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European football is 40,000 referees short and the elite game is partly to blame

Being a referee is a calling: most people want to score the goals or be the star, but officiating is an elite career path. However, fewer people becoming referees and it impacts the entire sport from top to bottom.



European football is 40,000 referees short and the elite game is partly to blame
European football is 40,000 referees short and the elite game is partly to blame
Late last month, UEFA head of referees Roberto Rosetti stood in front of a PowerPoint presentation and made an impassioned simple plea: "We need referees!"

He pointed out that roughly one in seven registered match officials quit the game every year and that while football is booming around Europe, with increasing numbers of teams and leagues both in the men's and women's game, the pool of match officials isn't keeping up. Across UEFA's 55 member associations, they're about 40,000 referees short.

"It's a vocational crisis," he said, using a terminology most often associated with young people not opting to join the clergy. Rosetti is a former FIFA referee who today is the high priest of European match officials, charged with (among other things) leading the selection and assignment of referees in the Champions League and Euros. It stands to reason that he'd speak in quasi-religious terms because, let's face it: officiating is a calling.

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Most kids want to be the ones scoring the goals, while some (usually the less mobile) want to be the ones keeping the goals out; very few, if any, want to be the ones running around making sure the Laws of the Game are being applied. But those who do were almost all recreational footballers who, at a young age, perhaps realized they could compete at a higher level as a match official than they could ever do as players.

Except today, there are proportionally fewer of them, and it's going to take more than this UEFA produced recruitment video to change that. And while you may say that you don't really care if an under-12 girls' game in some suburb somewhere can't muster a licenced match official, the reality is that it impacts the entire pyramid.

A bit like athletes, the best referees progress through the ranks, eventually officiating the Champions League and Premier League games that so many of us really care about. But if there are fewer referees entering the system, usually around age 14 or 15, then there will be fewer good ones progressing through it. Down the road, it will tangibly impact the elite game.

This is a challenge faced by football associations around the world, and one of the problems identified by Rosetti is the abuse that referees encounter. He doesn't mean at the senior level -- officials in their 40s, who've been taking it for the past 25 years and have made a career out of refereeing, have evidently made peace with it -- he means further down, at the grassroots level. He means situations were 14-year-old boys arrive to officiate youth teams -- and do it on their own, too, because there are no assistants at that level, let alone fourth officials and VARs -- and get insulted and spat at by their peers on the pitch and the parents on the sideline. Where 16-year-old girls get chased around the pitch by furious coaches. Where a 22-year-old referee in amateur football gets violently attacked by adults, is hit on the head and has to flee. (In case you were wondering, two of the players who attacked him received bans of five years and three years respectively.)

Obviously violent assault is a criminal matter. But the verbal and social media abuse -- especially when you're out there on your own and it's coming often from folks older than you -- is enough that many young, would-be match officials might say "screw this, I'm going back to TikTok." The ones who stick around and work their way through the system may be built of sterner stuff, or they love refereeing so much they'll put up with anything. (A tiny minority, though I'm sure Rosetti would disagree, may enjoy the abuse.) But the point stands: Why is this happening, and what can we do about it?

Earlier this year, Rosetti met with referee representatives from across Europe. One of the conclusions they reached is that some of the bad behaviour to which refs are subjected at grassroots level is a consequence of how they see elite referees treated on TV. Players surrounding match officials, getting in their faces, coaches on the sideline ranting and coming out of their technical area -- that sort of stuff. And that's part of the reason there has been a crackdown on dissent in the Premier League, Serie A and elsewhere across Europe.

This is where I, personally, have had a bit of an epiphany. I never really had a problem -- at the elite level, where referees are professional or virtually professional and, supposedly, the best of the best -- with players and managers getting into it with match officials. I assumed that it was down to them to enforce discipline: they're the ones with the cards after all, and if there was back and forth that went unpunished? Well, maybe it was that "colourful banter" that ex-pros love to talk about and which some ex-referees say they enjoyed.

Good refs, on top of their game, maintained control. Referees having a poor day would lose control. And if players and coaches caused them to lose control by their behaviour -- whether petulant, intimidating or whatever -- then that was part of the game. It was, in some ways, a clash of equals -- highly paid professional athletes and coaches, and highly paid professional referees -- and this was high stakes, elite competition, right?

I don't see it like that anymore. Not because I think referees need to be coddled -- there are good ones and mediocre ones, they compete against each other and there's nothing to be gained from pretending they're all the same and all perform equally -- in fact, I'd love to see them held to account even more than they are: that's how you improve. But rather for two reasons.

One is the abuse at grassroots level, which is clearly impacted by what happens at the top. I'm not talking just about extreme cases like Jose Mourinho going after Anthony Taylor in a car park after the Europa League final and calling him a "f--- disgrace." I'm talking about the weekly scenes of managers losing their temper on the touchline with the fourth official, or players asking for yellow cards and ganging up on referees as if their sheer heft of their body mass can influence a call (sadly, sometimes it does).

But when we normalize this behaviour -- "this is how winners react at a perceived officiating slight," or something to that effect -- it's entirely different because it percolates down to the grassroots. There, you end up with adults confronting and insulting a kid in a dusty parking lot because he didn't give a penalty at a U16 game. That's not a clash of equals. That's flat-out bullying, and it's having a material impact on the game at all levels.

The other reason is that I no longer think it's a natural by-product of high end sports being competitive or even entertaining. I'm all for gaining an edge, but you're not competing with the referee: he's part of the game, like the ball, the goalpost or the chalk on the touchline. We actually have excellent examples across the pond, from the National Football League to college sports. Yes, if you're old, you may remember former Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight throwing chairs or, more recently, Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce throwing his towel at the referee. I'm sure there are others, but it doesn't feel like it's a weekly occurrence. Show dissent and consequences follow very quickly. And guess what? The games are still competitive, passions still run high, you still have the right amount of nasty.

In other words, football doesn't need to be this way either, which is why I, for one, welcome the crackdown.

I also trust referees enough to distinguish between a moment of frustration and anger -- even with a nasty, foul-mouthed expletive -- driven by passion and the sort of extended carry-on we too often witness. It's normal to appeal for a foul after you've been decked. It's not normal to get up and chase the referee around pleading your case. (It's even less normal, by the way, to argue incidents that are being checked by VAR, let alone offside decisions, when the ref is standing there next to you.)

Maybe if they behave a bit better at the pro level, we won't have to resort to dads borrowing a whistle and improvising as referees at the youth level, because there will be enough youngsters wanting to be match officials for the simple reason that they love the sport and this is one way to be part of it.