In all the assessing I have been doing these last few weeks, I have been impressed by the number of referees who have absorbed the idea of preparing for a match by learning as much as they can about the teams and players before the game starts. In PDL games, the preparation becomes a point of discussion in the pre-game, and even in social get-togethers by the officials before the match, and in MLS games, the preparation becomes an important part of the "coaching" that officials get with their coach/mentors in the days before the contest. It wasn't always so...
In the years that we worked in the North American Soccer League, Ed and I did a great deal of preparation before matches, exchanging information, making plans based upon personnel and tactics. When I became Director of Instruction in the late eighties, I taught these principles to all the national referees of the time. Some of it fell upon deaf ears--"too theoretical" one referee told me--but Jack Taylor, who refereed the 1974 World Cup final, thought it was such a good idea when he came over to talk at the national camp, that he was going to recommend the approach for Football League referees in England. And they certainly do it now.
When MLS started I was one of the instructors of the prospective referees at the initial clinic, and of course encouraged them to do this kind of preparation. I was astonished to find out a little time later that the powers-that-be in the league (including our current US Soccer President, Sunil Gulati, who was the MLS deputy commissioner for several years in the nineties) would not give out information on which players had cautions, expulsions and so on, because they felt that the referees would be prejudging the players. The people who were saying these things had never refereed at any level, let alone the professional and international level, so their naivety is understandable. Eventually they did listen to others more experienced at officiating than they were, and so the present program began to evolve.
But even after the last five or so years, when the ideas of preparation percolated down to A-league and PDL, I still sense that many referees are missing the point. (By the way, those of you who have read Collina's memoir, know that he was an enthusiastic advocate of thorough preparation before matches, poring over video of teams and players he would be seeing. I can't think of a better endorsement than that.)
What are some of these modern referees missing? It is the notion that information can change your course of action. Information does not exist in a vacuum, merely to be talked about over coffee or beer. It should suggest a plan to take care of an anticipated problem, a way to modify how the referee normally operates so as to eliminate the problem before it damages the game. Consider a couple of examples.
Cup Final. The referee knows that the leading scorer of one of the teams is a young, strong player who scored time and time again against many opponents during the regular season. Marking him is an older, more experienced defender from the old school that advocates kicking your opponent early in the game, to "let him know that you are there, and that you won't be leaving him alone until the final whistle." What's more, the referee knows this and has refereed both teams before, and has had words with the defender about his play.
The referee's preparation and knowledge gives him a plan to make sure that the contest between these two players is a fair one. If (and that is the important word) the battle between them gets rough, the referee plans to step in immediately and define how it will be conducted for the rest of the game.
Less than a minute after the kick-off, the defender challenged the striker from behind, and brought him down heavily as he was receiving the ball. Without hesitation, the referee issued a caution and made it quite clear to the defender that the foul he had committed was going to be the last of that type during this Cup Final. The referee--Ed Bellion--had a reputation too, and the defender knew he meant what he said. The potential problem was solved before it had a chance to fester, and the spectators enjoyed a fine game, a fair contest, with only one more caution being issued. The information the referee possessed had changed his course of action from a lecture to a caution, and the behavior of the player changed as well.
From studying the first meeting of two teams in a league match, another referee saw a conflict develop between a left fullback and the right wing of his opponents, a conflict that ended in disciplinary action and a confrontation. The conflict occurred two ways: the tight marking by the defender, and the chasing back that his opponent had to do when the fullback attacked down the flank, which he did throughout the game. At that time, many referees in the NASL used one diagonal in the first half, and the other in the second.
Our referee decided to nip the conflict in the bud early in the game, and he did so by choosing a right-wing diagonal for the first half, so that he would be running directly at the two antagonists for the first forty-five minutes. At the first clash, he was looking over their shoulders, and blowing his whistle in their ears. He never let them get away from him, until they realized what was going on and settled down to play. He had used the information from the first match to determine how he was going to referee the second. He changed his own habit out of necessity, and as a result changed the behavior of the two players.
Knowledge is power, the sages say, but only if you use it to your advantage. Knowledge possessed but not used is mere chaff in the wind.