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A toxic mindset towards referees has taken hold of football


Referees face one of the hardest challenges in their workplace. Every decision is judged instantly with a barrage of cries, shouts, and dissent. Every explanation can be met with defiant and aggressive disagreement. Very rarely in life is your decision-making at such a low percentage success rate. The individuals that put themselves in this work are unique. They love the game. They love the finer details of the laws. They appreciate all aspects of the sport and the factors needed to play. However, the behavior they face every time they step onto the field is driving numbers down and pushing referees away from the sport.

Toxic Culture

Football has one of the strongest and most passionate fan followings in the world of sport. Supporters will spend all the extra money to have season tickets, to attend games in all locations, or to travel across continents for away matches. Football clubs have a deep part to play within the culture of society. Legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly once said, “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that”. This emotional attachment can bring out the very best in people, but it can also bring out the very worst. That can be seen in some key areas:

  • At games - Aggressive, rude, and insulting chants are thrown towards players, coaches, opposition fans, and the referee crew.

  • Media - Pieces of journalism or punditry that criticize players, coaches, supporters, and referees without perspective or context.

  • Social Media - Fueled by the two categories above, football fans use social media as a place to troll and abuse players, coaches, supporters, and referees without fear of consequence.

Referees are one of the public recipients of abuse from all facets of the game. You can pick any match to watch and you will see professionals screaming disagreement and gesturing dissent towards the officials every time they make a decision. There is an entitlement from all involved that this is acceptable behavior, and emotion/passion are the excuses used to justify actions that would see police called if it were done in public.

First of all, no one is entitled to abuse or show dissent to match officials. Dissent is defined as “the expression or holding of opinions at variance with those previously, commonly, or officially held”. Even if a decision is questionable or wrong, communication or opinion must be done with respect, treating the referee as a human being who is at work for the benefit of the match in question.

Dissent isn’t just verbal. It is by action as well. Referees will all have a boundary line which when crossed will be punished by warning, caution, or sending off. Referees handing out punishment for these offenses is not a “power trip”. It is correct application of the laws of the game, and referees will apply this at a consistency that seems appropriate to them.

Spanish FIFA Referee Guillermo Cuadra Fernández - La Liga
Spanish FIFA Referee Guillermo Cuadra Fernández

What makes referees irritable is dissent founded on ignorance of the laws of the game and how they are applied. This is particularly apparent within the punditry profession, and on social media where comments will be thrown out like “stonewall penalty”, “referee is incompetent”, “referee got that wrong”, “never a foul” and so on and so on. What people forget is the unique interpretation that all watchers of the game possess. Interpretations are affected by natural biases. We all have ideas of what a foul would be, what would constitute a caution, or a red card.

However, referees have to adapt their interpretations so they fall in line with the laws of the game and their application. If an illegal action happens, you can’t ignore it as you would be shirking your responsibility as a match official in maintaining order on the pitch, dealing with disciplinary issues, and basic game management. It is your job to determine whether it was careless, reckless, or excessive force. Careless will warrant a free kick and a warning if persistence is likely to become an issue. Recklessness warrants a yellow card. Excessive force is a red card. These three factors all carry various other considerations to consider in that moment as well.

Recently, in a World Cup match between Japan and Spain, there was a goal scored after it appeared (to the linesman) to cross the goal line before it was passed into the box. He flagged after the ball had been turned in for a goal. VAR reviewed all goals, and determined the ball had stayed in play by 1.8mm. When you see a bird's eye image of the ball over the line, there is no argument. It is in play as the widest part of the ball has not fully cleared the line. ZERO argument.

However, there were arguments that raged for days on social and mainstream media about whether the ball had stayed in. There was no controversy. It was simply mainstream media fueling interactions by questioning something quite clear, and people on social media whose feelings were hurt by Japan winning. When feelings and natural biases get in the way of logical and factual application rooted in the laws of the game, you get yourself stuck in inconsistency. It’s why we are so vulnerable as human beings.

Judging football through a referee's eyes takes lots of time to master. It’s a completely new perspective on the game. You are highly unlikely to ever understand it unless you become a referee and train yourself to think and process that way. Some things are black and white, and they are the easy decisions (or the easily corrected ones). However, when it comes to interpretation, it will always differ from referee to referee. It is simply your job to backup your decision as a match official with application of the laws of the game with considerations met.

We all have a hard time being unbiased when it comes to the teams we support. Naturally I want all decisions to go in my team's favor, but that isn’t logical thinking. We all know deep down some things go for us, and some go against us. It’s how we deal with those events that mark our maturity. As a referee you can’t allow those biases to infiltrate your work. If a coach yells at you in the first five minutes you can’t allow subconscious thoughts of not giving his team decisions to enter your mind. However, to the average football fan, this doesn’t fit within their emotional construct of supporting their team.

PRO MLS Assistant Referee AR

I will continue to train my brain to work as a referee should, learning and applying the laws of the game to each unique situation. My feelings don’t come into it. My biases don’t come into it. Ignorance isn’t an excuse. If I don’t know something, it’s my job to learn. It’s my job to be prepared. I have to do this because of what my job is. I have to create good habits to keep progressing and developing. Looking at things from MULTIPLE viewpoints and opinions is key for continued good decision making.


  1. Understanding the laws of the game, and how/why they are applied. Don’t simply dismiss them because you “don’t like them”

  2. Pushing for greater responsibility on clubs to set standards of behavior towards referees at ALL levels of the game.

  3. Referees being mic'd up for communication and verbiage to become commonplace for the average football fan. The refereeing world needs to be opened up, not hidden.

Play a part. Be better.


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