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The Arbitro

The trouble with referees is that they know the rules, but they do not know the game – Bill Shankly (Scottish Soccer Player and Manager, 1913-1981) 

The trouble with referees is that they just don’t care which side wins – Tom Canterbury

It’s an interesting life being the arbitro – the soccer referee. At any given time, half the people at the match disagree with your decisions, half are sure you are against their team, and half think you are an idiot. I guess it’s similar to being a police officer. When you are protecting them, the love you. When you are giving them a ticket, they hate you. It’s a no win situation for those of us that have chosen to blow the whistle. They don’t seem to understand that we are there for the good of the game.

Whether they want to believe it or not, the teams need us, the game needs us. Without someone to take up the whistle and enforce the Laws of the Game, the game itself would descend into chaos. If the teams can’t treat each other fairly when the referee is around, how can they expect to be treated fairly by their opponents without us to be an impartial arbiter for the Laws?

I have been a soccer referee pretty much continually since 1980 with a brief hiatus when my children were very small. I started refereeing because I loved the game and I needed the money to help pay my college expenses. Today, I referee solely for the love of the game. I find soccer to be the most enjoyable of sports to watch and what better vantage point than to be in the middle of the field with in touching distance of all the action?

In the beginning, I admit, I was not particularly effective. My training was nonexistent and I had nothing other than my HS years as a player to help me understand the application of the Laws. And, as any seasoned referee will tell you, players have a few misunderstandings about the laws.

The beauty of the Laws of soccer is that there are very few of them. Just 17 written in the law book and then, the unwritten law, Law 18. This unwritten Law 18 is the most important of the Laws because it takes precedence over ALL other laws. Simply stated, it is the application of Common Sense when applying the Laws of the Game (LOTG) such that the referee does not make a decision that goes against the spirit of the game (SOTG). In this sense, we are less policeman and more judge. Though sometimes, we must also be the jury and the executioner….but that is the avenue of last resort. Applying the LOTG with a deference to the SOTG helps the match flow better (less interruptions) which is more enjoyable for both the players and the spectators.

The most important ability of a soccer referee is man management. Working with the players to help prevent the fouls from happening. We do this with a quiet word whispered into a players ear while running up and down the field, or a look from across the field that says I am watching you so don’t do anything you will regret, the handle signal that says settle down I have this under control. Without effective man management techniques, the referee’s only method of controlling the game is to revert to police mode and whistle the infractions. This mode results in too many stoppages and a game without flow, game void of the spirit that makes soccer the most popular sport on the planet.

I have been a referee in many, many games. If I had to put that in numbers, I would guess somewhere close to 2000. In years past, I would referee any level – kids or adults, recreational or competitive. I can no longer  effectively officiate the lower level games with any consistency.  When the game is not of sufficiently high quality, I grow bored, my mind wanders and I miss things.  For that reason and with my time at a premium, I generally stick to HS varsity or men’s games. At this level, I get to see higher individual skill and more interesting team tactics. More importantly for me, these games test my mettle, push me physically, require me to use the full range of my man management skills. I become fully engaged and enter a zone where I seem to see everything, I see problems before they occur and whisper the quiet word to prevent many of them from occurring. My use of yellow and red cards is judicious and has the required effect on keeping the control of the game.

I remember a game a couple of years ago where everything seemed to go perfectly. The HS teams were well matched, very athletic, and very competitive. I ran, I talked, I managed, and did not have to brandish but one yellow card. The game ended 2 to 1. One coach gave me the greatest of compliments. He said, “You did a great job tonight….you were invisible…I didn’t even know you were on the field.”


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