Most Refs Are No Good But Who is Really At Fault?

Well, the World Cup was supposed to be the pinnacle of international football, wasn’t it? We were supposed to see the best players in the world as well as the best officials. As far as the football goes we had some good games and some horrible ones. I guess that’s expected and understandable. But when it comes to officiating I doubt if there were any games that can be classified as excellent.

Some of the earlier games in the group phase were good from a refereeing point of view. I’m of the opinion that teams were cautious and played safe. As a result there were fewer contentious moments, less diving and play acting, and hardly any malicious tackles.

Once things heated up, high profile blunders started increasing. The errors were not limited to officials from a particular region or teams. Even the tournament winners had a lot to complain about and I’m sure all the other teams have similar issues.

It’s a real shame that FIFA cannot find 30 good referees for the most popular sport in the world. Surely, when there are billions of passionate fans, there must be a few thousand who have the potential to be top notch referees! So why can’t this world produce a handful of brilliant officials?

The way I see it, it’s a very complex issue and one that demands fundamental changes. Before I proceed further I’d like to mention that technology can certainly make the game better. I’ve covered that in this article and will not be discussing the issue of technology in this piece.

Let’s take the case of Howard Webb. To be charitable to him, I’d say he was quite poor in the Final. But I also have to say that I completely understand his situation and he was in a no-win position once the Dutch decided to the play the way they did.

There were at least 25 bookable offences in the game and there could easily have been 5-6 sending offs if the official had gone by the letter of the law. Imagine the furore if a couple of players had been sent off in the first half itself. Almost everyone in the media would have jumped on the ref and said that he spoiled the game. Managers would have used that excuse and the whole situation would have been farcical.

If we acknowledge the facts; one side was playing rugby, the other was giving a lesson in theatrics, and the ref couldn’t punish each and every offence simply because there were too many! He was forced to use common sense in such a rough game and it was never going to be easy for him to keep everyone in check. Webb was constantly under pressure and his performance degraded as time went on. As I said earlier, I can completely understand the problems he was facing.

In theory it’s easy for us to say that he should punish the offenders and go by the rules. But in practice it never works that way; it’s a sad but undeniable reality.

This brings me to the real issues we are facing in the game today, problems that make good officiating humanly impossible.

Rough, Uncontrolled, Physical Football

These days, players know that in big games refs will be scared of sending them off, especially early on. There is just too much pressure on the ref and players take advantage of this.

Many have mastered the art of repeated fouling, often involving some horror challenges. What can a ref do when the players know they will get way with 5-6 fouls and some bone crunching tackles that are nowhere near the ball? Case in point, Van Bommel 5 fouls one booking, Busquets 5 fouls no booking and the De Jong Karate Kick.


Just like the physical players know they can get away with fouls, the technical ones know that they will have to suffer unless the ref is forced into taking action. It results in exaggerated displays of pain, unnecessary rolling on the ground, and so on.

We also see players diving with minimal to no contact as they know the ref is rarely going to book someone twice for diving in a big game.


Imagine a big player (someone like Xavi or Sneijder) picking up a yellow card for demanding that an opponent be booked. If that player eventually gets sent off will the ref get any support from the media or the past stars with an opinion on everything?

We saw Webb being surrounded by three or more players so often. Technically he could have booked them all. That is the only power he has and unfortunately he can’t really wield it!


There is too much hypocrisy in the media. Those who appreciate the thugs in the Premiership can’t stand the thugs in the World Cup. Those who criticize the ref fail to see the issues with the players. In most cases personal biases are imposed upon us in the guise of insight and analysis.

The saddest aspect of this is that the referee is an easy target. No one is passionate about the referee. If there are some in the media who find faults with Holland because of their personal issues, there will be others who will find flaws with Spain. It’s ugly but there is some balance to it. Eventually, those who want to discover will find that all aspects are covered.

The same cannot be said for the ref. Almost everyone looks to expose his flaws and very few try to understand the impossible nature of the job.

FIFA/ UEFA/ Other Federations

I really don’t know how the top officials are trained and how much money is spent on them. European football is financially much stronger than the rest of the world but are European referees any better? If not, then why not? Shouldn’t a part of the billions being earned go into training the refs?

I also feel that FIFA and other bodies need to improve the profile of the referees. There must be some glamour associated with the role and there should be at least a few hundred professionals around the world who can do a good job at the big tournaments and can work on constantly improving others at various levels.

Right now the refs are under fire and what intelligent person would want to take up such a thankless, demanding job that doesn’t really pay in financial or social status terms.


Obviously, there can be no quick fix solution to such an intricate issue. Technology will help but we also need to work on the fundamentals.

Many of these issues are interconnected. For instance, if the media and ex-players show more respect to the ref, they will have the courage to take strong decisions. They might get a few wrong but it will certainly have an impact on the behaviour of the players on the pitch.

Once the player behaviour improves the game will get easier for the refs and in turn their decision making will be better as pressure is reduced. In effect, the current negative cycle will turn into a positive one.

I also think we need retrospective punishments for players who intimidate or surround the referee, dive or pretend to be hurt, and those who get away with dangerous fouls. It won’t have a big impact on the games that have already ended but once this system is in place the players will have to control their behaviour on the pitch. Once again this is a fundamental change that can lead to a positive cycle over a period of time.

Lastly, there has to be a transparent system for developing and training good referees. In the present state hardly any fan or football supporter knows what really goes on in the world of refs. This must change and the profile of the refs has to get better. The refs don’t have to be the most important person on the pitch but they shouldn’t be scapegoats either.

No matter what technology we use bulk of the decisions will always be made by the refs, and unless there is a radical improvement we will always end up with shambolic and farcical events on the biggest of stages.

17 Responses to Most Refs Are No Good But Who is Really At Fault?

  1. Nischit says:

    Excellent article desi, but I’d be surprised if anyone at Fifa/uefa/etc actually take any steps close to what’s been mentioned here i.e Retrospective technology. I’d like to add to that and say use technology to correct wrong decisions if possible too. Admit errors by referee’s when dishing out cards. For eg, a red card given to a defenders for “fouls” when the opponent dived . The bureaucracy’s unwillingness to accept referees make mistakes in the open is shameful

  2. Blewmoon48 says:

    Howard Webb had an excellent game in the Final. He made the best of a very difficult task. I gather from the tone of the article that you have never been a referee. You want to try it. It’s much more difficult than you think. No action replay. Just your judgement on something that happened in a split second. Sometimes you have to make judgements on something you haven’t seen because the bodies of the players mask the incident from you. The behaviour of players in the present time make the task virtually impossible with their ‘diving’, ‘winning free kicks’,’holding shirts and shorts’, ‘pulling their opponent’, ‘falling at the slightest contact’ etc. Start with the premise that we have a lot of good referees but how can we make their task easier and how can we reduce the amount of ‘wrong decisions’ given.

    • walter says:

      As a ref myself I know the difficulties. But the problem is that I have seen Webb making so many mistakes against fundamental basic rules in his games that it really is beyond me that he even was considered to go to the WC.

    • desigunner says:

      You’re going with the opinion that most refs are good and I’m going with one that is opposite to that. It’s down to our individual observations and experiences and I can’t really get into it right now. I completely agree with Walter on this one.

      I’ve covered many of the problems faced by the refs but I also feel they need better training and we need to some real professionals at the top level.

  3. Nudge says:

    I think they could introduce some sort of sin bin they like they have in Rugby and Hockey. If a player gets 2 yellow cards then they are sent off for 15 minutes before being able to come back on. This way the ref won’t have any problems in sin binning someone for 2 yellows early in the game and if they come back on and get another yellow they are off for good. Then only a straight red can be a send off for the whole game.

    I think this would help stamp out diving and terrible challenges

    • Jon says:

      I feel that is a good idea, Nudge

    • walter says:

      This is a very good idea which can be put in action when you have a 4th official. But in the lower leagues you cannot do this as the ref is on his own and he cannot have one eye at the clock all the time.
      And as fifa wants all the games to be played with the same rules I fear this idea will not come effective. But still I like the idea.

      • desigunner says:

        Walter, I think if people are serious about it then the sin bin can have an automatic timer. It shouldn’t be very expensive and even lower leagues should be able to implement it.

        I’ve always felt that FIFA don’t want to make changes and hence they keep coming up with excuses. We see changes in all walks of life and people with genuine desire do overcome various hurdles.

        We need someone at the top of FIFA who is not afraid of tough decisions and hard work.

    • desigunner says:

      I agree, it’s a very good suggestion. One that will take courage and vision to implement. Sadly, we all know the authorities don’t have that.

  4. Phil23 says:

    Great article. Just my two cents but I think there is another solution. Like you say; diving, waving fake cards, surrounding the ref etc are all yellow card offences. How about the ref just abides by the rules and cards them EVERY time? Sure, like you said the game may have been wrecked but it would have been a statement and for the long term good of the game. This would then have to be backed up by Fifa who would have to make a statement along the lines of ‘the ref is a hero for following the rules and it is the players and coaches who now need to learn from this example. We endorse all other referees top follow in the foot steps of Howard Webb’. This would be followed by other refs following the letter of the law. The games would obviously be effected short term but players would soon get the message. It is quite simple really, the game is getting wrecked because refs have different interpretations and players then can bend the rules as much as possible but if the rules were absolutely rigid then there is a clear line and if it is crossed you have cost your team. Thats just an opinion and I highly doubt it will ever come about for the simple reason that some very powerful people out there WANT the game to be flexible so that results can be semi controlled. Arsenal are a perfect example. Nobody wants Arsenal to win, (Obviously excluding Arsenal fans) so because the rules are flexible, Arsenal are given one extreme of the rules while there opponents are given another. The sad thing is that Wenger has brought up Arsenal players to be honest and that is the difference between them and Spain imho. The funny part is Arsenal are one of a handful of clubs who refuse to drop to the level of modern football and they are constantly made to pay for it. That is why if and when Arsenal win the title it will be a true win for football and it will be more satisfying than Manchester United’s treble because we will have done it honestly, with a young team, without getting ourselves into debt, with positive football and last but not least, against constant bias from the refs and media. What else can you ask for? That is why i’m Arsenal till I die.

    • desigunner says:

      Phil, your point is valid. If Refs get the support from FIFA they can do it. I think what will happen is that everyone will have a go at the ref and FIFA will not have the courage to back him. This is just my opinion.

      We also need to see the starting point. So far we’ve seen refs are lenient. If suddenly one ref gets strict with the rules without proper backing his career might be threatened. So the question is should the ref take things in his own hand or should someone first come out and support the ref’s right to do so? I think it’s the latter.

      Your observations about Arsenal are perfect. I’ve cherished our performances because of this reason and I feel what we achieve, when put into the right context, is much more than just a 3rd place or a quarter-final result. When Arsenal win it will truly be a victory of good over evil, in epic proportions!

  5. walter says:

    People who say that Webb (or any other ref) would have wrecked the final if he had been sending off some players, what he should have done if he would have done it according to the rulebook, are not correct.
    Because he didn’t send the players off and the final was a mess anyway. BUT if he would have red carded a few players he would have made it clear that those dangerous tackles will not be tolerated IN ANY GAME. You don’t have to accept it in a U15 game and you don’t have to accept it in a world cup final game.
    By letting it all go with yellow cards he did clean football no favours at all. In fact Webb made live for all the refs in the world more difficult by his lack of courage.
    If I go out next week and give a red card for a De Jongh-like challenge, people will point at Webb just giving a yellow card. And the other refs will have to justifie themselves for what was clear for everyone to see that those kicks don’t belong on a football field and should be a red card always in every game.

    Also the diving of some of the Spanish players. Webb sometimes let the game go as it was a clear dive but this is not enough. He should have stopped the game and give a free kick against the diving player. EVERY DIVE, no matter where it is on the field, should be punished with a yellow card. You do this in the first minutes of the game and players will think twice before diving again.

    I think Webb was coming on the field with him thinking of being the good and tolerant ref who was going to let the players have a go. He didn’t want to send players off and this was visible and the players knew that after a few minutes and they just kept on kicking and falling.

    Webb and Fifa should have prepared themselves better for this game. They should have looked at how the players behaved in the previous games. They should have called the two captains over before the game together with the coaches and tell them that he will not tolerate:
    -Dangerous tackles

    and that he would give the red and yellow cards for that.
    Fifa should have backed him on that and should have let the media spread the word before the game started. Then everybode would know what would/could happen and the players who did what they did would know what was comming to them.

    So maybe it is a bit wrong that we put all the blame on Webb. Fifa is very much to blame also as they should have seen the behaviour from the two teams in the previous games and should have taken action to make sure the final was a great game of football and not a kicking and diving exhibition.

    • desigunner says:

      Completely agree about the proactive steps that should have been taken before the game started. I’ve often wondered why the refs give last warnings on the pitch. It’s stupid and seems as if this is the first time the offender has been on the pitch so he is being given a lecture!! A football field should not be a place for lectures to professionals who have been playing for years and making millions. Quick and hard decisions need to be made.

      The only concern I have is that if all the onus is on the ref his life will be tougher. He needs the support of the authorities and the media.

  6. walter says:

    Desi, great article I must say. and I don’t want to monopolise your blog but a final remark.

    If Fifa would allow to give players punishment for let us say diving and other things that have misleaded a ref in anyway and give them some kind of “paper” yellow card it would help I think. Such a yellow card will be added to the ones he got on the field and so players who dive a lot will reach the number of yellow cards faster so they will get a one game ban earlier and will miss more matches.
    I think coaches will ask their players to stay on their feet and not like now tell them fo fall over by the slightest breath in the neck they feel from an opponent.

    • desigunner says:

      Walter, please feel free to write as much as you want. After all you know much more about this topic than I do. And trust me, I wrote “most refs” in the headline instead of “all refs” because I know there are some good ones like you out there 🙂

      Your point is interesting. I think what you’re saying is we need a third kind of card that recognizes some a different kind of offence – let’s say a Cheat Card. This will allow the refs to book the cheats without affecting the overall flow of the game and the repeat offender in cheating can be dealt with in a separate manner.

      I think it’s a workable solution but as usual it needs someone with initiative and vision at the top of FIFA.

  7. The Abs Guy says:

    I simply don’t see why a lot a people could kill Mark v Bommel, You winers all want to have a soccerplayer like Mark in your squad, he is aggressive en a great defending middfielder, and Yes he is going to the edge sometimes, but that is the difference ‘tween a winner and a failure.

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