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Football referees 'face less criticism from commentators than they think'

Published 24/01/2016

A study looked at the amount of criticism faced by referees
A study looked at the amount of criticism faced by referees

Football referees do not receive as much criticism from sports commentators as they believe, according to new research.

A study carried out at the University of Portsmouth found that professional pundits do not make as many negative comments about the decisions made by referees as the officials think they do.

Dr Tom Webb, a senior lecturer in sports management and development, analysed live commentaries and post-match discussions for 20 English Premier League matches and found the amount of time spent discussing the referee during live commentaries was a total of 37.5 minutes during the entire 20 matches.

And of the 267 total comments made about the referee during the matches, only 29 were judged negative.

Dr Webb said: "Most people will be surprised by these statistics. We analysed 20 live matches, including the post-match analysis, which is a significant amount of coverage - at least two hours of content per match.

"The negative comments were minimal compared to the positive or neutral comments. That was really unexpected."

However, interviews with referees in previous academic studies have found that match officials believe the media was responsible for much of the pressure they felt.

And an online survey of referees found that 60% reported being verbally abused at least every couple of games.

Dr Webb said: "The pressure that referees find themselves under today is unprecedented. Matches tend to be determined as much on decisions about tenuous penalty kicks or marginal offside decisions as on the superior play of one team.

"These refereeing decisions can be pivotal for a team's prospects of winning championships, qualifying for lucrative European competitions or avoiding relegation.

"But the pressure that referees believe they are under is not an accurate reflection of the current environment."

Dr Webb's study found that post-match analysis was more critical of referees' performances, but these negative comments were reserved for an error which was obvious and was thought to have affected the outcome of the game.

The sport scientist also carried out interviews with people working in sports media and found that views about the standards and quality of Premier League refereeing were generally positive.

Dr Webb believes referees' perception of the pressure they are under can lead to errors in performance, increased tension before matches and worries about making wrong decisions.

Knowing that this perception is not borne out by the statistics could therefore help ease the pressure they feel, resulting in fewer errors on the pitch, he said.

Dr Webb added: "If there is to be an improvement in the relationship between referees and the media there are a number of discussions required, as well as a greater degree of understanding, particularly from those within refereeing to ensure that the reduced pressure identified here is communicated."

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