The poor quality of refereeing, to put it kindly, has dominated the post-match discourse following Chelsea’s 2-2 draw with Tottenham Hotspur last weekend, with Anthony Taylor and Mike Dean in the spotlight for their decisions on the pitch and in the video review booth, respectively. It’s a familiar situation, and a rather wearisome one at that, with all the familiar tropes and outcomes. And worst of all, it will result in nothing actually getting better. Even if Taylor never referees another Chelsea game; even if Dean actually retires completely, bad refereeing will cost us points, and cost many other teams many other points as well.
That’s what happens when the various systems (human and non-human) in place are set up to fail, when the emphasis is on assigning blame (and therefore also avoiding blame), when oversight and transparency are practically nonexistent, and when we continue cultivating an adversarial relationship between any and all involved parties (because drama, or whatever).
So new full-time VAR Mike Dean is being paid a fee to admit he made a mistake with the Cucurella hair-pull, but the PGMOL did not accept there had been any mistake when asked about it on Monday?— Martyn Ziegler (@martynziegler) August 18, 2022
No referee has ever been perfect and no referee will ever be perfect. Expecting one to come along like a savior from on high, is about as helpful as signing online petitions about who should be in charge of Chelsea matches. Once we accept this entirely human shortcoming — which is far from happening at the moment — then, and only then, can we actually hope to improve the level of refereeing, which, to be fair, has always been terrible. (We’re just more and more aware of it, as the game itself and its coverage evolves.)
The question shouldn’t be whether Referee X is better than Referee Y. The question should be, how can we make Referee X and Referee Y both equally excellent. How can we ensure that the right decisions are made every time? (As opposed to figuring out who can make the most correct decisions most often.) In fact, we shouldn’t even have to be aware who the referees are. They are put up as untouchable gods right now, the first of their names, above and beyond and criticism instantly punishable by smiting, but ideally, they should be faceless, omnipotent gods instead. (Not literally, but I do welcome our thinking machine overlords whenever they do become self-aware.)
Taylor and Dean made mistakes on Sunday. The focus should be on ensuring such mistakes cannot happen again, and not just by Taylor and Dean, and not just in Chelsea games. The people in charge of all this nonsense may claim that’s their ultimate goal as well, but there’s scant evidence of that. Instead, VAR aims to protect and massage referees’ egos and maintain their supposed authority. (While also exposing them individually to abhorrent abuse because humans are the worst.)
Referees simply cannot make the right call every time. It’s physically impossible. The one-man show is wholly inadequate, regardless of how much the PGMOL or whoever tries to protect their precious members. Any even slightly successfully refereeing system employs multiple arbiters, with numerous decision-makers on the field of play and also observing the field of play through video, not to mention at least a notion of some public transparency in said decision-making (such as a mic’d up head referee, for example).
I’m not here to propose a solution, which makes this op-ed also inadequate, but here is a vague outline of how we can hope to actually arrive at a satisfactory system of refereeing a football match:
- Take “objective” decisions out of human hands: goals, out of bounds, offsides, anything binary should be given to automated systems. Goal-line technology is practically flawless already. We’re not quite there with offsides tech, but we’re getting close.
- On a related note, get rid of the running clock and institute a clock that only runs when the ball is in play: two 30-minute halves.
- Leave “subjective” decisions to the humans, but not just one person. Center ref can stay; upgrade the assistant refs to actual referees as well, including the ones behind each goal. Add more if necessary. Have multiple referees watching real-time video feeds and instant replays. And here is the kicker: any one of these jokers can call a foul, or call for a group review, etc.
- Constantly review the processes in place and adjust expeditiously. Pay the people involved properly!
Anthony Taylor is a symptom. Mike Dean is a (long-time festering) symptom. It’s time to stop treating the symptoms and start addressing the disease, the actual problems in our current refereeing systems.
Until that happens, we’ll keep having these same conversations, these same controversies, and none of that will be for the good of the game, the league, and the sport.