Tuesday, 19 October 2021

What's the best position for corner kicks?

Game 15, 2021-22

After refereeing in the US for years with on teams with three officials, I came to Germany seven years ago to find that due to parsimony and a chronic shortage of willing whistlers, thousands of youth and amateur games every weekend were staffed by a single referee. Among the several problems that presented (offside decisions being the main one) was the conundrum of where to stand at corner kicks.

During the very first game I reffed in this country, I was standing on the edge of the penalty area for a corner, slightly to the left of the goal. The ball was crossed, headed out, and a player shot from about 15 yards out. The shot either hit the angle of post and cross-bar, or momentarily entered the goal and came back out off the stanchion. The attacking team shouted 'Goal!' The defending team shouted back 'No way!' I shouted, 'Play on!' but to this day I have no idea if that was the right call or not. No one made a big fuss about it and the game continued - I think everyone else was just as clueless as I was.

Monday, 4 October 2021

Thank you very much for the early yellow

Games 12-14, 2021-22

Three very quiet matches in a row, perhaps due to them all being one-sided, but also helped in two games by me being able to set the tone for the 90 minutes. That is, the players give me the perfect opportunity to show an early yellow.

Both are boys' U19 games, the first one a cup quarter-final. A home defender strongly disagrees with my throw-in call just five minutes into the game, cursing and throwing the ball down hard against the ground. Young man, that's not the kind of behaviour we want to see here tonight, I say loudly (and much less diplomatically), so that players and spectators alike get the message. In the book he goes, and he's the only one of the night until a team-mate joins him five minutes before the end, for the same offence. Having made the decision to be ruthless on dissent this season, the yellow card now comes out of the pocket without me stopping to think about its necessity. It's the Law, lad.

In game 13, it's a hard, late challenge from an away team defender in the third minute, but initially I play advantage because the ball has run onto an attacker in space. That move fizzles out, but the ball stays in play for a good two minutes. I'd planned to show the defender the yellow card at the next stoppage, but then I start to doubt the decision. Will anyone even remember the offence by then? The more time you have to think about a decision, the harder it can be to decide if it's the right one. Ask any VAR.

Monday, 27 September 2021

All the Crap and the Chaos: one weekend in the life of an amateur referee

Games 10-11, 2021-22

"Calm the fuck down..." (pic: Natascha Lotze)
Saturday 4pm. Boys U19 match in the city's east park. It's a beautiful autumn day, there are multiple pick-up games, families grilling food, dog-walkers and drinkers hanging out at the kiosk. The home club is friendly, the away team remembers me too. I've not given a penalty all season, but towards the end of the first half the home team gets two in three minutes, both of them unnecessary fouls, and both greeted without a single complaint. The only other incident of note is when a home player yells at me after he's been fouled and I've already whistled for the free-kick. His coach tells him to calm down, I give him a yellow and a stern ticking off. A mostly fair and stress-free game. Pay: €14.

6.48pm. Tomorrow I'm due to ref a men's game in another city at 3pm. I receive an e-mail from one of my assignors saying that "unfortunately, we're losing refs in droves, so I'm asking you to take on a youth game tomorrow morning at 11am, otherwise this game won't be covered. Lots of other refs are doing two games tomorrow." I write back pointing out the physical impossibility of me finishing that game at 1pm and then making it to a different city in time for kick-off at 3pm. I don't hear back from him, but am left somehow feeling guilty that I've turned him down.

Tuesday, 21 September 2021

Owning up to a major mistake

Game 9, 2021-22

When the coach is screaming at you, there are usually two options. Either ignore him (it's always a him), or card him. Sometimes, though, there is a third option, though it's not the ideal path. You try and talk to him and justify your decision. Because perhaps you already know on some level that you fucked up.

It's the second half of a boys' U13 game, and so far everything's been quiet. The away team is leading 1-0, and is clearly the better side. On a rare home team attack, though, a forward is through on goal on the right side of the penalty area and tries to lift the ball over the keeper. His lob is so hopelessly wide that the ball remains in play out on the left side. I keep my eye on the arc of the ball (an error), and only see out of the corner of my vision that the goalkeeper has crashed into the forward. The home coach screams for a penalty, but I'm already following the play. When the forward doesn't stand up, I stop play and wave the coach on to treat him.

As he's tending to his forward, he has some strong words about the challenge. My main concern is the player's health, and so I ignore the penalty issue. The player's okay to continue, though he's a little shaken, and I re-start the game with a drop ball.

The home team loses 2-0, and after the game the home coach comes over to say thanks and bump fists. It's me that brings the penalty incident up, not him. "I didn't give a penalty because I saw it as a collision between the two players..." I start, but he interrupts me, suddenly incensed again, and says, "The keeper laid my player out flat. It was a clear penalty." And he leaves it at that. As I walk back to the club house, I start to admit to myself that he's right. I've given decisions like that before against goalkeepers, and I can't explain why I didn't give it today.

Monday, 30 August 2021

"Ref, why?" When players are baffled by their own poor conduct

Games 7-8, 2021-22

Twenty minutes into a boys' U19 game, and I blow for offside against the home team's number 15. His reaction is to kick the ball far out of play, and so - predictably enough - I show him a yellow card. He looks at me all hurt and confused, like a rabbit whose previously loving owner has just shown him a pot of simmering stock and invited him to take a seat on the chopping board. "What was that for?"

Every week, players demonstrate how clueless they are about the laws of the game. Rather than sitting down to read them (you may be unsurprised to know that they are available for free on the global information network), they prefer to learn by a slow process of accumulating cautions. 'Delaying a restart' is a particularly common bone of contention, because for some reason players think that prodding the ball away from an opponent before they have the chance to take a throw-in or free-kick is absolutely normal practice and totally permissible. Perhaps they've seen it go unpunished on TV a few thousand times (thanks again to our wonderful pro refs for setting a great example for the amateur game. See also: Dissent).

Here are some other aghast reactions for yellow cards, from this one weekend alone:

Monday, 23 August 2021

A purgative storm and the preacher referee

Game 6, 2021-22

Sometimes it feels like the Gods are delivering their own kind of verdict on the games that I referee. With around 15 minutes left to play on this sultry Sunday afternoon, the clouds burst and unload, there's an impressive drum-roll of judgmental thunder right above our heads, and then the conclusive blast of my whistle as I direct both teams to run for the changing rooms. Part of me's hoping that the rest of the day's a washout.

The first half passed without too much incident. There was one yellow card against the home team for a reckless foul, and three very well taken goals by the visiting number nine. A 'crystal-pure' hat-trick, as the Germans call it - three consecutive goals by one player, all scored in the same half. There's been nothing crystal pure about the second half, though. Fouls have turned niggly and deliberate, players have thrown themselves to the floor with the stricken cries of circus thespians, and there have been three major arguments, resulting in a flurry of cautions for poor conduct and a series of short lectures about keeping a lid on it.

Monday, 16 August 2021

Some days this 'shit job' is a breeze

Game 5, 2021-22

Before leaving the house, I spend an hour reading the newspaper. The Taliban is marching unhindered on Kabul, taking us back to square one after 20 years of death and futility. The two sides in the Ethiopian civil war are gearing up for the next round of conflict. Floods and serial wildfires around the globe are still not sparking the necessary political will to save our planet. I fold up the paper and cycle off to referee a game between two of the city's diaspora sides, who once formed part of the same country. Within living memory, they engaged in a war that cost an estimated 22,000 lives before two new states were formed - Serbia and Croatia. 

There are several teams in our city formed by exiles from the former Yugoslavia. Some were founded by migrant workers in the 1970s, others came into existence later as a result of the various population-shifting conflicts that hit the state during its 1990s break-up. One of today's teams was formed in 1973, and became a go-to club for Serbian immigrants. Their opponents were originally a pan-Yugoslavian side, but became a Croatian club in the 1990s, prompting their Serbian members to leave for the other team. The city's 'Balkan derbies' during that decade could attract crowds several hundred strong.

Monday, 2 August 2021

Out of nowhere, violent words and conduct. What brought *that* on?

Game 4, 2021-22

In my day job I've been editing an interview with a scientist who works in anti-doping research. The scientist estimated that the number of young men taking anabolic steroids runs into the hundreds of thousands - somewhere between half a million and 700,000. He didn't say what geographical area that estimate covers, but even if it's the entire world the numbers are still way too high. The damaging and often deadly side-effects of anabolic steroids far outweigh the 'benefit' of temporarily boosting your muscle mass.

One of the many negative side-effects of abusing steroids is a marked increase in aggressive behaviour, and I began to wonder if there's a connection between steroid consumption and the high number of young men I see suddenly lose a grip on their tempers during amateur football games. I thought about it even more following an ugly incident just before half-time in yesterday's game.

Up until then, it had been a quiet friendly between two level 8 men's teams. I like this level, because everyone can play and there are generally fewer fouls. The players are more skilful, more savvy, and better disciplined. True, the home defence complained loudly about a non-existent offside when they went 2-0 down after ten minutes, but I nipped the dissent in the bud with an early yellow, and that was it for the day. Instead of trying to play a dubious offside trap in a game with no ARs, they stopped moaning and dropped a player back into the sweeper position.

Then, with the score at 1-3 on 43 minutes, the home team's number 11 took out the away team's number 17 with a robust challenge in the centre circle. I was about five yards away, so immediately blew for the free-kick. I was ready to have a strong

Monday, 26 July 2021

10-minute time-out strikes the perfect balance between yellow and red

Game 3, 2021-22

The home team's number 7 is the key creative force in his side's central midfield. Just before half-time, with his team 2-0 down, he goes on a long run through the middle and then passes to a team-mate on the edge of the penalty area. The striker's shot is parried by the keeper, but the number 7 follows up and heads in the rebound. Half-time: 1-2. And what will happen during half-time, as sure as floods and fires in a twenty-first century summer? The away team's coach will tell his team's midfield and defence not to let that happen again. 

How to stop the number 7? Start fouling him every time he embarks on a dribble. Despite the opposition's best efforts, he often escapes with the ball anyway and I play advantage. The fouls that succeed are the tugs and obstructions, not quite enough for a yellow card until they accumulate to a persistent pattern of targeting this single player. It ends with the away team's number six going in way too hard, the number 7 goes down with a shout of pain (though he doesn't require treatment), and the home team and its fans are morally outraged. The tackle also thwarts a promising attack.

Yellow or red? I feel the foul deserves more than a yellow given its severity and location about 40 yards from goal, but that red for this particular player would be too harsh - he hasn't been dirty so far. In our state - on a trial basis for the next three years - we now have an alternative: the time penalty. So I send the number 6 off for a ten-minute spell on the bench. Only the player

Monday, 19 July 2021

Refereeing while injured

Games 1-2, 2021-22

I feel the hamstring in my right leg twitch around 30 minutes into the first game of the weekend. As a player, the troublesome muscle rarely allowed me such a warning, usually it just twanged like an eager rascal's catapult. But I can't just walk off and announce that I'm going to put my feet up with an ice-pack and a six-pack. There are no second, third or fourth officials to take my place.

Instead, I adjust my game. Instead of running with the play, I walk and occasionally trot from side to side to make sure that I have the best view of the ball and the players challenging for it, regardless of how far away they are. The hamstring perseveres with its cautionary twinges as my ageing body tells me that I need to rest. Still, the unruly muscle keeps itself in check until half-time.

At the interval, I massage the back of my upper leg with heat cream, pull on a hamstring support, and swallow two glucose