This week's UEFA Champions League matchday has been painful for refereeing and definitely one of the worst matchdays in terms of officiating over the past 2 or 3 seasons. While mistakes are human and it is not our goal to scrutinize or even harrass every performance shown by the referees yesterday and on Tuesday, a simple judgment must be made: some performances were shocking and are a frightening mirror of UEFA's Elite Group and parts of its members. And I better warn you in advance, the term "shocking" could be overused in this post.
The first matchday in Champions League was kind of relieving. A very small number of crucial mistakes was made and the overall performances were really good - something that passed into oblivion after that tournament in Brazil. Unfortunately, this first matchday seems to be more the exception than the rule considering the past 2 seasons of Champions League refereeing.
Of course we have to distinguish understandable mistakes from inexplicable mistakes. However, most of the mistakes that were made particularly yesterday are simply not understandable.
When a goalkeeper makes a 100% clear double contact with both his hands and three officials including referee Collum, his assistant referee and his additional assistant referee simply do not react, you start to get doubts about the quality of refereeing at this matchday.
When two referee teams in Shakhtar-Porto and Ludogorets-Real Madrid allow a high number of players to blatantly encroach by 2 or 3 metres during penalty kicks, these doubts necessarily intensify.
When even the two candidates that were thought to be ready for a promotion to Elite in December, Ivan Bebek and Sergei Karasev, significantly decrease the level of their performances and make inexplicable mistakes, the problem is even getting bigger considering that three referees will leave Elite Group at the end of the year.
When a player jumps into a tackle with high intensity and two stretched feet, only Gianluca Rocchi seems to know why this was only worth of a yellow card. I am speechless about such mistakes. The whole becomes understandable having a look into FIFA's match analysis of last year's Under-17 World Cup. Based on that, the Italian no.2 missed four red cards for serious foul play in the entire competition. On the other hand, he almost scandalously sent a Liège player off with a red card for an alleged case of DOGSO in this season's UEFA Champions League play-offs. You can appoint such a referee for Arsenal - Galatasaray, but you better leave it. This does not mean that Rocchi is a poor referee, he indeed isn't. But he is just, as it can happen to every athlete, in a poor shape. Usually the athlete's manager should react properly. Collina and co. appointed him for Emirates Stadium - I don't know why, but this mistake was everything but unpredictable.
Same counts for Scottish Craig Thomson. He is practically and objectively struggling on international turf for 2 or 3 years now. Yesterday, he gave 2 wrong penalties in favour of the Champions, while Alan Mulvanny wrongly disallowed a Real Madrid goal for offside and had a complete black-out in another situation (sorry, these mistakes made me stunned and doubtful whether I had really switched on the right TV channel to watch UEFA Champions League football refereeing, but yes, I did).
At the same time Thomson neither has got some special sort of style or charisma nor the management abilities to control players and keep them under his leadership even when mistakes occur. His assistant referees consistently fail to perform as it is expected at the highest level and are almost his biggest weakness. It does not matter how they are called, Ross, Rose, Chambers, Mulvanny...all of them made too many or clear mistakes. And these mistakes have been shocking in Twente-Schalke in 2012, at EURO 2012, in Dortmund-Malaga, in Paris-Olympiakos and yesterday in Ludogorets-Real Madrid. Now you could start to doubt why Craig Thomson is still given the duty to handle Champions League matches or why he still is in the Elite Group. I honestly hope to find a reason for that during the next months, the only one cropping up to my mind at the moment is the circumstance that his countryman Hugh Dallas is the referee committee's vice-officer.
You cannot criticize Thomson and his team for struggling in these games though. Some match officials fulfill the requirements of that football level, others don't. You have to criticize those who appoint these referees and insist on them for years. And this speech counts for Stéphane Lannoy at 100% as well, who was not allowed to destroy two or three matches, but even a fourth one in Barcelona in spring 2014. Indeed, the referee appointments themselves are a key problem. Most of them were made wisely in 2013/14 - UEFA prepared the World Cup referees adequately for the task in Brazil, although with hindsight you can argue that such preparation was not needed considering Busacca's brainwashing and irritating instructions (which of course never existed ;-)). However, others are clearly made with political purpose (Lannoy in Barcelona-ManCity for example) or just do not make any sense at all. It remains unclear to me why a relatively inexperienced referee (at least internationally) like Antonio Mateu Lahoz is appointed for Sporting-Chelsea under committee observation, having made a high number of crucial mistakes in his past UEFA matches, while Velasco Carballo or Lannoy get matches such as Schalke 04-Maribor or BATE-Athletic. Ressources are obviously not used efficiently at times, which was also visible in the EURO qualifiers (you don't have to send older First Group referees to matches like Croatia-Malta). Mateu Lahoz is another good example of UEFA's strategy to "fast-track-promote" certain talented and promising referees from big football nations. Mostly they forget that these officials are humans and that their development needs a careful coaching to avoid that they are overloaded by too much immediate pressure and expectations they cannot cope with. This should include stepwise referee appointments. Before sending such a referee to Emirates Stadium in his only third Champions League game, where he made two crucial mistakes (one of them awarding a penalty for a foul clearly happening outside the penalty area), Collina should have given him matches that carefully increase in their importance, pressure and expectations. It does not surprise me that, last Tuesday, Mateu Lahoz struggled enormously in Lisbon. And this management approach reminds me on Mateu's compatriot Carlos Velasco Carballo. Let's retrospect the last 3 years in short:
Velasco Carballo was "the solution" for UEFA. Alberto Undiano just had a poor World Cup, even though Angel Villar Llona might think differently. Velasco Carballo, a professional referee from Madrid, was more than promising: After good performances in only three UEFA Champions League matches, he was promoted to Elite. His Round of 16 match in Manchester was smooth. So UEFA appointed him for the semifinal between Schalke 04 and Manchester United in the same season. For many people his performance was one of the best of the whole season - excellent control, splendid management and very good decisions. Instead of leaving it at that and being careful, UEFA appointed him for the Europa League final between two Portuguese teams. His performance was below expectations or, simply said, poor. Of course, if his performance had been good, he and Collina would have been heros. But that's bad luck. Velasco is an example of what can happen when referees are not allowed the necessary time to follow and reflect their own development and to get used to the pressure and the high expectations. If you assign this referee to a UEFA final in his very first year, do you seriously expect the highest possible motivation to improve from him in the next years? Ask Viktor Kassai, the youngest Champions League final referee ever, and he will know the right answer. UEFA's appointment strategy is unclever considered in the long run, even though they might obtain successful results in the short run. Give referees time to develop, don't burn them!
Motivation management is a huge topic and maybe this committee's biggest weakness. It is no miracle that Velasco showed disastrous performances in some of his games, e.g. at EURO 2012, at World Cup 2014 or in this season's play-off between København and Leverkusen, where his team clearly saw two violent conducts and did not send off the offenders. Similar things count for officials like Kassai (even though he is on the right way back to the top), Lannoy, Thomson and, last but not least, Pedro Proença - and many others. UEFA has not understood that their athletes do not only require permanently heightened fitness standards or lowered body fat ratios but also psychological assistance and a real motivation to go to international matches at the expense of their leisure time, jobs and families. You can argue that every referee should be honoured, proud and happy to be appointed for international tasks - something most of us can only dream of - and that he or she does not need extrinsic incentives such as mental coaching or even money. But at the end they are human. When you know that you have reached everything you can achieve within a few years, when all your "dreams" have been dreamt in reality, you invest less in "everyday business" in Malmö, Borisov, Sofia or whereever else in Europe. It's a natural process Björn Kuipers, who refereed three big finals within 1 years, will hopefully stay spared from. Furthermore, referee managers should be aware of the fact that special attention is needed for referees getting closer to the end of their careers.
The essence of this post is not harrassing these referees as persons. But some things have to be said. It is incredible to see such a level of refereeing from experienced officials at the highest level. In my opinion, the necessary consequences are a rethinking of the referee appointment strategy based on clever motivational management, more investment into mental coaching and, I am sorry about that, the demotion of referees who simply do not fulfill the requirements of UEFA's Elite Group - for the good of the game, the clubs fighting for the trophy and those officials themselves.
In Collina Masterclass on SkySports, the Italian UEFA Head of Refereeing highlighted that Hugh Dallas', Marc Batta's and his task is to "understand why decisions were wrongly taken, to find explanations why they were wrong and what could have been done better, to avoid these mistakes". Maybe, they should reflect themselves as well and try to understand why some poor performances cropped up and whether they have also been caused by their appointment strategy or management.
And still, all my respect goes to all these referee teams that go onto the field of play in front of that many people in front of the TV and in the stadiums as well as the managers in the committee - no discussion about that. And - what should not remain unmentioned either - there were also some good performances, for example in St Petersburg, Basel or Paris.
P.S. Fresh input from Europa League....
P.S. Fresh input from Europa League....