Time to blow the whistle on another damaging reputation (Guest Blog)

I am not here to bash referees per se. For four seasons I have been a loyal and enthusiastic A-League supporter and Brisbane Roar season ticket holder, but my enthusiasm for Football Federation Australia’s (FFA) premier product gets tested all too often. For the most part, it is the standard of refereeing, particularly assistant refereeing and off side calls, which ruin too many games in the A-league. It has become a reputation in Australian sport that soccer is not only played at a novice level (an unfair view in my eyes), but officiated in a similarly incompetent fashion. A large number of the leagues’ assistants are very young and clearly lack experience. I do not, however, believe it is the match officials we should take our frustrations out on.

Australia’s top level soccer referees are amidst a pay dispute, threateningly close to the start of the 2013/14 A-league season. The governing body, Football Federation Australia (FFA) has about 50 match officials, 14 of whom are the highest ranked FIFA-badged referees. Last week they were offered improved terms to their contracts but it is understood a handful of senior referees have yet to sign, and match officials who don’t sign the contract run the risk of losing their FIFA badge next Friday.

An article on goal.com (13/8/2013) points out their major concerns.

  • The referees are increasingly frustrated at the fact they are expected to perform at a high level and are quickly blamed for errors, but are not supported sufficiently.
  • Forced to pay for medical bills and physiotherapy out of their own pocket.
  • Not permitted to take holidays during the course of an A-League campaign.
  • The league's officials are asked to train four times per week during the season, with no compensation given.

Since the inaugural A-League season in 2005/04, FFA has seen the popularity of the game blossom and has attracted steadily growing crowds. A recently signed $160 million broadcasting deal assures FFA of sufficient funds to groom and grow its product over the next four years. The players and coaches operate in a professional environment, however the referees and match officials are amateur and remain the lowest paid referees of Australia’s major footballing codes. They cannot be expected to be good enough for the national competition if they can’t afford to spend the time improving. FFA ought to be providing more paid training and extensive debriefings after each round of games that will greatly improve the quality of entertainment offered by soccer in this country.

Current pay scale of match officials Val Migliaccio of Adelaide Now (17.08.2013).

  • A-League referees: About $36,000 for 20 home-and-away matches a season which includes a $5000 retainer ($1400 per match). (NEW OFFER for 2013-14 season).
  • A-League assistant referees: $700 per match plus a $2500 retainer per season. (NEW OFFER for 2013-14 season).
  • AFL umpires: About $150,000 per season
  • NRL referees: About $150,000 per season (first tier)
  • English Premier League referees: About $150,000 per season.

A-League referees and assistants will also receive $350 a day for travel expenses on top of FFA paying for travel and accommodation. But in any professional (or semi-professional) environment where the job puts physical strain on the body, it almost goes without saying that you ought to be fairly compensated for any medical bills of physiotherapy. I believe these expenses would be an investment in the future of the game in Australia. Better paid referees who have the time and the support they need to train will lead to the improvement of on-field entertainment. It will also impart more accountability on the referees themselves, so that maybe amongst the refereeing group it will provide extra motivation to get on-field decisions right and out-perform the rest. The FFA has tried for years to rid the game of several negative reputations and stereotypes. In the past they have successfully tackled the racially charged club culture that existed in the old National Soccer League (NSL). Having full-time officials would go a long way to quash the regnant amateurish view of Australian soccer.

People always say that referees are the most important part of the game, but some fans are growing weary of bush-league matches. FFA needs sufficiently remunerate our match officials to referee important matches at a standard fitting of a successful and professional league. If they don’t, the next problem they’ll have is a bribery scandal.

James can be contacted at james@weidmann.com.au or can be found on LinkedIn.