Technology in Refereeing – Treat or Threat?

By | January 14, 2015

Flash back to the England versus Germany match in the 2010 World Cup Knockout Stage, where Frank Lampard picks up the ball trickled off from Jermaine Defoe, and chips it over Manuel Neuer, the goalkeeper of Germany; the ball hits the crossbar, bounces off the line, and Neuer quickly recovers it; Lampard raises his hands in celebration, but soon puts them over his head in disbelief, as the goal gets disallowed. The replay shows that the ball definitely crossed over the line before it bounced off the ground – a clear misjudgment by the referee Jorge Larrionda. A game-changing moment; the score of the controversial moment was 2:1, and Germany went on to dominate the match and win 4:1. Had the would-be equalizing goal not been disallowed, the match would more likely have been different.


 Joseph Blatter, president of FIFA, issued an official apology after the match, announcing that technological means would be reconsidered as viable tools for the officials in making accurate decisions in future matches. Subsequently, goal-line technology has been introduced in 2012, and has been implemented in major football events such as the 2014 World Cup and Barclay’s Premier League. Electronic devices installed in the posts assess whether a ball was completely over the line, and send signals to the referees’ watch if it was. This is arguably the defining moment of the history of football, where technology starts to be directly involved in refereeing football matches.

The issue is not about the immediate benefits or authenticity of the implementation itself; there is little doubt that the goal-line technology will increase the accuracy of the goals allowed in controversial moments. Rather, it is about a sense of undermining of the referees that such implementation has brought to the footballing community. As much as the players, managers, and spectators argued and retaliated about mistakes by referees in the past, there wasn’t much of a direct, major questioning of authority among the referees themselves. Nowadays, however, referees have become more and more pressured to be humbled and apologetic for every controversial decision they make in the game, bombarded by the instant replays of the incidents in various angles that they couldn’t possibly have seen. The unprecedented official statement of apology by Mike Riley, the head of the Professional Games Match Officials Ltd. (PGMOL) in England, for a penalty call made by referee Andre Marriner in a match between Chelsea and West Bromwich Albion in November 9th, 2013, is a reflection of the dwindled sense of self-esteem among the referees in the modern world of football – defeated, doubtful, and deemed incompetent.

Some might argue that this is a desirable shift, or perhaps a cycle, of power to happen in the world of football: that this is for the greater objective of maximizing the accuracy of the performance of the referees. Agreeable though such arguments are to a certain extent, they harbor a risk of disregarding the crucial roles of the referees in a game of football, as a ceremony and a ritual. If referees are such limited figures to make “accurate” decisions in every moment of the game, why not hand them additional portable cameras that replay every controversial situation in every conceivable angle? Or, better yet, why not let the technology do the job instead – a Referee Ex Machina, if you will? Would it be better for a football match to have robotic referees with perfect artificial intelligence, which could make accurate decisions for every single moment of the game?


A “RoboRef” – Is This The Future Direction for Football?


I think not.

Referees in football are often juxtaposed to the judges in the “real” world – the embodiment of rules, and those who must deliver their own interpretation of situations in which one party inevitably gains at the cost of the other. What is even more difficult for the referees is that they need to make such decisions almost immediately, without breaking the flow of the ongoing game. Therefore, more so than the decisions of the judges in the “real” world, there is definitely a room for controversies and, in the case of Lampard’s would-be goal above, even an element of misjudgment in the decisions of the referees.

And that is a natural, even partial element in a game of football; a sense of reality projected onto this illusive world, as Christian Bromberger describes in his article Football as World-View and as Ritual:


“…a match opens itself up to a debate of theatrical proportions on the validity and arbitrariness of a flawed system of justice. Football, therefore, embodies an image of today’s world which is both consistent and contradictory… It can embody a culture of Promethean success, as much as a Sisyphean philosophy of misfortune.”

From a fan’s perspective, referees are more than judges in the world of football; they are also an incarnation of that Sisyphean element of misfortune. In controversial moments, the spectators cannot help but to arrow their frustration towards the referees, for they are the only visible, tangible figures who generate that uncanny element of misfortune, which is so painfully omnipresent during every football match. This, in turn, galvanizes the crowd, booing the referees along with the opponents, cheering their players to overcome such “injustice”; such are the main fuel that builds an atmosphere in a football match to almost a religious, ceremonial extent. What fun would it be to watch a football match, knowing that every decision that the referees make would be crystal clear and “correct”? On whom or what other than the referees can we project that element of misfortune, which makes football so distinguishable from other sports?


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  Of course, that is not to say that the referee performances shouldn’t be improved; that is quite apparent from the Lampard example above. Referees themselves should be optimized to make the best decision they can, and technology is indeed a plausible way to improve their performances. However, such improvements are best done in ways that can inject self-belief, not self-doubt, among the referees. Extra fitness and dietary programs for the referees would be one; a Google-Glass-like camera device to record the referees’ viewpoint of each moment to back up their decisions post-match would be another. What good would it be to have all the reverse-angle cameras and replays, if it functions to be used by the media and the managers to suck every drop of confidence and self-esteem out of the referees?

Almost by nature, referees are unfavorable figures in the game of football, a subject to hate and rue as an embodiment of both “justice” and “injustice”. The fact that the referees are willing to deal with such high level of hatred is a testament to their love of the game – at least, to a certain extent. Allowing technologies to be involved in the decisions – particularly those that may serve to devalue the roles of the referees – should be approached with extreme caution, for it could not only be disrespectful to the referees, but also be extremely unhealthy to the game of football, the encapsulation of both success and misfortune.



Bromberger, C. (1995). Football as world-view and as ritual. French Cultural Studies, 293-311.

2 thoughts on “Technology in Refereeing – Treat or Threat?

  1. Paige Newhouse

    The role of referees and their authority in football is really interesting. Making calls, and potentially game-changing or deciding calls, is a tough position to be in. Though technology could potentially undermine the authority of referees, it may also serve as an assurance for referees. If a referee initially makes an accurate call, technology will reinforce it and silence those who disagree with the call. Because of fans’ intensities and emotions, with or without technology, they will view referees as unfavorable and disagree with him.

  2. Laurent Dubois

    These are really interesting reflections, John! I like your use of the Bromberger piece. There’s a nice Swedish film called “The Referee” that emphasizes some of these points through the case of the referee who missed the famous “Hand of Henry” call; you can watch it here:

    And I made a plea for a more humane approach to referees (and goalies) this past summer at the beginning of the World Cup:


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