Refereeing: What Can Football Learn From Rugby?

“Sorry, Sir.” That’s what Ireland captain Paul O’Connell said to the referee after enquiring about one of his decisions against Wales last weekend. Three days earlier 9 Chelsea players had surrounded the referee against PSG, demanding that Zlatan Ibrahimovic be sent off. So what can football learn from rugby?

The Six Nations has had everything you would want from sport. Exhilarating matches, comebacks, a competitive nature and some great rugby to boot. But what has been perhaps most notable is the respect that is given to referees by players and fans alike. In matches fuelled with national pride, played by 20 stone men giving their all for the name on the front of the shirt in front of packed passionate crowds, the man with the whistle retains complete control and respect from minute one.

Contrast this to football. Where referees are subject to abuse from the crowd, missiles, aggressive players and dealing with cheats who try to manipulate their decisions. Prima donnas running up to the referee screaming, swearing and shouting are a stain on football from junior football right up to the top, demonstrating the failure of the Respect campaign. Its clear that something has to change, and copying rugby wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

But what has been perhaps most notable is the respect that is given to referees by players and fans alike

Firstly, give referees a microphone. Viewers can hear every word the referee and players say in rugby. Not only does it add to the game and viewing experience, it means players are more inclined to speak calmly and politely. Match of the Day might have to come with an explicit warning at first, but this would fade out over time.

Secondly, help referees. Rugby utilises the video referee system effectively and makes it entertaining. If there’s a contentious decision, let the referee review it and ask for clarification. Its all well and good giving referees goal line technology and a can of shaving foam, but reviewing penalty decisions or red card offences would cut out even more controversy and mistakes. Would it really be that damaging to the game?

Finally, don’t let players crowd referees. Allow only the captains and offenders to speak to the ref, 20 yards away from everyone else. If anyone crowds the referee they should be booked or sin-binned. Give the referees power to protect themselves and they would be less likely to actually need to use it.

Of course referees make mistakes, that’s natural. The game is played at a hundred miles an hour and one man in the middle has to see everything. It’s an impossible task. Sometimes mistakes have heavy repercussions. The Henry handball. Ashley Barnes’ horrendous tackle on Matic. That Lampard ‘goal’ in 2010. All huge decisions that could have been rectified with one look at replay in less than a minute. All huge decisions that rugby would have got right.

Paul O’Connell apologised for contesting a decision. Football should be saying “sorry, Sir” for years of disrespect and lack of action.

Matthew Smith

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