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Official Standards Slipping?

So this previous weekend, we saw the first major trophy of the season decided. A match from which much was expected. The most successful side in British football over the past two decades against a young, hungry Villa side, full of pace and trickery. The pre-match entertainment lived up to expectations, the national anthem was blasted out by almost 90,000 watching supporters, and then we were off. With barely five minutes on the clock, Gabriel Agbonlahor burst away from Nemanja Vidic, was hauled back by the Serbian defender, and then skipped away again, only to be brought down in the penalty area. Referee Phil Dowd pointed to the spot and Villa and United fans alike waited to see what further punishment would be meted out. As we now know, not even a yellow card…

In the modern day of football, where television cameras are everywhere and replays can be summoned up for the TV audience in a matter of seconds, the decisions of the officials are scrutinised more closely than ever before. There is barely a match that goes by where one of the managers is not bemoaning a call that went against his side. Pundits analyse the decisions in slow-motion and explain how the referee has made a terrible judgement. However, other pundits disagree and put their case forward for how the official has got it spot on. In these situations, the referee must make a split-second decision based on what he has seen. It is unfair to criticise his decision, if the pundits cannot even agree after watching it five times from multiple different angles.

However, there seem to be more and more examples of the officials simply making bad decisions. Decisions that were not a matter of judgement, but simple interpretation of the rules. Missing offside decisions that were clearly offside, failing to show the red card where it was almost impossible not to. Indeed, one of the worst decisions in recent years was the decision by Stuart Atwell to award Watford a goal against Reading when the ball had not even passed between the posts – how neither he, nor his two assistants had not noticed that simple fact is beyond belief. Yet he is now refereeing week-in week-out in the Premiership, supposedly the best league in the world.

Now I’m not suggesting that this is only an English phenomenon. Celtic has recently had discussions with the Scottish FA over their beliefs that the standard of refereeing has declined in recent years. A name that Chelsea fans will remember, Tom Henning Ovrebo, who controversially denied the English club a stream of penalties in their semi-final against Barcelona last year, has been in the news again for the wrong reasons following a sub-standard performance in the Bayern Munich against Fiorentina match. He made a number of strange decisions in the match – failing to send off Mark van Bommel for a horrific two-footed challenge, then failing to give him a second yellow card minutes later for a blatant dive. He then sent off Massimo Gobbi for violent conduct, despite replays suggesting that Arjen Robben had run into the motionless Fiorentina player, then collapsed to the floor clutching his throat. However, the worst decision was yet to come. Ivica Olic nodded the ball square to Miroslav Klose to slide into the empty net for the winner. However, apparently unseen to the referee or his perfectly-positioned assistant, Klose had been standing a clear three yards offside.

With the ever-increasing amount of money at stake in football, virtually every game gains more and more importance to clubs. Matches are growing in intensity, but increasingly seem to be influenced by the referee and questionable decisions. One of the major issues both fans and managers have with officials concerns the idea of consistency. Whilst nobody likes to see mistakes being made, if there was a degree of consistency in the decision-making across officials, people might at least begin to take a slightly less hard-line view on the standard of refereeing. When you compare three decisions in the past week – Salmon Kalou being brought down by Walter Samuel for Chelsea against Inter Milan, Gareth Barry being brought down by Belletti for Manchester City against Chelsea and the Agbonlahor and Vidic incident at Wembley – they are three almost identical situations, but which brought three completely different outcomes. Nothing was given for the Kalou incident, a penalty and a red card for the Belletti one and just a penalty against Vidic. It makes you wonder how three such similar incidents can be interpreted so differently by three supposedly highly-qualified officials.

Personally, I think that referees could use more help in the modern day. Technology is used to scrutinise their every decision and provide evidence for those who would criticise them, however there seems to be a lack of willingness to use similar technology to help them. Video replays are used in a number of other sports – rugby, cricket, tennis to name a few – and have been successful in most of these. I am not suggesting that technology should be used for every decision in football – there is still a strong role for the on-field officials. However, it would be beneficial for the game if some form of technology was introduced. Goal-line technology is the one that is most often quoted and this would be the obvious first stage. There is nothing subjective about whether the ball has crossed the line or not – it either has, or it hasn’t. And given that replays can be summoned in a matter of seconds, controversial decisions such as this could be resolved with minimal delay to play. Indeed, the players want it as well – a poll of the captain’s of the 48 Europa League clubs this season found that 90% were in favour of the introduction of goal-line technology, whilst UEFAs new experiment of two extra officials was found to have no improvement in decision-making by 70% of those asked.

The final thing that may bring players, managers and fans back toward agreement with officials would be the issue of accountability. Currently, managers and players must attend post-match interviews and press conferences to face the media. However, there is no such rule for officials, despite they are often involved in the most controversial moments during the match. They are marked by a member of the refereeing authorities on their performance, but we never find out how they are marked or indeed, what mark they receive. It is also very rare to hear a referee come out and admit that he made an incorrect decision, even when the evidence is obvious. A greater degree of transparency and accountability in this area would at least allow fans to hear the reasoning behind decisions.

So overall, whilst there are a lot of concerns about the standard of refereeing, it is difficult to know whether there is an actual decline or whether it simply appears that way due to the intense scrutiny that accompanies every decision in the modern world of TV replays. Either way, it seems clear that officials have distanced themselves from managers, players and fans alike, and it would be in their interests to try and bridge this gap. Issues of accountability and transparency would help, as would a greater degree of consistency across referees. However, it seems beyond belief that the footballing authorities still continue to prevent the introduction of goal-line technology that would surely provide added assistance to officials and help to reinforce the integrity of the game.

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