Belfast Telegraph

Referees Herbie Barr and Howard Webb are on a mission to Sheikh things up in Saudi Arabia

By Paul Ferguson

Having been unceremoniously ditched by the Irish Football Association just 18 months ago, former FIFA international referee Herbie Barr felt his love affair with the game was over.

Yet today, after a surprise phone call from the 2010 World Cup final referee Howard Webb, the Bangor man, an ex-school-teacher, finds himself sitting in an air conditioned office in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia very much immersed in the officiating side of football. He is currently acting as a Referees Consultant in the Arab State, under the auspices of Webb, who is the Head of Refereeing at the Saudi Arabian Football Federation.

Barr’s exciting new venture, ‘an opportunity of a lifetime’ he insists, certainly makes up for the disappointment of being ‘let go’ by those in power at the Referee’s Department, inside IFA HQ.

After giving 30 years of service to Northern Ireland football, first as an elite referee, then an observer and more recently a fitness coach to the top officials in the country, Barr felt he should have been consulted and treated with more respect, especially by those personnel who he considered friends, when a decision was made to dispense with his services.

But having spent just over a season out of the game, the 62-year-old, who hung up his whistle in 2003, having officiated in 40 European games, including numerous internationals and big domestic encounters, is very much involved with football again, albeit, thousands of miles from home and a loving family, which includes seven grandchildren.

He and Webb, a close friend from their days refereeing and organising schoolboy football matches, along with a specially selected team that includes Webb’s long serving linesman Darren Cann, have implemented a project in Saudi which will encompass a complete review of the processes and protocols that are currently in place and also develop the elite referees making sure they are fit for purpose.

Barr first went out to Riyadh on November 18 and returned just before Christmas. He was able to attend the Big Two match at The Oval.

A visa will entitle a non-Saudi national to spend six months in The Kingdom, but they must leave for a short time every few months, so Barr flew back to Riyadh for another stint last Friday.

“The offer of work in Saudi came out of the blue. A complete shock, I wasn’t expecting it,” says Barr, who met up with Webb in Belfast when he brought a team of officials over to take charge of the Northern Ireland v Latvia international at Windsor Park.

“I’ve known Howard and been friends with him for 13 years, since the days he came over and officiated in a Ballymena Schoolboys tournament, and I obviously knew he had become Head of Refereeing in Saudi Arabia, but it never dawned on me that he would approach me and ask me to work alongside him. It was truly an honour. When a man who has refereed the World Cup and Champions League finals asks you to help him with a project, you don’t take long to accept.

“At first I didn’t have a clue what my brief would be. I just knew I would be based in an office in Riyadh with the primary concern of looking after affairs when Howard wasn’t in Saudi. Howard, due to his busy schedule including working for BT Sport as an expert, spends alternate weeks in Riyadh so that he can fulfil his commitments in the UK.”

But Barr, who has taken great pleasure in watching Webb referee all the big games throughout the world, stresses: “Howard is very much hands on in the role, fully committed. Even when he is not in Saudi he can be on the phone to me four or five times a day, making decisions and nothing is agreed without his permission.”

In Saudi Arabia there are three divisions but it is the top league, the Premier League, made up of 14 teams, which has been given priority by Webb.

There are 17 elite referees on Webb’s panel, however Barr reckons that number would be reduced to 13 in terms of those officials who could seriously be expected to take charge of a top flight game.

Referees, it seems, simply aren’t trusted in Saudi — especially by the top clubs such as Al Nassr and Al Hilal. It’s nothing to do with their integrity, the Saudis simply believe their domestic refs aren’t very good. They spend thousands of riyals every season bringing in highly respected referees from Europe.

Barr, who is currently enjoying temperatures of 25 degrees in the Saudi capital, states: “Our mission out here is clear — we want to develop a pathway for referees to progress from local to elite level and then beyond. They deserve to be trained to a very high standard, which we will do, and have the chance to reach their potential.

“We will set clear, measurable targets which can be achieved and for the clubs everything will be transparent in terms of dealing with issues. There will be paper trails.

“At the moment confidence with our elite refs is low, they know the clubs are bringing in these top refs from all over Europe. From my point of view it is a privilege to work alongside the likes of Victor Kassai from Hungary, Bjorn Knipers from Holland, Svein Moen from Norway and Ivan Bebek, who hails from Croatia. These are all Champions League officials.

“We need to try and change the attitude of the clubs so they embrace the local elite referees. We want them involved in all the key fixtures and that is our aim rather than the clubs spending a ridiculous amount of money bringing in a ref from Europe.”

Barr, during his time in Saudi, hasn’t been completely office bound. He has managed to visit seven clubs including Al Hilal, managed by former Tottenham boss Christian Gross and Al Nassr, coached by Italy’s World Cup winning captain Fabio Cannavaro. Webb, when he took over his role in Saudi, was very keen for there to be interaction between the officials and clubs.

Barr also goes to as many games as possible, often acting as an assessor. He hasn’t done any referee coaching or instruction, but Barr says that may come down the line. He concedes: “It is my job to try and help improve the referees out here and I take that very seriously. I enjoy going to games and assessing — it’s like old times in the Irish League.”

The Saudi domestic league doesn’t have a great reputation for fair play, but Barr is quick to refute any suggestion of impropriety. He adds: “I certainly haven’t encountered any corruption.

“Mistakes can be made but nothing deliberate. The simple truth is referees are going into games scared. They fear a backlash and therefore aren’t relaxed when officiating. I want them to express their personalities during games, manage a game, but at the minute they are frightened. That must change.”

Barr hasn’t been told how long he will working as a consultant in Riyadh with Webb. He is simply enjoying his new found experience. Of course, going to Saudi, a nation with a terrible human rights record, did fill him with trepidation but he soon overcame those fears.

“It’s been a complete culture shock,” admits Barr. “It strange that they are so indignant to women.

“So from the way they treat women, to the food, dress, language and customs — it’s all a big change for me.

“I must admit I travelled to Saudi slightly scared. I’d read all the horror stories that have come from Saudi and was concerned about what I might experience. 

“However, I couldn’t have received a warmer welcome and been treated better by the Saudi people. I have a lovely apartment in a gated community which really is like an ex-pat community and it seems to be safe and secure with guards on the gates with guns. There are European restaurants close by — even a McDonalds which, I’m afraid to say, I’ve had my fair share of. I’ve learnt to boil an egg, fend for myself but mostly on an evening I tend to go and watch a football match.”

Barr will finish his latest mission by Easter, so he can spend it at home with the family. But at the moment, he feels he is making a difference in Saudi Arabia — those freezing cold nights at Shamrock Park long forgotten...

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