The Angle

Why Do We Hate the Good Refs So Much?

by on 31 May 2016

Before I start, I think I need to qualify my participation in this site. I serve as the Director of Referee Instruction for the Minnesota State Referee Committee, which is US Soccer’s administrative arm for referee development in Minnesota. It was a great honor to be asked to contribute to the site, and I hope that my experience and knowledge in this particular area of the sport can provide some insight to the site’s readers.

“Do I expect anything I wrote here to convince supporters that certain referees have it out for their teams? No. I am friends with fellow referees who support Arsenal, and even they are convinced that Mike Dean is Satan in earthly form. One of my best friends is a Sounders supporter, and he tells me Seattle fans are pretty sure Ricardo Salazar wears Timbers pajamas to bed.”

However, I think it’s also important for people to recognize that there are some limitations to my involvement. Those who were hoping to see a monthly Graham Poll-like media evisceration of referee performance are not going to likely be satisfied with my work here. My job is to be an ambassador between the “dark” world of refereeing and the supporters who are constantly frustrated by decisions that officials make, as well as the perceived errors they witness. I’m not going to be hanging my colleagues out to dry here… sorry to disappoint those who expect that.

But, you will get honest opinions and writing here. You’re not going to get mindless defense of every referee decision as “correct.” I’ve always felt that one of the driving forces of the world’s fascination with soccer is its imperfections and controversies. It could be team management decisions (why won’t Arsene Wenger spend money on a decent striker? Why didn’t Minnesota United sign a center back this past winter?), in-game tactical decisions (Louis van Gaal is playing Maroune Fellaini up top against Robert Huth and Wes Morgan? Is he playing for the violent conduct red card?), errors in execution by players (We all realize Leicester City beat Tottenham in January because Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld ran into each other and gave Robert Huth a free header, right? It wasn’t because Leicester actually deserved to win that game…), or errors in judgment by players (Zinidine Zidane’s choice of reaction to Marco Materrazi’s insult about his sister in the 2006 World Cup Final). Or, let’s be honest, referee decisions that influence the match, because they do. If the sport wasn’t played and officiated by humans, then it would be boring.

So with that in mind, let’s talk about soccer officiating…

This past spring I was on a tour of England with my son’s team U14 team. It was a great trip in which we went to a pair of Championship games and a pair of Premier League games. As happens with these groups, the word gets out on how different players or parents are interested in the sport, and our guides- one an understandably ecstatic Leicester supporter, the other and equally thrilled (though for less glorious reasons, as winning the Championship isn’t quite as awesome as winning the Premier League) Burnley fan- found out about my own interest in the sport as a referee. Throughout the trip we had occasional short conversations on the topic.

Our last match of the trip was Liverpool vs. Stoke, and five days before the game, PGMOL (the organization that assigns the referees to all league matches in England) announced the referee for the match would be Mark Clattenburg. I said to one of the guides, “Hey, we get to see your best with the whistle this Sunday!” His response was nonchalant. “He’s all right, I guess. He likes to make the game about himself.”

Here in the United States, Mark Geiger is often considered by those within the profession, one of the best American referees in the past decade, perhaps ever. In 2011 Geiger refereed the U20 World Cup final, becoming the only male American referee to ever officiate a FIFA Youth World Cup final. In 2014 Geiger became the first male American referee to take charge of a World Cup match since 2002, and in the same tournament became the first male American referee to take charge of a knockout game at a World Cup. His group stage match was a lights-out performance as Chile eliminated the defending champions Spain, and his overall body of work led to an assignment as fourth official for the semifinal, in which Germany eliminated Brazil in debilitating fashion.

And yet, if you follow the chatter in MLS this season, no referee seems to create more divisiveness than Geiger. He was vilified for his performance in last summer’s Gold Cup semifinal between Mexico and Panama, sending off Panama’s Luis Tejada for a high elbow and then later awarding a penalty for what turned out to be a phantom handling offense by Roman Torres, allowing Mexico to send the game to extra time. Geiger also gave a pair of controversial penalty decisions early this season in an MLS match between Seattle and Vancouver.

I find it interesting how often times the referees generally regarded as the best in the world are those most frequently decried by supporters and the media. I’m sitting here typing this article while watching the FA Cup out of the corner of my eye, officiated by the “all right” referee Mark Clattenburg. The FA Cup final for Clattenburg is, amazingly, just a warmup to the crowning of what has been his finest season, because the next weekend he took charge of Atletico Madrid vs. Real Madrid in Milan in the Champions League final, and that’s before he heads to France to represent England at this summer’s Euros.

The English referee community admires Clattenburg in the same way American referees regard Geiger, but many English supporters think he’s pompous and aloof. Kind of like how many MLS fans think Geiger is aloof and incompetent. I can’t tell you how many people have pointed out to me that Geiger has been conspicuously absent from MLS assignments the last month, and this is somehow proof that he is being punished for recent failures. In truth, he has been involved in USSF seminars and attending pre-World Cup and pre-Copa America tournament meetings, but it doesn’t matter… he’s not on the field, therefore the supporters’ suspicions must be right, he is being punished.

I’m not typing this under the idea that these referees are perfect. They both have made their share of mistakes. Ten minutes ago Clattenburg whistled Chris Smalling for a tactical foul on Conor Wickham, only to see Wickham break away and have a one-on-one with David De Gea. The grimace on Clattenburg’s face was evident as he realized he was too quick to blow the whistle on Smalling. Geiger admitted his errors in the Gold Cup semifinal after getting a chance to see the plays from a different angle after the game.

That’s part of what makes them such good referees… they know they’re not perfect, they know they are fallible. I’ve never met a referee who works at the professional level who is always right and says so. I have, however, met lots of referees who never made it to that level who will tell you they don’t get anything wrong. That’s no coincidence.

One in the same, though the mass hysteria when Geiger or Clattenburg make decisions that rile up supporters is often manufactured by those with a poor understanding of the decisions. This gets amplified when coaches- in their postgame comments- or the mass media piles on in the modern age of instant tweeting. For example, back when Geiger made those PK decisions in the Vancouver-Seattle match, it took seconds for Sports Illustrated journalist Grant Wahl to spit this out on Twitter:


This will sound like a defense of referees, and to be honest, it mostly is. It’s pretty easy to criticize a job that has an impact on your happiness or performance in a negative manner, but it’s unfortunate when that criticism is rooted in a misunderstanding of that job.

Both Clattenburg and Geiger are 41 years old. They both have been officiating at the top level in their countries (Geiger in MLS, Clattenburg in the Premier League) since 2004, 12 years in all. Most referees reach the peak of their career in their late 30s or early 40s, so they are both on track for a career arc of someone sitting at the top of their profession. Clattenburg made the FIFA list in 2006, Geiger in 2008, and both have maintained international panel status since they originally made the list. Understand that England has just eight male FIFA slots allotted, while the US has only seven. It’s a long shot to even get a chance to wear the white badge, but the competition to earn one is so fierce that you have to stay on top of your game just to keep it.

If you watch both of these guys officiate a game, they have every characteristic you would want in a referee. They are both gazelles, they cover massive amounts of ground in seconds, and are often within yards of crucial decisions when they occur. Being able to run is part of that… both also have incredible anticipation and tactical reading of the game. Most people don’t watch referees when they watch soccer, but take a moment to watch Clattenburg or Geiger. They see the cues of an attack or counter attack and take those first two or three steps to create momentum, so when the play finishes and the players inevitably turn to complain, they are often stunned to see the referee five yards away. Their mere physical presence negates arguments before they start.

Beyond that, though, is an innate calmness that permeates their match management. My guides in England complained that Clattenburg likes to “be the show.” He’ll hold up the game, call a player over, have a chat, not give a card, just slow the game down. This drives supporters bonkers, they think this referee tactic is done with the purpose of drawing attention to oneself. It’s not. It’s designed to take the air out of the game. When match temperature is escalating, these deliberate chats get the players to take a breath and calm down, and hopefully help them find their heads before they do something to get themselves booked. Howard Webb was another referee who was tremendous at this… as in Howard Webb who worked the 2010 World Cup Final.

Geiger doesn’t tend to halt the match for conversations. You have to watch him carefully, he saves his words for private comments in the player’s ears during routine stoppages. It’s a style difference. Yet when players get outraged and get in his face, you don’t see him lose any composure. He stands there, chewing on his gum, lets the player burn off his anger, then responds calmly. Players want a referee who doesn’t get wound up and is approachable. Geiger is both.

Every great referee must have a complete understanding of the Laws of the Game and the confidence and courage to apply those Laws when breaches are deliberate and obvious, even if the breaches are of obscure, rarely used rules. Supporters, players, and coaches often find this knowledge and application annoying. Often times, the idea that players and coaches should actually know all of the rules of the game they are playing gets lost in the furor over the decisions.

Back in 2012, Geiger was accused of costing DC United a match with Philadelphia, ironically because he enforced the Laws of the Game the way they were written. Grant Wahl tweeted after the match:


Geiger called back a United goal because the goalkeeper had his hand on the ball. As a safety measure, the Laws dictate that if the goalkeeper has any part of the hand on the ball, this is considered possession by the goalkeeper, and an attacking player is not permitted to kick the ball. The anger at Geiger was misdirected. Most pundits thought he was too quick to kill the play, but that’s the rule. Bemoan the message, but don’t shoot the messenger.

In the 88th minute with the game tied 1-1, United has a chance to win it with a penalty kick. Geiger overturns the first kick, in which United scores, because Chris Pontius blindly charges 3 yards into the penalty arc before the kick is taken. The encroachment, in this case blatant, requires a retake. There’s nothing in the Laws that says, “… except when the encroachment doesn’t affect the outcome of the kick.” Of course, United missed the retake.

I’m not defending the legitimacy of these rules, but it’s not the referee’s fault for enforcing them. People think referees like Geiger and Clattenburg are “making the game about themselves” when they enforce these rules… has it ever occurred to anybody that perhaps the reason nobody else enforces these rules is because they just don’t know them as well?

United head coach Ben Olsen was quoted by Washington Post writer Steven Goff after the game:


United executive Kevin Payne on the penalty retake:


I found Payne’s comment really amusing… I’m not sure how many high school referees even know this rule, or if they do, know it well enough to know how to restart from the encroachment depending on who did it. It’s not a high school call; it’s the kind of call you expect a World Cup referee to make. Just because you don’t know the rule doesn’t mean the guy who made the call made it up.

Even more traditional rules, when enforced under the spirit of current recommended interpretations, cause problems for referees like Geiger and Clattenburg. When he was assaulted by Jermaine Jones in last year’s MLS playoffs, New England media proudly proclaimed that the “Geiger Show” had rolled into town. When you watch that play, Jones is pushing the ball inside past Sean Franklin. The ball is volleyed from two feet away, and there are two New England defenders positioned to kill the attack on the inside almost instantly. The contact with the hand by Franklin is not deliberate, he has no time to get his hand out of the way, Jones is not passing the ball or shooting so the argument that he is taking away a passing or shooting lane is absent. If the ball does get past Franklin, Franklin’s teammates are going to shut down this play.

I’m sorry, but it’s not worthy of a 92nd minute game-tying penalty decision.

(Unless, understandably, you are a Revs supporter, in which case any possible decision in desperation time simply has to go in your favor, or else it’s clear the referee has it out for you and your team.)

Clattenburg caught flak for awarding Tottenham a penalty kick at Manchester City back in February, in a game that ended 2-1 for Spurs. In that case, Raheem Sterling jumped up on a Danny Rose cross with his arm away from the body and blocked the cross, keeping the ball from coming into the danger area. It was iffy whether the ball struck Sterling’s arm or his side first, but the current interpretation is that if you take away a passing lane with an arm away from the body, it’s a handling offense. It’s not Clattenburg’s fault for enforcing the interpretation correctly. Decry the interpretation all you want, but don’t crucify the referee for doing the job he’s being told to do!

The reason guys like Clattenburg and Geiger are caught in the firestorm of these decisions is because they are so good. In any given soccer game, the referee will inevitably make a decision at some point that has an impact on the game’s result. Hundreds of times in a match the referee will make a decision that could impact the outcome, and in some of those situations the decision’s impact on the match is more obvious than others. In the big picture of a title chase or the playoffs, those decisions loom far larger, and bigger games get the biggest referees. It’s why Geiger was on that New England-DC United playoff game last October. It’s why Mark Clattenburg was in the middle of the fistfight disguised as a soccer match between Tottenham and Chelsea a few weeks ago.

I’m not saying people have to like referees like Clattenburg or Geiger, or other strong European officials such as Cuneyt Cakir from Turkey, Felix Brych from Germany, or, in the United States, strong American officials including Baldemero Toledo or Armando Villareal. Those guys aren’t getting those games because whoever is in charge of assigning is looking to antagonize supporter groups. All of these names share the kinds of characteristics that make it why you always see them in the featured televised games every weekend.

Do I expect anything I wrote here to convince supporters that certain referees have it out for their teams? No. I am friends with fellow referees who support Arsenal, and even they are convinced that Mike Dean is Satan in earthly form. One of my best friends is a Sounders supporter, and he tells me Seattle fans are pretty sure Ricardo Salazar wears Timbers pajamas to bed. Making out professional referees to be part of your team’s League of Doom is part of the fun and entertainment of being a supporter of a professional sports team.

But just because that’s your biased opinion doesn’t make it true. And, unfortunately for those conspiracy theorists out there, it also does not make those same referees incompetent. Quite the opposite, in fact.  The reason they are torturing you so is because they are so good at their job.

Darth Vader may have been a really evil Sith Lord, but you can’t argue he wasn’t good at it.