The football referee errors problem


This is what can make one really pissed off about a football game. Be it as beautiful and as important as can be, the referee can always look the other way and not punish a blatant foul in the penalty area. Or a beautiful and perfectly valid goal can be canceled for a perfectly invalid off-side position. If you are a football fan like myself, you know what I'm talking about.

Even if all the world can see on TV that it was a bad decision, as it's the case for big tournaments like the Champions League or the World Cup, the referee's initial ruling sticks. As a result, many final scores are known by everybody to be in fact wrong. And these scores are what determines the champions, finalists and other top-ranked teams.

And it happens all the time, actually much too often. In fact it happens so often that there's hardly any major tournament that's not distorted at its top.


To our knowledge, football authorities' main reason for not allowing video evidence to the refs is that it would mean more dead-time for the game while the action is analyzed and the proper decisions are taken. This would happen either by stopping the game, or rather by letting it flow but returning it back to the moment of the felony in case one is determined to have occurred. This is of course a valid objection, but in our opinion it's hardly a decisive obstacle, a good balance should be possible between game flow and ensuring at least major decisions are correct. Let the field referee rule like now except for off-sides and penalties. These would be decided by the TV refs, which could be more than one for a game, especially for important ones. Surely a team of well-trained professionals, aided by state-of-the-art video refereeing technology, should be able to do better than the field refs are now. Then it would come down to this: what is preferable, about 2 minutes of the game discarded or a penalty granted wrongly ? We think the answer is clear, we'd take the loss of 2 game minutes anytime.

For other more minor decisions, the same thing could be done; or maybe not, if this meant too much dead-time. It would have to be judged on a case-by-case basis; for instance, incorrectly awarded dangerous free kicks would probably have to be overruled by the video refs. Bottom line, it's hard to believe they couldn't do better than they currently are. Hell, they could at least let the referee watch the action on TV in case he has doubts.

Everyone knows there's too much dead-time already; penalty and off-side situations should normally be few enough during a game so that the additional dead-time brought by the video refs would be acceptable. Besides, this would also mean some of it is cut, by eliminating wrongly awarded off-sides (also penalties, but in their case this is the least concern). Only experience could tell how things would really look like, and in our opinion the least that can be said is that things are bad enough as they are so that it would definitely be worth a try.

There are of course those who defend the current way of proceeding. One of their arguments is that, maybe you've heard it, referees are human and making mistakes is human, and thus this all adds to the humanity of the game. Some even go that far as to tell us football is more fun and entertaining like this. If you think like this, then definitely this site is not for you.

As for us, we really don't think football needs referee mistakes to be entertaining. We really don't think it's more entertaining like this, in fact we think this is the single most important item spoiling the game. We definitely like a game with Collina more than one with Dick Jol. We think this is like saying humans cannot fly, so it's not human to fly, so let's not have airplanes any more. We think that the human face, the human drama of football is given by the players, not the refs. And we find it very sad, and very wrong, when a team loses and the other one wins and advances based on decisions everybody can see they're mistaken. Now if you think like this, then you're with us; read on, you might enjoy it.



Some murky details

Actually, it's a little bit more complicated.
The laws of the game are vague, perhaps intentionally, in defining fouls and handballs. As they are, one cannot say that a ref's decision or non-decision is wrong according to the laws, because the laws don't clearly define wrongdoing. The ref is let to appreciate if a push was strong enough to warrant a foul, or if a handball was intentional. (Other decisions, such as offsides, goals and ball in/out of play, are well defined.)
As such, one has to look at what refs usually decide in similar circumstances. Which brings up the main problem, that is consistency.

Unfortunately, as we all know, football referees' decisions, taken as a whole, are far from being consistent. Offenses are called in situations that are clearly less wrong than others for which no offense is called. That's how it is and nobody denies it.
This in itself is a problem. Ideally all decisions of all refs should be consistent. It becomes worse if a ref is inconsistent with himself, especially within the same tournament, and especially if it happens within the same game.
Generally, refs are more lenient towards penalty offenses. Only very clear ones are usually granted; most of those that are called outside of the area aren't called when they occur in the area. Which might be understandable, but it's written nowhere in the laws.
The main problem though is when a ref is inconsistent with penalty decisions. Especially in the same game but for different teams. This is about the only case that can be flagged as a serious ref mistake with respect to foul and handball.
Very few foul+handball-related calls are blatant enough to be errors in themselves, because of the almost-everything-goes official policy and the general inconsistency of referees. Which makes for a far too big gray area and much uncertainty for players in the first place, also for fans. More are the cases when refs are inconsistent with themselves, first of all during the same game; these in fact are also ref errors.

The problem of the all-too-large gray area is perhaps the first thing to be addressed in the current circumstances. This would mean specifying the rules, or at least defining a more specific set of rules (an officiating style) within the general vague ones, to be used for top competitions like the UCL and the World Cup. Ideally, these specific rules would also be strict ones, to encourage offensive play and the scoring of more goals.
This should include a comprehensive set of example cases of what is and what is not a foul. While this will never be defined 100%, so the ref would still have to apply his own judgment to individual situations, having a set of cases to stick to would most likely greatly reduce the inconsistency of the refereeing act as a whole.
This example set should ideally be viewed as part of the laws that are for everybody to know, so it should be public.
Another good change IMO towards the same end would be to rule that it's a handball whenever the player could have reasonably avoided touching the ball with his hand / arm, regardless of his intention or non-intention to do it. It seems reasonable to expect that it would be much easier for the ref to judge whether the contact was reasonably avoidable, than to assess intent. As such, the inconsistencies in this area should also be greatly trimmed this way.
Unlike the example set for fouls above, this handball rule change would probably be pretty easy for any ref to apply, anyway no more difficult than the current rule. As such, it should be changed for the game in general, at all levels, not just for the top level.
While the video ref would be a good thing in itself, it would likely work much better with more specific rules than if applied in the current environment.
About the problem of the gray area, see also my article on Soccerlens.

Aside of the problem of consistency, there's also the issue that rules are applied too leniently, by the refs as well as by the officials, who approve it. This may be more of a subjective view of my part. However, I believe it's hard to dispute that a strict officiating style would very likely favor the offensive and lead to the scoring of more goals. This in turn would be beneficial to football; to the spectacle too, but first of all to lessen the role of chance in determining games' outcomes and winners of tournaments. As it is, luck has much too big an influence, especially on matches between top teams, national as well as club teams. This would likely be much reduced if goals were easier to be scored, which could be achieved by stricter reffing standards.
I may be alone on this one, or maybe in a very little minority, but I'd like to see football come to the point where scores like 10 - 5, 7 - 0 or 8 - 6 are the norm, rather than the exception. Especially in the final rounds of top-level tournaments. An average of somewhere around 10 to 20 goals per game would in my opinion be very desirable. As it is now, a lucky strike or ref blunder is very likely to mean the game is over, and to determine the winner. Especially in top-level games where teams are usually evenly matched. With scorelines in the range of 10 - 20 goals per game this wouldn't be the case any more.



The FairFootball approach

FairFootball is not trying to determine errors based on the inconsistencies of the referee. We apply a very strict reffing standard to all games equally, which may go against FIFA policy but makes for much better over-all consistency.
It may very well be that if we were to follow FIFA practice and judge mistakes in the context of every ref's standard, there would be too few errors to correct to be worth doing it. Though it has to be said, at least the non-penalty call in the 2006 World Cup semi Germany-Italy is a definite error anyway one looks at it, and is enough by itself to justify doing FairFootball for that tournament.