“You haven’t passed your assessment”
I was sitting on the other side of the bench with both legs on either side and couldn’t help but look to the floor in disappointment. It wasn’t a surprise but I wasn’t used to hearing a binary decision on my performance in the debrief so it was an unexpected blow but comfortingly upfront. My legs were heavily cramping every time they stretched.
10 minutes earlier…
I’m turning around looking at the field after the ball had gone out of play over the touchline. Two teammates were picking themselves up off the field from two different spots after being involved in collisions I hadn’t whistled as fouls.
“This is a bloodbath” I thought and not because of the score. Reflecting on this moment alone at the time, I knew it hadn’t gone well.
2 minutes earlier…
A high lofted ball from one of the goals flew over the opposing defensive line and landed to an attacker in an offside position. Yells of fury erupted from the defense.
I looked at my AR1. No flag and he was carrying himself with confidence following the ball. I had realized at that moment that it was a goal kick and that there wasn’t offside. I sprinted to chase the attacker who was one-on-one with the goalkeeper. Goal.
“Ref. That’s offside!”
“You’re right but there is no offsides off goal kicks. You have to play to the whistle bud”
They looked back with blank stares.
The team was dejected. It was the fourth goal and a real blow to their egos having taken the league by storm and sitting more than 10 points clear of their opponents who were in fifth place. I knew my AR had nailed that call and would be one of the big decisions in the game that he showed awareness in.
93 minutes earlier… (start of the game)
I blew the whistle after starting both my watches to kick-off the game. There was a collective yell by both teams in Spanish to start on the front foot and start fast. The vast majority of players were sitting down or on their knees praying just up until I had blown the whistle. They all snapped out of the trance and looked towards the centre circle like a tiger leering at its prey as it watches from a far preparing to move for the kill.
The ball was played to the touchline at the halfway line and was passed into the opponent’s half before a dog sprinted in and bounced off the ball.
“Eh” I thought. “Well this is how it begins”
I knew I had to show my knowledge of the Laws of the Game here although perhaps a minute detail. I blew the whistle and with a quick jog moved to where the ball was. The players more or less understood so it wasn’t difficult to execute. I moved to the spot where the ball had been interfered with and held it out in the palm of my hand.
“Ref. We’ll kick it to them.”
Simple and quick as a jiffy things got restarted without complaint.
3 minutes later…
The ball is played to an attacker who breaks through the back line of defenders to be home free. He runs away from goal and finds himself in possession of the ball just outside the penalty area just a yard from the goal line facing goal.
I had confidence that my AR got the decision right but the defenders were far back trying to catch up. The goalkeeper charged out to the attacker who turned 180 degrees to face away from goal and shield the ball. The keeper came flying out and slide-tackled bringing him down recklessly from behind.
This was the first foul of the game. I blew the whistle strong and started running over to the spot of the infringement while indicating a direct free kick. As I ran over, I realised I wasn’t as close to the incident as I should have been as it felt like it took an age for me to arrive at the position. I didn’t doubt what I had seen though.
I quickly checked on the player to see how he was doing. Not great but didn’t need treatment. I called the goalkeeper aside and in an inexplicable way, told him that his tackle was unacceptable and that it wouldn’t be tolerated anymore. It was still early and I was afraid of showing a caution so fast. I had once before in a game two years earlier and it had gone downhill resulting in a card-fest and multiple players sent off. I remembered reading “Everyone knows that the first bad tackle in football is a freebie.”
The opponents accepted the decision begrudgingly as everyone set up for the free kick. I had refereed both these teams before separately in past weeks so I wasn’t a total stranger but I had been using personality to much greater effect in this league.
“Oh if he’s going to allow that. I wonder where the bar is.” I realised this was likely what everyone was thinking in hindsight.
Fast-forwarding to half-time…
I sat with both my ARs and discussed what had transpired. There were choice tackles early on that could have been a good opportunity to find the well-timed caution to settle the game but by the time I had decided I was looking to send the message and draw the line, the niggly careless fouls had begun and it wasn’t as easy to draw the line anymore. I missed my window.
I sat in the car a bit stunned. Energised by the assessor’s practical advice despite the overarching bad news but a bit bewildered thinking about how this game had unfolded.
I had just refereed the entire game on personality and with minimal cautions. I had become my worst nightmare. Why you say? Assisting other senior referees gives you the opportunity to watch them at work using their knowledge of the game, mechanics and personality. It also gives you the opportunity to see those who only use the last two. Card-free refs who prefer to avoid writing reports and elect to ignore certain situations.
Had that been what I had done? The players were completely fine with the way I had handled the game and not a single one had complained after the final whistle. But… “a yellow is a yellow is a yellow”. There are some fouls that are so clear that showing no card is almost tarnishing the game and somehow, I had done that on the day. The coaches were happy, the players were happy but I wasn’t. Something felt off. I hadn’t done a full service to the game. I had compensated some decisions I could have made better with better positioning simply by using my personality instead. Good and bad news. I had moved forward in my career as a referee with more skills in my arsenal but not with the values I wanted.
The Boiling Point
The home team (higher in the standings) was 3-0 down in the second half. #10 of the home team who was clearly a skilled player and a target player on his team was in possession of the ball running crop circles around the defenders. He approached the touchline in the attacking half near AR2 and was shielding the ball off two defenders looking to double-team challenging him.
I drew closer as I knew this wouldn’t likely end well. It didn’t. He was fouled by the first defender as he tried to dribble them before colliding with the second to his agony. I winced as I knew the second collision was accidental but didn’t do anything to help the attacker feel better. I blew the whistle strong and pulled out the yellow early and arrived at the spot.
I called the defender sooner and indicated to approach me but before I could, the attacker was on his feet and they brushed by each other. The attacker delivered a quick but soft strike to the defender’s upper chest in frustration. More players appeared to intervene calmly and my assistant stepped onto the field to help control things because of the sheer amount of bodies. I followed the defender before pulling him aside and pulling a caution for the reckless tackle. I wasn’t done and I ensured my body language was clear that I was on the prowl for #10. He was still fuming but on a downward trend. I partially isolated him and calmly told him that he should be more careful given his escalation. He was breathing quickly but his body language was non-threatening. I knew he had got it out of his system.
The strike meant nothing, did nothing and meant nothing. I think this is something the average North American referee hasn’t understood. There were games in the past I had done where my ARs looked on in shock at a decision like this. “How could that not be red?! He initiated physical contact with him off the ball deliberately without meaning to challenge for the ball!”
I had grown up in street football understanding that it was 1 for 1. The attacker in his own silly way had achieved the justice he wanted in the most childish way. He hadn’t punched his opponent or landed forceful clean contact that hurt his opponent. He had more sparked something that was considered justice on the street where everyone escapes unscathed. It’s hard to describe.
I blew the whistle for the free kick restart and the game continued. Not a peep from the defenders. This wasn’t something they considered the acceptable threshold I was enforcing being raised to allow fights. They knew that it was over and the game was ready to move on.
A Moment to Remember
I had mentioned to the assessor that I was working on anticipating play better. Mid-way through the second half, I saw a defender (right-back) in possession of the ball moving up the field on one side. I was just outside the centre circle. Nobody was really around him ready to challenge for the ball and I had a mental itch.
“Where would I put this ball?”
I turned around to look towards goal and caught the glimpse out of the corner of my eye that I was looking for. The left-back was charging down the other wing looking for a lobbed through ball. I turned and started running. I had begun a few steps ahead of time to generate pace before the rest of the field followed suit in moving their eyes that way and the ball was lofted over.
The assessor later expressed that his sentiment was more or less:
but I needed to get it more consistent in my routine.