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My Dad Could Have Prevented Pepe's Red Card

No touching, no talking, and no messing up: The pillars of great refereeing

Stu Forster Getty Images Sport

If my father had been refereeing the Germany-Portugal match today, the Pepe headbutt would never have happened. Back when my dad was refereeing college games in the States, I would come along with him and sit in the bleachers, watching his strict precision and listening to him explain his decisions by his old white Toyota 4Runner during half time. My father is a mathematician by training, a computer programmer by trade, and, until he tore his meniscus, was a soccer referee on nights and weekends. In the U.S., he refereed college and rec league games; back in the Soviet Union, where he was born and raised, he refereed second division games all over the country. In Magnitogorsk, he saw a sky colored every stripe of the rainbow by busily-churning smoke stacks; in Kaliningrad, he found himself refereeing a game in a stadium where Hitler had once delivered a rousing speech. His uncle—also named Michael Ioffe—had refereed the Soviet premier league. He brought my father into the trade in 1980, and taught him its best practices.

Had my father been on the pitch on Monday, it never would’ve gotten to a red card. One of his tips for when he was teaching me how to ref was to spot the trouble-maker early on, within the first few minutes of the match, and penalize him for a couple small things, just to let him know that you’re watching him, and that he’s not getting away with anything. Keeping a guy like that in line keeps the game from devolving into needless aggression and fighting. With a player like Pepe, well-known for his anger-management issues, my dad would’ve probably given him a yellow early on for something small, just to say, “Hey, buddy. I’m on to you. Watch your step.”

That said, my father advised to never, ever get card happy. (Also, keep your red and yellow cards in different pockets, to avoid making a mistake you can’t undo without making a fool of yourself in front of the players.) Give cards when they’re deserved, but if you give too many, you lose control of the game: the players will think every call you make is an overreaction and that you’re not letting them play.

My father, center, at a refereeing training weekend in Novorossiysk, February, 1987. 

If you give a card, give it to the player’s face. Where’s the effect of carding a player’s back? Summon him back, make him face you, and then show the card. So he—and his teammates—know what’s up. It’s a great bit of advice, and it works well when you’re a fit middle-aged man with eyes like fresh ice. But it doesn’t work for everyone: Once, in high school, when I was refereeing a men’s rec league game with my dad—we split the pitch along a diagonal, using the two-man system—I carded a player for some egregious foul or another, but he was at least twice my age, and just trotted off. I was left with the yellow piece of plastic hanging limply in my hand as my dad caught the guy on the other side of the pitch to card the guy for dissent.

That card the ref gave to Iker Casillas in the Spain-Netherlands game last week? That was for dissent, and, according to dad, totally appropriate. The Spanish goalie, upset with the referee’s call, jogged over from the other side of the field to complain. Unacceptable. But, according to my father’s pro tips, the only way you make that stick is the main rule of refereeing soccer: never be more than 5 meters away from the ball, but never get in the way. That way, even if you make a mistake, your call at least looks plausible: you were right there.

If the players start swarming around you, getting in your face over a call, never, ever, ever touch a player. Once, my cousin, whom my father also taught to ref, punched a player who had taken a swing at him. My father’s disappointment with his nephew knew no bounds. Notice, for example, that the referee in the Portugal-Germany game got pushed by a Portuguese player, and simply pushed him back. Also unacceptable. You push the referee, you’re out. But the ref should know better than to get physical with the players. As soon as you do that, you’re not the arbiter, but one of them, and then what gives you the authority to call things? And of course, you wind the players up even more. If they’re in your face yelling, instead put some distance between you and them, jog a couple meters away. The first guy to break out of the pack and approach you, card.

How do you keep the brawls from beginning in the first place? Understand the idea of advantage. Most referees, my dad says, tend to equate advantage with possession: if a player is running with the ball and an opponent hurts him, but the player keeps the ball, most refs will let the guy (or girl) play, saying he maintained advantage. My father took a more psychological approach.  When a player is hurt but maintains possession of the ball, “at this moment,” my father says, “the last thing he cares about is the ball. He wants to turn around and hit the other guy who is tackling him from behind.” Same with the scuffles in or around the box. “Or the defender who is being pushed near his own goal and not allowed to turn. There is no advantage for him in ball possession,” my dad explains. “Or, a striker who is being kicked from behind near the other team's penalty box but still keeps the ball.” That, he argues, is possession, not advantage. “The advantage for the team will be if, instead of the striker trying to stay on his feet, the team is awarded a direct free kick.”

The main rule, of course, is don’t fuck it up. The worst thing you can do to lose control of the game—and you need that to keep the game going smoothly and remain a game, rather than a haggle-fest or an outright brawl, as once happened when my cousin and I were refereeing together (we had to call the cops)—is to make wrong calls. There’s obviously nothing to make a game come apart at the seams than to look like you understand the game less than the players. (Oh, the tears streaming down my face as I’d jog onto the field after my dad’s half-time analysis of my mistakes. “You call that offsides?! Do you have eyes?!” He was always tough and, alas, always right.)

But that’s obvious. The other pointers were not. For example: try not to talk to the players. You’re there to make calls, not explain them. You wanna talk, use your whistle. My father was a virtuoso on that small, humble instrument. He could use it to express anything: certainty, warning, disdain, nonchalance, anger, comradely good cheer. Up in those bleachers, I would hear him tooting his whistle, explaining what his freshly-acquired English couldn’t yet. On the field, he wasn’t an immigrant struggling to keep a family of four afloat on one small salary, but just one of the guys on the pitch, the guy who knew at least this one thing better than them.