by example. Letting your emotions get the better of you is not an option. Just like players are expected to train regularly and take care of their bodies in order to be fit on matchday, meaning maintaining a healthy diet and getting enough sleep, referees are also athletes who are required to follow a strict protocol in order to be at their very best when they are asked to. There is an entire physical and mental preparation that starts as soon as they are notified of the details regarding their next game. Unfortunately, the life of a referee during those specific 90 minutes remains unknown to 97% of the football world.
Being an actual club football player myself, I often noticed how quick we are to judge a referee’s decisions and performance because we think we could have done better if we were in their shoes. Wherever you go, the referee is never praised for their performance and always criticised when things go south. We tend to forget that according to the PGMO (Professional Game Match Officials) study, a referee makes an average of 245 decisions per game, three times more than the number of times an average player touches the ball. One can only imagine how challenging and energy consuming it must be for them to have to make a decision every 22 seconds. Amongst those decisions, close to 85% of them are defined as “subjective decisions”: it involves situations that leave room for interpretation and are not black-or-white calls, such as handball, physical contact and penalties. The technical decisions – goal kicks, corners and throw-ins – represent a mere average of 45 per game.
It is easy for fans, players, managers and pundits to turn their attention to the decisions that cost their side or that are deemed to have been controversial in their opinion: it could be the penalty that should have been given or the soft red card. However, statistics have shown that referees make an average of 5 errors per game, meaning they manage to make the right call in 98% of the cases. This is something that has become increasingly harder over the last decade, as the game has gotten faster and more technical. Furthermore, referees are still human beings and therefore are allowed to make mistakes at times.
Becoming a referee is one of the best moves I have made in my football life.
It has allowed me to look at the game from a different angle and understand it better.
I keep on learning and I know I will keep on making mistakes with every game I officiate.
The goal is to always try to get better and help the beautiful game of football improve.
I do hope this sport will one day reach the same level of respect that we see today in the world of rugby.
Until then, I encourage people to learn more about refereeing on a weekly basis before judging those who do, as well as the decisions they have to make.
“I am a perfectionist. I do not want to have a bad game and get decisions wrong, but we are only human.”
– Lucy Oliver