Some people quote basketball or handball as examples where the clock on the scoreboard can be stopped whenever play is interrupted, but of course this would be impossible at amateur level, where there are already too few officials available as it is. It is no less true that all the tetchy gesticulating that coaches go in for from the bench becomes all the more irritating as the end of each half approaches to let the referee know that time is up – except for the team that is losing. And all the impatient whistling by the fans is yet another form of pressure on the poor old referee.
Recognition is due to Paolo Casarin and his colleagues in Italian refereeing circles who came up with simple solutions to problems complicated by all those human emotions. First, they used stop-watches to determine how much time was lost on average when players had to be treated for injuries that may or may not have been genuine (one minute) or by substitutions (30 seconds) that are intended above all as a way of playing for time. Then they let the fourth official hold up a luminous panel to indicate how many minutes were to be added on to each half to make up for the time lost this way or by deliberate time-wasting and other stoppages.
Gone are those good old days when the referee believed in sending the players off to the dressing-rooms on the stroke of 45 minutes, without taking any risks of adding time on, just at a point in most games when players were tired and emotionally more likely to behave excessively. The new system makes the referee more credible and also enables everyone else to see that he is adding on a minute for each of a couple of injuries plus four substitutions for a further two minutes, making a minimum total additional time of four minutes, which is rarely contested. But it is a shame that the Laws of the Game do not formally impose such a consistent mathematical formula as is already done in several countries, where everyone involved can easily figure out why a specific amount of time is being added on even when time is officially up.
Another good idea was the introduction of multiple balls and ballboys, strategically placed around the pitch, which saves considerable amounts of time; these days, we very seldom see players thrashing the ball up into the stands simply as a ploy to win a little time or at least to take a breather. It makes it all the stranger why certain countries – France is an example – refuse to apply this simple rule even though their clubs are subject to it whenever they play in international competitions.
Of course, all innovations have their good points and bad. The introduction of flags for assistant referees with a button to attract the referee’s attention has led people to believe, rather naively, that the assistant has become some kind of robot incapable of making any more mistakes. Fat chance! The system, which helps communication without the people involved actually talking to each other, simply serves to make the referee aware that his man on the line is waving for an offside or other infringement, rightly or wrongly. But a wrong offside call will always be a wrong offside call, whether it is indicated with an electronic bleep or not.
Worse still, I think there are two elements of risk here if we are not careful. First, by putting blind faith in technological means that can just as easily be as fallible as the human referee, the referee himself may be encouraged to lose the good habit of regularly looking over to his assistants for eye contact. And secondly, when he does get such an electronic signal, the referee sometimes cannot avoid the reflex reaction of automatically blowing his whistle rather than making good use of the advantage rule.
At a time when professionalisation is becoming the buzz-word amongst a group of people who already have a professional attitude (but without being paid for it), I would like to emphasise the professional approach of a refereeing team from Belgium who were in charge of a match where I was appointed referee’s observer. One of the assistants broke his flag during the match and I was pleasantly surprised by how easily he was able to change it for a new one without the flow of the game being in any way upset. The fourth referee had a spare electronic flag with him and the whole thing was done within a couple of seconds. It just went to show that technology is not necessarily a cure for all ills and all you really need is a bit of common sense and anticipation to deal with anything that may arise. It is a little detail which, along with all the others, makes a world of difference on the field of play and I am sure this anecdote will serve as a lesson to organisers of major competitions where nothing may be left to chance.