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Soccer has a refereeing ‘epidemic’ — just not the one you think

An “aggressive and hostile” MLS player was allegedly “forcibly removed by stadium security” from the referees’ locker room Saturday at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey. The very next night, in Vancouver, Whitecaps players grabbed referee Tim Ford and surrounded him, enraged. Objects and profanity rained down on Ford as a difficult day of thankless work ended. On a second straight night of MLS playoffs, an incandescent coach was red carded, and thousands of fans fumed.

They fumed at soccer’s universal scourge, the officials. Week after week, the sport’s most powerful men blast refs. Hours before the MLS player, reportedly FC Cincinnati’s Matt Miazga, entered an officials’ locker room, Arsenal coach Mikel Arteta ranted about no-calls in a 1-0 loss to Newcastle, calling them “an absolute disgrace.” The following day, his club released an astounding statement, “wholeheartedly” supporting Arteta’s comments and saying that the Premier League’s officiating body “urgently needs to address the standard of officiating.”

The intimation, and apparently the growing consensus, is that the league has a refereeing problem.

The irony is that Arsenal, and Arteta, and Miazga, and Whitecaps coach Vanni Sartini were all contributing to a much deeper problem.

It’s a problem that U.S. Soccer CEO JT Batson recently called an “epidemic”: Nobody wants to become a referee anymore. "It's a vocational crisis," Roberto Rosetti, UEFA’s head of refereeing, said last year. To pro players and coaches making six and seven figures, it’s a hidden crisis. But to grassroots soccer leaders on multiple continents, it’s acute and alarming.

“The number of games canceled every weekend because there aren’t enough referees is really disheartening,” Batson said in September.

And the reason there aren’t enough referees, of course, is that everywhere they go, they’re treated horribly.

HARRISON, NJ - NOVEMBER 4: Referee Victor Rivas gives a yellow card to Matt Miazga #21 of FC Cincinnati during the penalty kick shootout during the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs Round One game between FC Cincinnati and New York Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena on November 4, 2023 in Harrison, New Jersey. (Photo by Howard Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
Referee Victor Rivas gives a yellow card to Matt Miazga of FC Cincinnati during the penalty kick shootout against the New York Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena on Nov. 4, 2023 in Harrison, New Jersey. (Photo by Howard Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

They’re screamed at and threatened by youth soccer parents, a notorious breed; and no, there isn’t anything Arteta can do about that. Parents and constantly irate youth coaches are a deeply ingrained plague without a simple cure. Their behavior has gotten so bad that the International Football Association Board (IFAB) has been allowing grassroots referees to wear body cameras “as a deterrent.”

“This trial,” IFAB says, “is part of an overall endeavor to identify possible measures to improve player/coach behavior during matches.”

But the unruly and sometimes inhumane behavior isn’t solely a grassroots problem. It’s modeled and implicitly encouraged by superstars and millionaires 300-plus days a year. Some of it is understandable emotion, an unavoidable consequence of high-stakes soccer. But increasingly, it seems, on the world’s most visible fields, players and coaches are crossing lines, dehumanizing refs and marring games. After the Whitecaps’ loss to LAFC, Sartini reportedly opened his news conference with a joke about Ford, the referee, potentially being found later that night floating facedown in nearby False Creek.

Sartini, who’d inflamed fans with an extravagant tirade as he walked off the pitch, went on to call Ford “a disaster,” “shameful,” “f***ing horrible” and “a disgrace.” He blamed Ford — who’s actually “a good guy,” he admitted — for a variety of things, from his players’ nerves to the result. “We didn’t have a fair chance,” he bemoaned.

He will likely be fined. Miazga, meanwhile, could be suspended. The Professional Soccer Referees Association referred both incidents to MLS, calling Sartini’s comments “disgusting” and Miazga’s actions “unprecedented” and “unacceptable.” The league said it’s investigating. FC Cincinnati declined to comment. Unnamed sources, though, told the Cincinnati Enquirer and The Athletic that Miazga’s postgame exchange with referees did not involve stadium security, and was less egregious than what the PSRA — a union representing refs in the U.S. and Canada — had described.

NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 04: Referee, Stuart Attwell is confronted by Dan Burn and Jamaal Lascelles of Newcastle United during the Premier League match between Newcastle United and Arsenal FC at St. James Park on November 04, 2023 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
Referee Stuart Attwell is confronted by Dan Burn and Jamaal Lascelles of Newcastle United during their match against Arsenal FC at St. James Park on Nov. 4, 2023 in Newcastle. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Fans, of course, pounced on those reports to further criticize referees. And in Vancouver, they regurgitated a common criticism of officials: that nobody holds them accountable.

Which is absurd, of course. “It's absolute rubbish,” Stuart Carrington, a British psychologist and author of a book on refereeing, told Yahoo Sports last year. “Referees are [some] of the most accountable people in the game. They get evaluated after every matchday. We ran a webinar last year with some [English] match officials. One of them was really kind enough to show us his evaluation sheet for a game he did that weekend. How much they run is recorded. The distance they cover, how many sprints they did. Then every key decision is looked at. … They look at every free kick, they look at every significant decision, every card that's given, every foul.”

The Premier League then asks for explanations. It grades officials. Like any top league, it promotes and demotes them based on performance, striving to get the very best refs in charge of games. There are no sinister motives or widespread systemic flaws behind every officiating error. There are fair debates over how refs are instructed and managed, or even how they’re paid. But the source of most disputed calls is simple: Soccer, like most team sports, is incredibly hard to referee.

It’s also increasingly scrutinized, in part thanks to VAR. At professional levels, every decision is dissected and replayed, again and again, in 4K or HD. And every debatable call — not necessarily a mistake, just a subjective interpretation! — makes players and coaches feel victimized or act like children.

And every time they do so with millions watching on TV, they normalize the conduct that is driving people away from one of soccer’s integral professions.

This is soccer’s refereeing problem. And many people who’d claim they want it fixed are actually part of it.

The solution is complex. For governing bodies, it involves chipping away at barriers to entry and publicly promoting the value of referees, who often feel unappreciated.

But for players, coaches and fans, it’s simple: start treating them like human beings, fellow human beings who make split-second decisions that occasionally become innocent mistakes.