Here come the Men in Black! – Match Officials and stepping into that river.

Once upon a time, there was a referee with a whistle, a watch and a notebook with a pencil, plus two linesmen, each with a flag, and that was about it. The man with the whistle, aided by his two ‘assistants’ – to give them their modern nom de guerre – was there to govern the game. Or, to quote from Law 5, “Each match is controlled by a referee who has full authority to enforce the Laws of the Game in connection with the match.” For much of the life of the game of football, up to around fifty years or so ago, that’s the way it was, and that’s how everyone involved saw it.

As things grow however, so they change, and football was no different. With the increased profile of the game, previously accepted norms began to be challenged, and at the heart of that process was the World Cup. The increasing global reach of the tournament, conferring fame, prestige and wealth on those who were successful, bred a new hunger, a voracious appetite that fed on the feast that football put onto the table. It led to an increase in the ‘professionalism’ – or, what some would less prosaically call ‘a callous disregard for the laws of the game so long as you could get away with it’ approach – that required the governance of the game also to develop in kind, if that extract from Law 5 was to maintain any real relevance. It was perceived as a case of evolve or die. Adaptation was required to address the lost innocence of football once players and those beyond were seduced by the lure of the prize rather than the game, and forgot Will Smith’s cautionary line from the song of the film that is the title of this article. “The good guys dress in black, remember that!”

Tracing the genesis of when the officials began to feel the need for some further assistance can take us back to a couple of infamous World Cup games; the first in 1954 and the second eight years later, both refereed by English officials. In the first of those occasions, Hungary and Brazil, two teams feted for their flair play, faced each other on 27 June 1954 at the Wankdorf Stadium in a quarter-final of the Swiss-hosted tournament. Christened the ‘Battle of Berne’ it was a violent encounter littered with cynical fouls and fights between players that saw referee Arthur Ellis dismiss three players; many would argue it should have been more. The fighting even continued in the tunnel after the game.

In 1962, another English referee would oversee the equally controversial Battle of Santiago, when the players of Italy and Chile kicked, punched and Kung Fu kicked each other in a game littered with dismissals that required police intervention, shamed football and made abundantly clear that in such encounters, the referee’s control of the game was marginal at best. Two Italians were dismissed. Surprisingly, the Chileans maintained their full complement to the end of the game.

The man in the middle on that June day in 1962 was Ken Aston. The game was later described in the Daily Mirror as “…a battlefield as players forgot the ball and concentrated on kicking the nearest opponent.” It was a scarring experience for Aston, who forlornly lamented that, “I expected a difficult match, but not an impossible one. I just had to do the best I could. It did cross my mind to abandon the match, but I couldn’t be responsible for the safety of the Italian players if I did. I thought that then and I still think it now. I tell you one thing: I didn’t add on any stoppage time.” That experience would stay with Aston, and it would be the same man who, in a different role four years later, would set football on the journey of change to develop the way that referees governed games.

During the 1966 World Cup, Aston was in charge of the tournament’s officials and was an observer at Wembley for the quarter-final between England and Argentina. This was the game when the South Americans’ captain Antonio Rattin was dismissed from the field by German Rudolf Kreitlein for what was later described as ‘Violence of the Tongue.’ The problem was that neither the referee nor the player could understand each other’s language. After the event, Rattin insisted that he was merely asking for an interpreter as the Argentines had apparently been promised would be available to them. Minutes passed before the frustrated Rattin was reluctantly persuaded to leave the field, still feeling aggrieved. The result was an unsavoury episode that left no-one happy, and Aston in search of a solution.

The story goes that on the way from the match with the events of the day still fresh in his mind, the troubled Aston was compelled to stop at some traffic-lights, and seeing them change from amber to red, hit on the notion of yellow and red cards as a way of producing a universally understood system by which the referee could communicate his sanctions to the player concerned. As with so many of the best ideas, it was simple, but over time has proved to be hugely effective. If, as the saying goes, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ then adversity in the guise of a misunderstood altercation between a referee and a player, had been the catalyst, and a pause in the flow of traffic had begat the solution.

It was the first step into the waters of adapting the role of the referee, and making changes targeted at helping them to deploy their “full authority to enforce the Laws of the Game.” The idea and the decision to implement it unlocked the doors to change and created the environment where so many other innovations would transform the way in which games are officiated. Born of conflict, it was the World Cup and Ken Aston’s legacy to football.

The key element of change however is that it can never be an end, only a beginning. Here’s a little dip into Greek philosophy to illustrate why. Heraclitus of Ephesus postulated that you can never step into the same river twice. The logic being that once you have stepped into it the first time, it is by definition, a different river. Your intervention has inevitably changed its nature. The corollary also being that you can’t step into the same river once, because if by stepping into, you change it, it is therefore not the same river that you perceived before taking that fateful step.

Applying this to the officiating of football matches, the introduction of Aston’s plan meant that the process of change had now been accepted. The waters were no longer as they had been, and as more and more of that particular liquid flowed under the proverbial bridge, so the process would inevitably continue, denying the assertion in Job 38:11 “This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt.” Aston’s innovation had thrown open the lid of Pandora’s Box and everything had escaped, leaving only ‘Hope’ therein. Hope that change would equate to improvement; but did it? An overview of some of the changes and a conclusion may offer an insight into that question.

If the system of yellow and red cards was developed to help the referee deal with on-pitch matters, other innovations were put in place to deal with managers and coaches. Back in the 1920s, Donald Coleman, a trainer with Aberdeen FC had an area marked out on the side of the pitch at Pittodrie, where he could stand to observe and take notes of things on the pitch. Whilst on-pitch activities were becoming more controlled, the game’s lawmakers were aware of the need to have similar management extended to the sidelines and what is now known as the ‘Technical Area’ was brought into the laws of the game in 1993.

The inevitable consequence of this was that, with the referee and his two assistants compelled to concentrate on the action on the pitch, someone else would be required in order to police the Technical Areas. It would mean a ‘beefing up’ of the officials numerically. The unimaginatively entitled ‘Fourth Official’ was born, whose duties, contrary to the perceived belief of many managers and coaches is not to take an ear-bending, but to ensure that the protocols of the game are observed, supervising substitutions and advising spectators of added time at the end of each half. In 1994, the World Cup added the role of the Fourth Official to its roster of required assistants, adding a Fifth Official – or as the role was also defined Reserve Refereeing Assistant – twelve years later.

Not yet adopted by FIFA – it’s surely only a matter of time – is the UEFA system of actually having six officials for games in its competitions. As well as the referee and his two accomplices running up and down the sidelines, plus the Fourth Official, with ear-plugs in place, standing by the Technical Areas, there are two further assistants stationed behind the goal-lines to the left of the goal being defended, somewhat quaintly armed with a linesman’s flag stick, without the normal banner attached. Given their different angle on things, their role is to advise on aspects of issues that the other officials may otherwise have been unaware of. Given that increasingly, the roles of referee, assistants that operate on the sidelines and those that police the goal-line area to the side of the goals, are being defined as specialist areas of expertise, the time may not be far away where a role-defined, or perhaps even two specialised reserve officials are required to cover for potential injuries or other incapacities for each of these roles. It’s not inconceivable that the number of match officials may actually outnumber the players of each team in the not too distant future.

Actually, it may even be here! The phrase ‘Goal-line Technology’ has now entered the football lexicon. After many years of reluctance by the various authorities to follow the lead of cricket and tennis for example, an event at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa convinced even the steadfastly reluctant Sepp Blatter that the time for an acceptance of the seemingly inevitable had arrived. When a shot from Frank Lampard crashed down from the crossbar, bouncing a foot or so over the line, in a Round of Sixteen game against Germany, none of the officials were sufficiently well positioned to see that a legitimate goal had been scored. It led to the technology being introduced four years later in Brazil and is now ubiquitous across the major leagues. England should of course be careful about lamenting the injustice of the officials’ lack of observation in 2010 however. Had such technology been around in 1966, the outcome of that World Cup Final could have been very different indeed.

There is also of course a nexus between technology and the growing number of officials that will become part of this year’s tournament in Russia. VAR, introduced in various leagues, with degrees of approval and disapproval is now raising its contentious head in England, hardly to universal acclaim. Having an absented official, able to review major events in a game, where ‘clear and obvious’ refereeing errors may have been made will take its bow at football’s four-yearly jamboree. Strangely perhaps, it seems a case where a lesson learnt may have been taken to heart in the extreme. The adoption of Goal-line Technology came long after the technology had been perfected, whereas VAR seems still to be in state of development. One is tempted to speculate on the possibility of some major controversy in a few months’ time over this very subject.

The process of beefing up the numbers of match officials appears to be a steady march, but as well as adding to their numbers, officials are also being given extra equipment that may soon have them requiring some kind of carrying kit akin to a rucksack or perhaps Batman’s Utility Belt. Something called a ‘Disappearing Spray’ may well have been a useful addition to the Caped Crusader’s collection of gadgets, but he may have been disappointed to then find that it was the spray that disappeared, not the object it was deployed upon. For referees however, the ability to mark out obligated ten-yard distances at free-kicks using this spray has surely been a boon to the person with the whistle, eliminating the gnawingly difficult task of preventing players in defensive walls petulantly encroaching when the official’s back is turned.

If the spray is an innovation that could be defined as fairly low-level technology, other changes have been more advanced. With the team of match officials now growing in number, a requirement for mass communication was called for, and the advent of headsets – when operating correctly – has enabled not only more collaboration, but also largely eliminated the potential for referees to miss input from their assistants. “It’s good to talk” was a catchphrase for British Telecom many years ago. Not only can match officials do that now, but they can also listen.

Looking back to those earlier and uncomplicated times, compared to modern-day officiating of games, that legacy of change instigated by the advent of red and yellow cards has run a long way – even the men in black are no longer that, donned in many different colours and the advent of female officials renders the description totally archaic. There may be a more insidious problem somewhere down the road though. Football was, for so long, a simple game, with just a ball required – not forgetting of course those ‘jumpers for goalposts.’ A professional match would look the same as a game played out on the proverbial Hackney Marshes on a Sunday morning. The apt metaphor of a ‘level playing field’ is no longer relevant. As further requirements are added to the protocol of officiating at a game, the more elevated levels of the professional game draw themselves further and further away from its grassroots. Stepping into Heraclitus’s river has not only changed its nature, it’s also muddied the waters and caused turbulence. If a dislocation of the game is the way that waterway is leading, perhaps football should consider trying to keep its feet dry.

(This All Blue Daze article was originally ;produced for Issue 20 of The Football Pink magazine).





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: