Referee ‘crisis’ encapsulated by laughable fan reaction to latest Saudi Arabia recruitment ‘plan’

Matt Stead
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp argues with referee Paul Tierney
Jurgen Klopp would probably pack Paul Tierney's Saudi bags

Saudi Arabia targeting the ‘top’ referees in the Premier League and Europe was greeted with a predictable reaction which summed up the black hole of abuse.

In fairness to The Times, whose football writer Martin Hardy first reported the story, it was perhaps the perfect headline to use in terms of driving social media engagement.

‘Saudi Arabia’s plan to lure Europe’s top referees’. Eight simple words that sparked one general response they would have known was coming.

‘What top referees?!’ came the knee-slapping, thigh-grabbing, back-patting reply from most. ‘None from the Premier League then!’ bantered many others. A few delved into the genuinely intriguing world of drudging up the names of officials who have personal agendas specifically against the team they happen to support. Beyond the entry-level and definitely real corruption we all know and love, like Paul Tierney’s hatred of Liverpool, it is always fun to learn or be reminded of more below-the-surface biases like Rob Jones and Nottingham Forest, Keith Stroud and Birmingham City or Darren England and apparently every team in the English football pyramid.

But the sentiment was broadly the same: help yourself; please take them.

First they came for Jordan Henderson, and we spoke out because that was dispiriting. Then they came for Aleksandar Mitrovic, and we spoke out because he is great fun and will be sorely missed. Then they came for Allan Saint-Maximin, and we spoke out because it seemed a bit dodgy with the Newcastle stuff.

Then they came for our referees, and the reputation of officials particularly in England is so miserably, laughably low that the only thing capable of bringing rival supporters together in 2023 is the idea of Michael Oliver, Stuart Attwell and friends’ black kits and whistles being shipped off to the Middle East.

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It stems from the belief that they are inadequate, that their implementation of the laws of the game, rather than the convoluted, ever-changing and often contrary laws themselves, are the problem. It suggests that people genuinely think there are better referees ready to break through, like academy-developed teenagers at elite Premier League clubs just waiting for minutes in the Carabao Cup or the right loan move, as if the current referee crisis just needs a Liverpool-style rebuild from a Jurgen Klopp-led PGMOL. It ignores that whoever is charged with presiding over games at this level doesn’t matter when they are held to an impossibly perfect standard in an increasingly toxic environment.

VAR; extensive scrutiny and analysis of questionable incidents at half-time and full-time; actual shows on mainstream platforms dedicated solely to debating whether or not the right call was made days later; the creeping trend of managers blaming every negative result on one decision; supporters keeping spreadsheets on the birthplaces of every official to see how far away from their bitter rival’s stadium they all grew up – the conditions have rarely been conducive for referees to thrive but these are truly ludicrous circumstances from which to expect competence, never mind excellence.

Those issues will remain and are only getting worse. When a contentious handball or controversial tackle is made, there is never a consensus between those watching with the added advantage of numerous slow-motion replays. Even offsides are being viewed with a conspiratorial slant now because of some nonsense about the camera angles being used. Every call is treated with instinctive suspicion. If pundits and punters are unable to agree minutes, hours and days later, then what hope do referees have making a split-second call without all the additional context in real-time?

Many will have no sympathy but that is a symptom of the problem. The referee blame and abuse culture has created a black hole that no official current, coming through the system or merely contemplating such a miserable professional existence will be able to resist being pulled inexorably into.

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There is no bottomless pit of officials waiting to replace those already long since deemed inept. It is very much the opposite. Roberto Rosetti, the UEFA head of referees, recently said that roughly one in seven registered match officials quit the game every year. He described it as “a vocational crisis”, that they are “almost 40,000 referees short of having sufficient numbers for the game at grassroots level”.

That scarcity might not impact the Premier League and Europe’s top flights now, but the long-term consequence is clear and obvious. And those celebrating at the mere thought of the continent’s top(!) referees leaving before then are in for an almighty shock if they think that will make things better.