October 2, 2014

Poor Champions League Refereeing Matchday Raises Questions

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....


  1. Anonymous2/10/14 20:38

    Somebody says what many think.. good and rightful.

    1. Anonymous7/10/14 12:47

      that are true words!!

  2. Indeed some shocking refereeing this matchday. Thompson had a good last game (UKR-SVK, EURO Qualifiers), despite it being tough and having a lot of cards and a cancelled equalizer for the home team in added time.

  3. Insightful piece - great read.

  4. Reasonable statement, Niclas! It's really quite unbelievable that there are so many obvious mistakes following a WC after which UEFA argues for a clear line of applying the LotG with 5 referees (!). And now?!
    A few months ago I also critizised the committee and officers (its presidents seem to appoint and promote nearly only in favour of their home nations) and argued for replacing names like Velasco, Thomson, Collum, Lannoy, Rocchi, Benquerenca, Proenca, Tagliavento, even Skomina, Atkinson and Rizzoli. I'm sorry but what shall say the other referees of lower categories where performances count more for them. It's the highest level! Of course, a referee has to develop and you cannot judge after one or two poor matches (although other referees can tell you something different, I assume). But season across and more frequent mistakes, that must not be, need a reaction. You always have the chance of promotion (after improvement) because the very best of the best should referee in CL. It could be difficult to identify the causer in the team but there has to be a modification. A modification that improves the performances and support the whole game! Seminars, courses, lists and AAR do not help in reality (in spite of a few exceptions), in my opinion. Training and monitoring in card management, handball and offside after a consistent interpretation of the rules in one structure must be the answer that should pay off.
    What are your ideas?
    It's a pity that the newcomers struggled now as well. And after WC Mazic and others are not in the best condition. It's human, yes, but maybe there is more: wrong, irritating or different guidelines - unccordinated policy although the LotG are the same.
    Sorry for my long reply.

    1. Anonymous2/10/14 22:23

      I do not want to move this early in the analysis. Let's wait... Why Mazic? What are the consequences? He was quite good and Besiktas vs. Arsenal FC, Turkey vs. Denmark, Norway vs. Italy. IMO, good on the Cyprus, where it is very difficult to refereeing (always). Kuipers, Cakyr, Rizzoli, Eriksson, Clatts, Brych (very tough game) - are all- OK.

    2. Anonymous2/10/14 22:37

      O.K. anonymous. But let's be honest, we wait since 2 years. Time for analysis was already in 2014. You give right names, but they are only 7. Elite group has more than 20 officialls.

    3. Just the question: OK or good? You are right, the referees you mentioned (and Mazic) are ok although some of them had not a good WC. That's quite positive. But there are also sometimes decisions that are really hardly understandable so that I come to the conclusion that they are not in the best condition in CL at the moment although the UEFA instructions should fit to the referees much better (and with help or no help of two more referees;-).
      Following my comments I always want to understand the reason for the mistake and back the referees but in cases of unbelievable errors on the highest level I have to be critical as well highlining that refereeing policy is the main point of criticism.

    4. Anonymous2/10/14 22:53

      I agree with a large part of the text. Some just do not have luck, some have strayed, I agree. A good example is the Kassai, who was burned out. Early was pushed into the fire, and no more motivation. I think it's a different mentality Kuipers! I very like Mateu Lahoz. IMO, it's not a typical Spaniard. I like the elegance Brych and Rizzoli, fitness and mental stability Mazic, feeling Cakyr, Clatts promises! There's still a lot to do, but after pacifist style ordered in the Brazil, some didn't come back (Velasco).

    5. Elite Group has 21 referees now. Saying that 6 out of 21 are good atm means a percentage of 29%. Pretty horryfying tbh.

    6. Anonymous2/10/14 23:20

      I agree, Edward. I am very happy that Anastasios Sidiropoulos on track to elite. I think it has a lot of potential and that Greece deserves the elite referees team.

    7. I agree about Sidiropoulos. He seems to be on the right track for the Elite Category. After the retirement of Kyros Vassaras, Greece definitely needs a top class official. One that can have the respect of all the players.

  5. "PS entrada fresca da Liga Europa "

    Sousa didn´t deserve one AAR2 as Capela (bad referee).

  6. Anonymous2/10/14 21:57

    Probably the best post ever on this blog. I think that nearly everyone thinks the same way. Don't you think that the crisis has begun from the beginning of Collina's era and (too!) much focus on fitness?

    1. Thanks for the compliment, even though I think (and sincerely hope) that there have been many better and more valuable posts in the past.
      It is difficult to say. What some international officials tell us goes into this direction, but things were not much better under Yvan Cornu.

  7. Excellent analysis and very well written by Niclas. Overall, I agree.
    I also want to underline that this isn't a speech against referees appointed for CL matches. We know that they are all humans and they can make mistakes, nevertheless in CL we expect referees with more quality than other ones, even more considering that they are well paid as they officiate at the top class of UEFA refereeing in the Champions League. Here, we have the best footballers (at least on the paper) and therefore it is wise to have also the best referees.
    The first aim of a referee is to protect players. Well, apart from Rocchi missed RC, I was negatively impressed in this matchday (reported will follow soon) by Karasev performance. He missed brutal fouls without even whistling that. I'm speechless for that. I can accept that a referee misses a penalty or an assistant has a wrong assessment of an offside, but when we are talking about fouls to be punished by RC... it is less acceptable.
    And the situation involving Collum is unbelievable. Since the scene was quite clear, one must only deduce that all the officials involved did not know (or remember, but it is the same) the LOTG. That is, I repeat myself again, unacceptable at CL level.
    My personal advice to Collina and all the UEFA referees committee is: please focus more on that, and less on diet, nutrition, weight, and all that stuff.
    We want referees, not models.

  8. Anonymous3/10/14 01:28

    Good statement, Niclas.
    Nevertheless, I would add a further aspect:
    - I agree with you in the fact that there are "Elite Group Referees" who just don´t have the quality to handle tough matches - and it is not necessary that a Elite Group Ref can handle cat.1 match (every FIFA Ref should be able to do that). But the ability to control "burning matches" should be very important and standarf for such a ref.
    - Furthermore, I see a second group of refs in this Elite Group who have these demanded characteristics but who suffer from more or less poor AR. Remember especially Kassai and Skomina who - IMO - missed the WC because their AR failed. In times, where they had their reliable AR, they were at their best level. My impression is that their performances are under a bad shape because of crucial mistakes or missing support by their AR.
    - The top refs of Elite Group are those who have a good team. See Eriksson and his regular AR, Team Kuipers.

    So, I conclude that UEFA should firstly focus on cleaning the Elite Group and then secondly focus more on the Referee Teams. In today´s football with its speed and dynamic, it is very important that the ref also gets no visible support by his AR. But therefore the AR must be able to control tough matches too. So not the best ref but the best Referee Team should be searched, because the symbiosis between the members enforces the whole team.

    Best regards

    1. Good points. Your statement on the referee teams is very important. Formerly, Webb, Kuipers, Eriksson and maybe also Cakir have functioning teams for years with small changes. Their (additional) assistant referees are simply very good and no lonely fighters but teamplayers.
      If I compare this situation to my compatriot Felix Brych, there is a difference. He has good assistant referees, Borsch and Lupp, but his additional assistants are changing too much. Sometimes Welz, sometimes Fritz, sometimes Dankert, sometimes Zwayer. If we remember Europa League final, mistakes were maybe caused by that, too.

      I partly agree with you about Skomina. He has charisma, a special style, the ability to keep very important matches under very good control, but he is imo not the bravest referee on this planet. And for sure no referee who shows awareness for offside. Keep in mind that parts of his assistant referees also required his information in some situations you described as assistant referee mistakes. Paris, Manchester and Valencia are examples of that.

  9. OT (but not that much)
    Situations from Karasev match.
    As always first video = first half, second video = second half
    It would be nice to hear your opinions, feel free to answer.
    42:40 (replay 43:40) NO FOUL?
    63:05 (replay 63:22) NO FOUL?
    68:35 (replay 69:15) YC GIVEN. IS ENOUGH?
    82:20 (replay 84:10) NO FOUL?

    1. 1) WTH? This is yellow, maybe even red!
      2) Foul, YC.
      3) YC may be very borderline (late, studs-up) and for the dissent he should have been sent off. Unacceptable behavior.
      4) YC.

      What is wrong with the referees? The EL game with Kulbakov had shockingly similiar scenes where brutal/rough fouls weren't even called!

    2. Well these mistakes are very easy to understand and I see it a bit differently.

      42:40: of course this must be a YC. But the bigger error is that Karasev did not anticipate this challenge in his positioning play. He should have moved more to the right to have a sidewise visual angle, otherwise the severity of this offense gets totally missed from a too vertical view.

      63:05: clear mistake, fourth official should help him.

      68:35: YC, it is enough, the sliding tackle was originally not targeted at the opponent. No reason for a 2nd YC for dissent in my eyes. The player was still moving in acceptable areas.

      82:20: clear YC, but again it is a matter of positioning. Karasev is again too late in anticipation, has a poor angle.

      The biggest point to improve is not the identification of reckless tackles but anticipative movement + positioning play.

    3. OMG what a disappointing performance!!!Its really something unbelievable...i have no words...and there are a few more...

  10. Anonymous4/10/14 00:06

    I have enough of European refereeing to be humble :)

  11. Excellent article, Niclas. I think that less focus on fitness, body shape, etc can be very useful. I know several referees who are not the fastest or fittest, but know how to position themselves, control matches and make decisions. Those are much more important assets than being able to run faster than the best footballers in the world.

    Referees with a more "bulky" appearance also have another advantage in that they have a stronger natural authority than a skinny referee (like me.. :P) - something that could be very useful at this level.

  12. http://www.uefa.org/protecting-the-game/refereeing/news/newsid=2158420.html

    Article about the AAR seminar last week. Some interesting statements.

  13. I would like to hear some opinions about that.


    1. Very difficult to judge, but for me it looked like the ball did indeed touch the left arm, so the sending off is correct.

  14. One question to the English readers. Arsene Wenger pushes José Mourinho, Jonathan Moss is standing next to them. Wenger is not sent off. Is that a normal procedure? Hard to trust my eyes right now.

  15. Anonymous5/10/14 16:17

    penalty correct,only a yellow card.DOGSO+RC IMO.

    1. Anonymous5/10/14 16:18

      chelsea - arsenal

    2. Anonymous5/10/14 16:52

      Also Fabregas' handball near the box..I've seen such cases in UEFA RAP 2013,hands not in a natural position...but this is BPL & English referee..

  16. Rochi having a very difficult game at juve vs roma


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