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Ref Life

It’s long been said that English soccer referees need to have a thick skin, but it’s getting to the point where they need armored personnel carriers

Author Chris Wright Illustration David Plunkert

fanImagine you’re at work, standing across the room from a colleague who’s been accused of slipping a stapler into his bag—and not just any stapler, but a diamond-studded stapler worth, say, $10 million. Your boss has left it up to you to decide whether said colleague took the stapler or not, despite the fact that your view was obstructed by a photocopier. Your co-workers have mobbed around you, half of them screaming that the guy’s innocent and half screaming that he’s not. You have exactly one second to make up your mind.

If this sounds a tad stressful, you’d best not apply for a job as an English Premier League referee. The men responsible for officiating the world’s fastest, richest and most competitive soccer league face situations similar to the above every time they take the field, with the added pressure of tens of thousands of fans baying for blood and the knowledge that their decisions will be picked apart later before a TV audience of millions, some of whom will send death threats via Twitter.

“You have to be mentally strong, mentally tough, to go out there and do this,” says Mark Halsey, who spent 15 years as a top-level referee before retiring two years ago. “If not, you’ll get swallowed alive.” Halsey writes about such matters for a website, You Are the Ref, which started out as a comic-strip quiz exploring tricky refereeing decisions but has morphed into the U.K.’s leading arbiter of contentious issues related to the profession, of which there are many.

If refs were under pressure before Halsey and his YATR colleagues started weighing in, they’re facing a far more
daunting challenge now. Keith Hackett, the website’s director, gained a reputation as a tough referee during his 20-odd years in the game (he retired in 1994), but his commentaries on YATR, many of which end up in national newspaper headlines, can be brutal.  

“This season, we have all witnessed many disastrous performances and big game-changing errors,” he wrote earlier this year, referring to the EPL campaign that ended in May. He went on to say that “the current group of professional referees is the worst that we have seen,” then followed this up with a list of the refs he believes should be fired.

It’s become a commonly held belief in England that referees are becoming increasingly error prone, unfit and weak-willed, but to have a heavy-hitter like Hackett blaring this notion across the land has effectively rubber-stamped it. England’s official refereeing body, Professional Game Match Officials Limited, responded by releasing statistics showing that accuracy rates have gone up (from 94.1 percent five years ago to 95 percent now). Even this rather limp defense, however, is subject to a withering rebuttal from YATR.  

“Let’s not argue figures, because they don’t really count,” says Hackett. “You can make 500 correct throw-in decisions, but what we’re talking about are decisions that influence the outcome of a game, and it’s here that we’ve seen a catalog of errors. We’ve had cases where the wrong player has been sent off. How does that happen?”

One such incident occurred in March of last year, in a game between London rivals Chelsea and Arsenal, when the ref sent off Arsenal defender Kieran Gibbs for handball, when the offense had been committed by another player who also had dark skin. This was by no means the only high-profile blunder—every game these days, it seems, has an awful foul going unpunished, a valid goal disallowed, or a bit of play-acting rewarded with a penalty.

It’s probably no coincidence that the apparent drop in refereeing standards has coincided with the proliferation of post-match punditry. Given that every single decision a referee makes now is subjected to endless second-guessing, it makes sense that we’re seeing more mistakes. Even Hackett, the Godzilla of critics, concedes this point. “Referees at the Premier League level are operating before a minimum of 24 television cameras,” he says, “so, yes, every error is highlighted.”

These errors are compounded by the frenetic pace of the game today, along with the trend toward “simulation”—crying foul in order to win a free kick or get an opposing player sent off—and the on-field bullying of referees.
The pressure gets even worse when you consider the money that’s at stake. Last year, the Premier League recorded revenues of $5 billion, the highest of any soccer league in the world by a wide margin. The 2015 champions, Chelsea, scored a $150 million bonus payment. The loss of a single point can cost a club millions. A refereeing decision that consigns a team to relegation (each season, the EPL’s bottom three teams drop to a lower league) is akin to financial assassination.

As the stakes rise, so do the passions that have always surrounded the game in England. Where once a referee could expect to be barraged with mocking chants from the crowd, he now faces a far more sinister form of abuse.

In 2012, after ejecting a Liverpool player during a game with Manchester United, Halsey met with a torrent of hatred on Twitter, much of it focusing on the fact that both he and his wife had previously been diagnosed with cancer. “People were saying awful things, like, ‘I hope it kills you both; I hope your daughter gets it.’ She was 6 at the time. I remember her asking, ‘Daddy, why do people want us to die?’” When the abuse turned into specific threats, Halsey notified the police.

Such experiences, says Halsey, could result in mental health issues. “There was a referee in Germany who attempted suicide,” he says, referring to a 2011 incident in which a Bundesliga official cut his wrists before a game. “So, you do worry. You try to stay away from the media, but it’s all around you—criticism, criticism, criticism—and there’s nothing to help you get through it.”

All of which raises the question: Why would YATR heap even more criticism on beleaguered referees? “We have been critical,” says Hackett, “but at the same time, we are looking at ways to try to fix things.” Also, he adds, as someone who has taken his share of flack over the years, he feels justified in dishing it out.

“I used to hate getting into cabs,” he says. “Because I knew, the second the driver looked in the mirror, I was in for a long journey.”

Hemispheres executive editor and Chelsea fan Chris Wright would like to say that he is fully supportive of professional referees, even if they have ruined his life on several occasions.

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