The Future of Officiating Amid COVID-19

By Dr Tom Webb

Is it possible that referees might quit after realising they don’t enjoy officiating while taking an extended break from the game due to COVID-19?

I think this is a concern. There is a natural dropout at the end of every season, and as a result of COVID-19 we are adding another break, so it is possible that this natural dropout will occur twice. We know that abuse, lack of formalised support structures and issues with the disciplinary process are all contributory factors to referee discontinuation. If referees have been subjected to abuse or a lack of support for example, prior to the temporary cessation of football, they might reflect on this and decide that they are actually happier and more content without the issues created by officiating. Certainly the research we have conducted in a variety of countries and sports shows that there are a number of match officials who are continuously considering their position, and whether to continue. It might be that these people do not return. That would be a major issue for governing bodies and football authorities. This could be prevented, at least in part, through further consideration and development of the formal support networks, ensuring that referees are able to return to a welcoming environment where they feel secure. This could potentially help alleviate some drop out. 


Players, coaches and supporters are obviously disappointed that they can’t attend matches, but do you think the referees performance will improve given there’ll be no reactions to decisions from spectators?

This could very well be possible, although it has to be said that the top referees very rarely make key errors in regular matches too. There will be no potential distractions from supporters (even though for the elite referees any distraction is minimal in those sort of situations in any event) and the reactions to decision making will also be minimal, and potentially confined to the players on the field of play. Every professional league in every sport in every country is looking at the issue of a safe return to competition, and how that will look may well differ from country to country as a result. We just don’t know how or even if the performances of players, coaches or referees might change, and it will be interesting to see in the coming weeks. 


You mentioned that Referees are present to uphold the laws of the game with no interest in the outcome, which is completely different to the attitudes of players and coaches and explains why tension can exist. How can leagues use this understanding to create better relationships between referees and teams?

I think there needs to be some greater understanding of the role of the referee. They do have a very different role during a match to players coaches and even supporters, who all have a vested interest in the outcome of the fixture. Leagues can help educate teams and players more, and help to build relationships between teams and referees. After all, without referees, teams and players cannot play. Referees are essential to the structure of football and they need to be retained in greater numbers. One major issue across much of our research has been the (lack) of support networks as a reason for referees considering discontinuing. If these support networks and relationships between teams, players and referees can be enhanced it would provide some of that additional support at many levels of the game. However, leagues need to take a lead on this and help to cultivate these relationships. In my experience referees would be more than willing to assist. 


Are there any commonalities between elite level and grassroots referees dealing with the challenges presented by COVID-19?

The majority of the experiences between elite and grassroots referees will be different when related to COVID-19. Elite referees are considering how to alter training and preparation to ensure they maintain the performance expected of them when they resume, all guided by the particular specific COVID-19 directives each country and professional league in which they operate has adopted. However, at least elite referees can see a potential restart in the coming weeks. We are still unclear how grassroots football might resume at all, and there are a number of factors which still require careful consideration before any resumption. Many leagues and fixtures operate on large sports grounds for example. This means many matches, teams and players will be in close proximity and also the same individuals will potentially be using shared changing facilities. There might also be consideration of how the area around the pitch is managed, including the safe distancing of parents, spectators and coaches. Will the referee have to oversee this as well, or will there be support from clubs in this regard? As yet, particularly at grassroots level, there are many unanswered questions and the resumption of any sort of football at this level still seems a significant time away.


The research indicates that COVID-19 presents a unique opportunity for leagues to change attitudes and behaviour towards referees. Can you further explain how Referee Managers can utilise the current climate as a catalyst for change?

I think there is a real opportunity to use the situation which has evolved as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic to revisit and reset the relationships that exist between leagues, teams, players, spectators and referees. Yes Referee Managers are important in any revision, but they will also need to be assisted by the leagues, and the teams must also be willing to consider how future relationships might look. As with any agreement or partnership, all stakeholders should be invested and contributing. Given the abuse that we know exists towards referees, the variable support networks and the challenging situations in which referees can find themselves, especially in grassroots football when they can feel isolated, a reconsideration of the playing environment should be considered. Referee Managers can help to drive this, the professional game can also help by supporting any initiatives, but there also has to be buy in from leagues and the teams within those leagues. Cultural change takes time in any ‘normal’ course of events, but we are not in a ‘normal’ situation, and the enforced cessation of competitive football has provided an opportunity and a period of time to consider how we want the game to look when it resumes. It would be a waste to return to the issues that were faced before COVID-19 when football resumes.


Dr Tom Webb, Coordinator of the Referee and Match Official Research Network, Senior Lecturer Sports Management and Development, School of Sport, Health and Exercise Science, University of Portsmouth, UK. 

This Q&A article is based on the following research:

Tom Webb (2020) The future of officiating: analysing the impact of COVID-19 on referees in world football, Soccer & Society, DOI: 10.1080/14660970.2020.1768634

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