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What’s That For Ref

Football is often called “the people’s game”, but for over 140 years there have been almost studied conspiracies of silence to avoid helping the people understand their game better. Is it time to try out an experimental code of signals in a suitable competition?
Once, in a school match, I was puzzled as to why the referee had called a foul against me, so I asked him, “What was that for, ref?” I am sure I was not impolite but the answer, “Don’t question my decisions; get on with the game or you’ll be in my book”, seemed unjust. I was not contesting the decision but asking for information on what I had done wrong so that I could avoid repeating the offence. After the match I asked the referee again, explaining why I wanted to know. He was more reasonable.
“You raised your foot close to an opponent’s knee and I considered it to be dangerous play.” I thanked him, adding that I would try to be more careful in future. Then I thought, why did he not show me at the time, say by raising one foot to knee height? I, and all present, would have understood immediately.
When Italy played France in the 2006 FIFA World Cup’” final before a global audience of billions, only one person, Argentinian referee Horacio Elizondo, knew the whole story of what had gone on in those highly emotional two hours of play. Most stoppages of the match were obvious, e.g. the ball had run out of play, but others were less fathomable.
Do football people care? Well, I am one of them and I do care. An experience in China showed me I am not alone. In my book Soccer rules explained I tell the story of a match in 1965 at The Workers Stadium, Beijing, before 40,000 excited fans. Most of the applause occurred when the game was stopped – after a man’s voice broadcast an announcement. After hearing this several times, I asked my interpreter for an explanation. He pointed to a person seated at a table close to the touch line.
“He is an international referee and is explaining why Dr Wong, the man in the middle, awarded a free kick.” The people appreciated this insight into the game through the eyes of an expert and applauded the officials as much as the players.
The players want to know, the people want to know, and so do television commentators at the big games. As communicators, any titbit of information eases their task of presenting the play, adding educational value to their words and, in turn, increasing the pleasure of the audience – as in that Beijing match.
Other sports are way ahead of football in terms of communication. Nearly all have an established code of signals to support their rules. Rugby, baseball, basketball, ice hockey, cricket and the rest all help explain what goes on. Why not in football, the world’s most popular sports spectacle? One reason is that the game of association football was created for gentlemen players who imposed an impeccable code of fair play on themselves. The referee was there only “to decide disputed points” put to him by the players. Appeals of “That was unfair, sir!” and the accused villain’s
response of “No, I don’t think so, sir” were resolved by the neutral official. It was unthinkable that gentlemen should “show dissent, byword or action” regarding any decision made by the referee (the second of the seven yellow-card offences in the modern laws). The referee has never been required to explain or justify decisions because of this gentlemanly ethic – hence, no code of signals.
Personal research, started in 1970 -involving two years’ study of referees’ communication – proves that officials want to be more informative. To be helpful, referees use other unofficial signals on average 14 times per match. An analysis of six matches revealed 27 different signals, falling into two categories:
Instinctive – natural gestures miming the offence, e.g., handling the ball, pushing, kicking an opponent, shirt holding, etc., and Personalised – individual attempts to indicate offences which are difficult to mime, e.g. obstruction, offside, dangerous play, etc.
Understanding of the referee’s message varied according to the clarity of his body language. Those who attempted to communicate appeared more decisive and efficient than those who made little effort. Negative reaction to a decision, by players or spectators, was often stifled when a clear, firm signal was seen. Based on this research, an unofficial experiment was tested in 1972 at a national youth competition final at Crystal Palace, near London. Players and spectators were given a leaflet with a few illustrations showing refereeing signals they might see and what these would mean. The test was announced over the public address system before the kick-off – it was as near as we could get to the situation in the Beijing match. The experiment was warmly received and generated much interest. A typical and frequent comment was, “Why can’t we see this in every game?”
In the same year, a paper detailing the research and the experiment was submitted to FIFA with recommendations for a basic code of signals for football. The Referees Committee considered the document but shelved the idea. Three years later a memorandum, published in the 1977 FIFA Universal Guide for Referees, noted:
“It is not the duty of the referee nor is it a useful function to explain his decisions to the players or spectators. Any attempt to do so can lead to confusion, uncertainty and delay.” A slight change of attitude in 1991 led to a memorandum which repeats the fear of confusion etc., but states that “There are times when a simple gesture … can aid communication and assist towards greater understanding, and gaining more respect, to the mutual benefit of referees and players”.
That note acknowledges the value of communication. However, it made no attempt to help referees explain the many decisions for which only they know the reasoning – the decisions which baffle players and the millions who watch. They and the ever-growing numbers of newcomers attracted to football want to know more about their game. Much of the confusion, dissent and delay, ever-present in the modern game, would be reduced if referees were allowed to explain obscure decisions using a simple code of signals.
Miming and other informative gestures are not difficult — referees act instinctively. However, their use might become more widespread if the most frequently observed were illustrated in a guide to explain their meaning. The real value of a standard code would be to identify offences which are difficult to mime, for example:
Advantage: The traditional “play on” signal — sweeping both arms forward – provokes unfair criticism when interpreted as “I did not see anything wrong — play on”. It can be modified to give a clear message, “I saw that, but play on”. The example shown in Fig. 1 suggests that the referee points to the offence and makes a forward motion with the other arm.
Offside: In my research, referees attempted to indicate offside with differing gestures. Five signals, from a sweeping movement of one arm across the body to raising both hands above the head, were observed in as many matches. Just one universal gesture would avoid confusion.
Fig. 2 suggests both hands raised to shoulder height and moved apart and together with the index fingers vertical. Careless and reckless play; using excessive force: Six direct free-kick offences, e.g. pushing, tripping, holding, etc. are judged on these criteria. The current signal, indicating the direction of the kick, provides no clue as to the reasoning. Players frequently claim that they have tried to play the ball when an opponent is tackled without reasonable care. One simple gesture could cover all three degrees of foul play. In Fig. 3, the referee indicates his decision by knocking clenched fists together in front of his chest.
Dangerous play: All actions which unintentionally put an opponent at risk, e.g. an attempted kick at a head-high ball, can be covered by one signal. Fig. 4 suggests an open hand raised vertically to head height (1) and then confirmed by the existing one-arm-raised signal to inform all that the free kick is indirect (2).
Denying a goal-scoring opportunity: A complex judgement call, with severe consequences, which merits a special signal. Fig. 5 illustrates one possibility -arms crossed in front of the chest.
These five aspects of play are common to practically every football match. They are judged by the referee and it is mystifying and irritating for players and spectators when his decisions are unclear.
In discussions with referees at all levels and in various countries, the idea of easing their task by introducing a standard code of signals has always been welcomed with enthusiasm. They are keen to give it a try. The illustrated signals are not definitive, but intended as suggestions which could form the basis of an experimental code of signals for trial and evaluation in a suitable competition.
p.s. Stanley Lover is an Englishman living in Paris who specialises in the Laws of the Game. He has written several books on the laws and refereeing and many articles for FM about the topics mentioned.