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The Art of Refereeing


With Arsenal leading Newcastle by four goals in February of this year, wiry Gunners midfielder Abou Diaby grabbed Joey Barton by the neck and heaved him towards the ground. Referee Phil Dowd saw the act and promptly showed Diaby a red card. The Magpies then fought back to score four goals and earn themselves a thrilling point. Did Dowd make the right call? Probably not, according to the lessons of The Art of Refereeing: Techniques and advice for every soccer referee.

Every major newspaper had caught Barton's thunderous tackle on Diaby shortly before the incident, which left him limping. Dowd had missed the incident entirely, which itself deserved at least a caution if not a sending off. Instead, he punished Diaby for retaliation. Justice was not served.

Justice is one of the many principles that the The Art of Refereeing promotes in this clearly written, enjoyable volume. The book is a practical guide for refereeing that addresses the infinite variations that occur beyond the often vague and confusing black letter print of the official Laws of the Game.

Authors Robert Evans and Edward Bellion, now retired, both refereed in the defunct North American Soccer League (NASL) and officiated international matches in every continental confederation. They write well and patiently spell out the nuances of the modern game. The book is peppered with enjoyable anecdotes about Pele, Maradona and George Best, among others. For example, did you know that Maradona preferred to be fouled and continue dribbling because it was part of his attacking strategy? Or that Pele would gain space to receive the ball by bumping away his man-marker with his backside? (The authors' verdict: foul!)

Some of the advice might be difficult to swallow. Star players such as Lionel Messi often seem to receive special treatment from referees, leading to complaints among spectators and players alike. Is this the right way to officiate? "Our answer is an unequivocal 'Yes'," the authors declare. Star players shouldn't get away with misconduct, but, because of their "great skills", they are "frequently the victims of harsh treatment by their opponents, simply because it is almost impossible to stop them by fair means".

Nor should referees take each player at face value. Preparation for any game includes learning the disciplinary record of notorious hacks. "Referees are there to control the game," the authors write, "and they should use all the information available to them, including information about a player's track record." You shouldn't mention the player's reputation during the match, but you should take action as soon as he or she commits a foul. This is realpolitik refereeing that doesn't pretend each player has a clean disciplinary sheet. Players have records that should be examined, the authors argue, for the benefit of the match.

The Art of Refereeing appeals to both rookie and experienced referees, and it serves as a fascinating primer for the general spectator. It should be required reading for television pundits, who consistently flub the 'ball-to-hand' rule (there isn't one) and who rarely can explain why fouls are called in the penalty box - for either team. But above all, this book is about fulfilling the spirit of soccer and not being dominated by the official laws. Players and spectators should enjoy themselves. Referees should too, for they have the best seat in the house. There's nothing wrong with that, is there?

Deji Olukotun is a lifelong soccer enthusiast who is writing a novel about a soccer referee. Read his blog at


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