Torres situation highlights urgent need for more refs

Posted by Gabriele Marcotti

So Fernando Torres will not face any retrospective action after his clash with Jan Vertonghen in Saturday's game between Tottenham and Chelsea, one in which he appeared to scratch or gouge the Belgian. This has led to debate over whether the policy on retrospective action is correct. As a result, former referee Mark Halsey thinks the English FA is a laughing stock.

The sticking point is that you can't have retroactive action if a match official sees the incident because they don't want games to be "re-refereed" after the match. And in this case, the FA rules that the assistant referee had seen "the coming together of the two players, albeit not in its entirety."

You can debate somewhere else about whether this makes sense. My take is that everybody in the ground probably saw "the coming together" but, from his perspective, the linesman was looking at the back of Vertonghen's head so was in no position to judge whether Torres scratched his opponent.

In any case, this whole thing -- and many other contentious incidents -- may well have been avoided if the Premier League and other leagues adopted UEFA's system of additional assistant referees. Yep, those guys behind the goal holding the little sticks who supposedly "do nothing" and "are useless."

Fernando Torres AllsportWith more officials, it's certain that incidents like that on Saturday would be punished appropriately both during and after the game.


Maybe it's because a big chunk of ex-pros (and, for that matter, sportswriters) live the lives of smart-aleck, know-it-all teenagers, but the absolute contempt and mockery thrown at these guys whenever they surface in the Champions League or Europa League is hard to comprehend. Whenever there's a blown call, it's seen as evidence that they're useless and the system is bad, rather than what logic would suggest: that maybe the officials simply aren't very good or they made a mistake.

- Report: Torres escapes extra ban
- Story: Ex-ref Halsey blasts English FA

I can usually see plenty shades of grey (and even charcoal or slate) in any argument, but this looks distinctly black and white. How can fewer referees possibly be better than more referees?

The answer is, they can't. Other sports get this. Look at basketball. Or American football. Or ice hockey. Figure out the ratio of size of playing area to number of athletes to frequency of physical contact and it's pretty cut-and-dried.

Yet you get the usual counterarguments, which tend to be either ill-informed, foolish or irrelevant.

"Yeah, maybe it would be good to have extra officials, but they just don't do anything. They just stand there holding their magic wands."

The reason they "stand there" and appear as if they're doing nothing is because the rules don't allow them to make any physical gestures or hand signals. This wasn't a UEFA decision -- these were rules laid out by FIFA's International Board, the body that lays out the Laws of the Game (eight members, four of them FIFA appointees, the other four in representation of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland).

It probably would be better if they could make more obvious gestures -- which is UEFA's wish -- but the rule is there to avoid a situation in which they seem to contradict the referee. Instead, they buzz the referee (using their "magic wands") and communicate with him (or her) via radio. Those conversations are then monitored and used in assessing them, the officials and how well they cooperate. In short, they tell the referee what they see and he (or she) makes the call.

"Well, they're useless anyway because they get so much stuff wrong."

For a start, there's no long-term empirical evidence of this. UEFA's own data shows that officials have made far fewer mistakes since the extra refs have come in. They note improvements in terms of holding in the penalty area and the offside call (because assistant referees can focus on that). But even if you don’t trust UEFA's data, it's extremely difficult to establish whether the officiating is better today than it was in the past. Certainly there is more scrutiny and highlighting of errors, and that can easily explain why we think there are more.

Beyond that, if they do get stuff wrong, maybe it's because the referees themselves aren't good. It's a bit like the one who missed the goal-line call in the England vs. Ukraine game at Euro 2012. He blew it in part because he wasn't well-positioned -- and that was because he's a referee, not a specialist additional assistant referee, simply because right now there aren't any. But that goal was scored on a counterattack, with the referee miles away, back in midfield and furiously sprinting back. Does anybody really think he would have been any better placed to make the correct call? Or even the linesman, who was sprinting up the touchline?

It's a bit like having a corrupt and incompetent cop. Should we conclude that we're better off without any police at all? Or should we try to make them better? And ultimately, there's the simple fact that eliminating them won't make referees any better.

"Never mind this -- let's have instant replay technology and a video referee!"

That's an entirely different debate. If implemented properly it might work; if done badly, it will cause a mess. There's no reason you can't have both. But while instant replay won't be coming around any time soon, extra refs are here right now. Why not use them?

"But they're an unnecessary expense! Where are we going to find all these extra referees? And if you can't implement them at every level of the game, you shouldn't implement them at all!"

The whole premise is silly. The game you play on a Sunday morning in your Sunday rec league is already a world away from the top level, and not just because the players are worse, slower and less athletic. The pitches are usually different too, as are the goals and the dressing rooms. Why even pretend it's the same?

Already, we have goal-line technology in some leagues while we don't in others. And already, in most countries, assistant referees (linesmen) are only supplied from a certain level in the pyramid. Further down, all you get is a single referee. So this idea that the game must be the same at all levels is nice, but simply baseless.

As for the cost, we're talking a few thousand dollars a game. Over the course of a season in, say, the Premier League, well under a million dollars. Given the stakes involved (relegation/Champions League places and prize money allocation), surely they're worth a month or so of Marouane Chamakh's wages.

Obviously this system has -- and will have -- growing pains. For a start, the existing additional assistant referees are ordinary refs who get shunted behind the goal. They're not specifically trained for the job - simply because it has only existed for a few years -- and, as such, there's a learning curve.

But simply mocking the whole thing the way you might have done back in high school with the smelly kid or the nerdy substitute teacher whose voice cracked is asinine. You don't like the system? Come up with a counterargument. One based on facts. Just don't sit in the back of the room and crap all over everything. It was childish then; it’s unbecoming now.

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