The referee in football is meant to be the principal decision-maker, enforcing order on the pitch by ensuring that a fair, yet free-flowing game is played.
They are meant to be the guardian of the beautiful game, if you like, dishing out cards to unruly troublemakers and keeping an eagle eye on the action, so that the sport’s laws are adhered to, to the letter.
However, as time has gone on, the role of, perhaps now outdatedly still dubbed ‘the man in the middle’, has become increasingly that of a spectator on the side-lines, powerless to control what is unfolding in front of them.
Many will point to the introduction of VAR (Video Assistant Referee) as the instigator of this regression in refereeing power and they are not entirely wrong.
Goals awarded often receive muted celebrations from players and commentators alike and those denied are now contested even more fiercely, both in the expectation of a video referral that will question the on-field ruling.
All of this has led to an atmosphere that very much feels like one where the true decision-makers of Premier League football reside at Stockley Park.
This is not helped by the fact that, when on-field referees are referred by VAR to the pitchside monitor, more often than not, they require only a casual five-second glance before they overturn their original decision.
This contrasts starkly with the VAR’s own review, which lasts several minutes, leading viewers to question how the individual supposedly running the show can completely change their mind at such a breakneck speed.
In fact, the idea that they were ever in charge to begin with appears almost laughable.
VAR could be scrapped.
Alternatively, it could be streamlined to a version where teams can initiate their own reviews of in-play decisions but have a limited number of such reviews per game, similar to the systems implemented in cricket and American football.
However, as fun as those would be to debate, realistically neither are going to happen.
After all, it remains a fact that the margin of error in key match decisions has decreased significantly since VAR’s introduction, which is exactly what it was brought in to do.
More importantly, such a drastic change is unnecessary for football’s referees to no longer have a mere pretence of authority.
If you think of a sport where officials do wield significant authority, your mind probably goes to rugby and nostalgic memories of Nigel Owens telling the huge, burly men approaching him right where they could stick their opinions.
Owens oozed authority throughout his officiating career and made damn sure all 30 men on the pitch knew it.
Yet, where decisions were contentious, Owens would often defer to the TMO (Television Match Official) to provide a ruling.
With the TMO essentially a much more extensive version of VAR, rugby is concrete proof that both VAR and refereeing authority can co-exist.
The answer is simple.
The significant difference for all those watching Owens consulting with his TMO compared to the likes of Mike Dean engaging with VAR is that you can actually hear Owens’ conversation.
It’s clear that rugby’s officials know what they’re doing as they refer to specific rules of the game when they go through their decision-making process, which is communicated to onlookers both at the stadium and at home.
Ok, so everyone may not always agree with the outcome of a review, but at least everyone knows how they got there.
If football’s governing bodies introduced such transparent communication, post-game debates and analysis would shift towards being focussed on the tactics deployed in the game, not predominantly on the decisions of the officials, as is becoming an increasing trend.
What is currently perceived as arbitrary discretion could be unveiled as consistency.
It really isn’t that outlandish an idea.
Officials are also mic’d up in the NBA and the NFL and it has even been experimented with already in the footballing world in the Australian A-League.
It would have another significant knock-on benefit too.
Football’s referees and linesmen get berated constantly throughout every single one of the 90 minutes of every single match that they take control of.
The fourth official is far too frequently surrounded by opposing coaching teams, like a deer surrounded by a pack of wolves, circling in on their prey.
Mic’ing up football’s officiating teams would do a great deal to put an end to this.
It only stands to reason that if the referee and his or her team can be heard, so too can what the players and their managers say to those officials.
Almost overnight, the foul language from those on the field would reduce to practically zero.
Professional footballers would not want to risk tarnishing their reputations by being caught on camera cursing everything under the sun.
They are above all, role models, with astronomical social media presences to boot.
That is not even to mention the fines that their teams would likely be hit with by broadcasters.
Now, none of this is to say that an even remotely similar effect would be expected among football’s fanbase.
After all, let’s say I type “the referee’s a …”.
I dare say the vast majority of you will be able to fill in the blank.
For this all too frequent fan abuse, unfortunately other policing measures will have to be pursued and it may well be a long time before football’s referees garner the respect they deserve.
For as overdue a cultural shift as football is, it remains unlikely that one will be forthcoming.
However, by handing VAR a voice, at least the public criticisms of referees by players, managers and pundits could decline.
In my view, such transparency is a pretty good place to start.
We hope you enjoyed this article ‘Football’s Referees Need More Authority; is Greater Transparency the Answer?’. How do you believe officiating of the beautiful game can be improved? Do you think it ever will be?
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