Categorising complaints against referees

Every proper football fan has criticised referees for their dubious decision-making skills and momentary lapses of judgment: one just needs to look to ArsenalFanTV, or to comments on Twitter and Facebook. There are many motivations behind such comments – cathartic release, attempted humour, and instigating meaningful debate to name a few.

If the motivation is to instigate meaningful debate, it would be useful to classify the type of criticism – for this would clarify whether people are arguing on the same wavelength, or whether they are actually agreeing but merely misunderstanding each other’s point.

Broadly speaking, there are five types of complaints about refereeing decisions, and the final one is particularly egregious and not commonly seen. Here are the five categories:

  1. Pure expression of emotion
  2. Inconsistent exercise of discretion
  3. Misapplication of rule based on error of fact
  4. Misinterpretation of rule
  5. Misinterpretation plus misapplication


  1. Pure expression of emotion

Emotional comments pervade social media websites like Twitter – for example “Mike Dean is an [insert expletive]”. No reason or justification is provided for these emotional comments.

One may be led to think that the motivation for such comments is cathartic release. However, the expressed emotion might just be the tip of the iceberg – a person might actually wish to discuss the merits of the refereeing decision in question. In such a case, the reasons may well merely be unarticulated, and enumerating said reasons would be highly constructive.

Logical reasoning is the cornerstone to meaningful debate, and it would make sense if each substantive complaint about the referee’s decision could be categorised according to the four types below (categories 2-5):


  1. Inconsistent exercise of discretion

On the spectrum of ‘refereeing complaints’, an inconsistent exercise of discretion is the least culpable (but can nonetheless be quite impactful).

An inconsistent exercise of discretion involves a situation where the rule permits the referee to make a decision on the satisfaction of particular conditions, but the subjectivity of such conditions means that the referee is given interpretive discretion in relation to such condition(s).

The complaint is that the referee’s interpretation, while technically valid, deviates significantly from how the rule is interpreted in the majority of cases. To give a concrete example, the ‘denial of a clear goalscoring opportunity’ is a ground for issuing a red card. Yet, one may say as follows:

“I can see in a way that that’s a denial of a clear goalscoring opportunity, but come on, in 90% of cases that’s not a red card!!”.

This person’s complaint is that his own interpretation of ‘denial of a clear goalscoring opportunity’ is at odds with the referee’s interpretation of the same phrase. Fundamentally however, he can see how the referee may arrive at the (alternative) interpretation – and this is the characteristic that distinguishes the current category of wrong from categories 3-5.

At this juncture, we can further subdivide ‘inconsistency’ into (i) inconsistency across games, and (ii) inconsistency within games.

Inconsistency across games

Nani’s sending off in the 2nd leg of the 2013 Round of 16 tie with Real Madrid in the Champions League provoked a lot of intense criticism towards the referee. The complaint was that the referee exercised his discretion inconsistently when sending Nani off, in a manner which deviates significantly from the normal threshold for a sending-off in other matches.

That is to say, that in the vast majority of cases there wouldn’t be a sending off, even though the referee had the right to send him off given the waist-high challenge – and so this decision would result in unfairness to Manchester United.

Inconsistency within games

Inconsistent exercises of discretion within a game can be seen most obviously through referees’ decisions as to whether to award free kicks for fouls. The fouls rule provides that:

  • “A direct free kick is awarded if a player commits any of the following offences:
    • handles the ball deliberately (except for the goalkeeper within their penalty area)
    • holds an opponent
    • impedes an opponent with contact
    • bites or spits at someone
    • throws an object at the ball, opponent or match official, or makes contact with the ball with a held object”


  • In the 10th minute, a foul was awarded against A, because the referee believed that A ‘impeded B with contact’.
  • In the 80th minute, no foul was awarded against A despite there being contact of greater severity between A and B.

In this instance, the referee believed that the 80th minute incident did not warrant a foul because A did not ‘impede’ B. On the other hand, the 10th minute incident did.

Nonetheless, a fan could complain on the basis that the referee interpreted “impede” in an overly restrictive, albeit technically legitimate, way. For example, while the referee may have interpreted “impede” in a way which required an intention to impede, the fan may have interpreted “impede” in a more factual way which did not require intention. Yet, neither interpretation is excluded on a textual reading of the rule.

If the fact of the matter was that the 80th minute incident involved a factual obstruction of B by A, then the fan could very well say that the referee treated the 10th minute incident and the 80th minute incident inconsistently: the calls were different despite A having impeded B on both occasions.


  1. Misapplication of rule based on error of fact

In line with the previous category, we say that a rule is misapplied on the assumption that there is no misunderstanding of the rule itself. A misunderstanding of the rule itself is a misinterpretation.

A rule is misapplied when there is an incorrect understanding of the facts, leading to a questionable or erroneous conclusion (as the conclusion is reached on the basis of certain fact(s) being omitted or incompletely understood).

This would be a complaint based on error of fact: “He clipped him in the box! How did the ref not see?

Errors of fact are extremely common, and this is why VAR was introduced. The utility, jurisdiction and proper boundaries of the VAR mechanism will be the subject of another blog post.


  1. Misinterpretation of rule

In contrast with the previous two categories, misinterpretation involves misunderstanding the (procedural and/or substantive) meaning of the rule itself, instead of merely misperceiving the facts.

It goes without saying that referees who misunderstand the relevant rule(s) are prone to reach erroneous conclusions. Even if the correct conclusion is reached, this may well be due to fluke.

An example would be the offside rule, which is commonly misunderstood. The offside rule provides that:

  • “A player in an offside position at the moment the ball is played or touched by a team-mate is only penalised on becoming involved in active play by:
    • interfering with play by playing or touching a ball passed or touched by a team-mate or
    • interfering with an opponent by:
      • preventing an opponent from playing or being able to play the ball by clearly obstructing the opponent’s line of vision or
      • challenging an opponent for the ball or
      • clearly attempting to play a ball which is close when this action impacts on an opponent or
      • making an obvious action which clearly impacts on the ability of an opponent to play the ball
    • Or gaining an advantage by playing the ball or interfering with an opponent when…”

Thus, if a referee proceeds not to call for offside, on the erroneous assumption that he did not ‘becom(e) involved in active play’ merely because he did not ‘gain an advantage’, this would be a misinterpretation of the offside rule. This is because there are many ways of ‘becoming involved in active play’ – and ‘gaining an advantage’ is only one. There are other ways too (e.g. ‘interfering with an opponent’). Without ruling out the other methods, it would be too hasty to come to the snap judgment of an offside call.


  1. Misinterpretation plus misapplication

This is the most egregious of wrongs, as it denotes a single refereeing decision which contains the previous two categories of wrongs – i.e. a misinterpretation of a particular rule, and misapplying the rule based on said misinterpretation.

Let us apply the two elements to a hypothetical scenario involving the offside rule:

a) Misinterpretation of rule

  • In the context of the offside rule, a misinterpretation would occur in the case that the referee believes that being in an offside position constitutes the offside offence.

b) Misapplication of rule based on existing misinterpretation

  • On the belief that being in an offside position is already an offence, the referee calls an offside despite the player being an onside position. The misapplication here involves an error of fact, as the referee is labouring under the misapprehension that the player is factually offside.


The value of identifying the level of disagreement

Now that the five categories have been elucidated, it is apposite to turn to the purpose of the five-fold categorisation. The purpose is to clarify exactly what is being argued, so as to focus the discussion on the useful and constructive points (and to identify the ‘level’ of disagreement within the 5 ‘levels’).

In fact, not identifying the level of disagreement may lead to people arguing past each other with no meaningful result – just frustration. For instance:

  • P1: No that’s wrong! The referee shouldn’t have sent Nani off – that was never a red card!
  • P2: No, he was actually allowed to because I see why it is a goalscoring opportunity – but yes his decision was harsh.
  • P1: How was he allowed to? I completely disagree.


On the surface, these two people seem to be disagreeing – P2 claims that the referee was allowed to do something, but P1 claims he was not. However, they may not be disagreeing – both may be saying that there was an inconsistent exercise of discretion. In this case, P2 may have misunderstood P1’s argument – P1 may not be saying that the decision was wrong (in the sense of a misinterpretation or misapplication), but instead that the exercise of discretion was improper.

In such a case, P1 should clear up the ambiguity by referring to whether he thinks there was an inconsistent exercise of discretion, or a misapplication/misinterpretation.

  • If P1 is saying there was an inconsistent exercise of discretion but not misapplication/misinterpretation (and vice versa for P2) then there can be meaningful debate.
  • Conversely, if [after separating the ‘levels’ of disagreement] they find that they are actually in agreement, they don’t need to waste any more time!


Clarifying the ‘level’ or ‘wavelength’ of disagreement is conducive to meaningful debate. Ronald Dworkin brings this out in his famous work of ‘Law’s Empire’ – distinguishing between semantic disagreements and theoretical disagreements. When two people disagree as to the location of a ‘bank’, it may be the case that one is referring to a river bank whereas the other is referring to a financial institution. They may in fact be agreeing as to the location of the financial institution, and so the divergences in their definitional starting points render the debate merely semantic. Dworkin calls this the ‘semantic sting’, to which we must not fall prey.

In our case of the ‘P1 v P2’ argument, the semantic sting revolves around the word ‘wrong’ – P2 perceived the word ‘wrong’ as denoting contrary to the FA’s Rules of the Game, whereas P1 may have perceived the word ‘wrong’ as denoting questionable, even if technically legitimate. Identifying these differences would aid in understanding each other’s perspectives.



Meaningful debate involves a constructive exchange of views, and we should test and refine our current views through critical reflection (in the Rawslian sense of reflective equilibrium – a process of deliberative mutual adjustment between general precepts and specific judgments). Indeed, focusing the discussion on meaningful elements and identifying semantic debates/disguised agreement will lead to a lot less anger and frustration.

We hope that the ‘categorisation’ of complaints about referees in this post would go towards achieving the aim of encouraging useful debate.

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