Being a referee in any sport is no easy task and the role takes a lot of patience, clarity of mind and a real devotion to all physical and technical aspects of the game. At the highest level, a decision that a referee makes can be a talking point around the world as there are now fine margins between winning and losing as the stakes are so high.
Refereeing has become an ‘art’ form and occasionally a referee becomes a celebrity in their own right. The introduction of VAR has taken the game into another dimension and brought the latest technology to the fore; there are now literally millimetres in some of the closest of decisions which can alter the course of entire seasons.
The dark side of the beautiful game unfortunately does manifest itself in the declining numbers of referees that run the lines in both the professional and amateur sports.
Currently, according to studies, the growing incidence of verbal and physical abuse of amateur referees in England and around the world is becoming so serious that there is now a fear that someone will become seriously injured or even lose their lives.
In England, the overall number of referees, in the past few years, has declined from 33,000 to 23,000 in just five years with Covid being a main trigger as budding referees could not receive adequate levels of training.
With the world back on track, there is hope that interest in this often unappreciated role will grow and evolve with a new generation of referees emerging.
Oskar Ho, who is also a sports coach, is one of this new generation of referees who are emerging and actively engaged in pursuing their passion of running the proverbial ‘lines’ for the betterment of the global game. He took the time out to talk about his experiences of being a referee and what it entails.
What has motivated you to become a football referee and how can a person become a referee in Hong Kong?
“I have always had a passion for sports management so I think being a referee is getting a different perspective to the sport (football). I did play football at university and started coaching when I was 15 or 16; so the next thing on the table was being a referee! Back in the day, refereeing was something different, especially for teenagers who are usually focused on playing!
I joined (a trainee course) through the club I was playing for and there was a separate referee local organization that was like, ‘We are doing this junior referee program to basically just give you a glimpse of how to do it. Mainly, you’ll be refereeing the kids’ small-sided matches, as well as potentially 11 a-sides for youth games!’ I was like, yeah, why not? Let’s give it a go!
The Hong Kong Football Association have also opened up a course and decreased the starting age to 16 years old. Every year, they’ve taken around 180 referees to be part of the program. It’s a pretty good number!”
What does referee training entail? How do they do it? So do you follow someone or just watch a game?
“I think it’s a great mixture of the classroom and practical. That’s how usually most referee programs are done. So, with refereeing, you have to know the laws of the game, which is just one book that the whole world uses.
Basically that’s what the classroom sessions are there for. You break down and watch video clips of how a situation happened and what you have to do in certain situations. From there, you sort of break down the common sense logic behind them.
I think that’s kind of the main goal of the classroom sessions. Then the second part of it is the practical part! In the practical part, first off, there’s a lot of fitness training. On average, referees in a match can run several kilometres.”
What is a Difficult Aspect of the Training?
“The most difficult thing is the variation of pace so we have to do better on fitness tests for sprinting for different scenarios.
I would say, just the course alone, is around a month or two months depending on which style you do. Some people do the course on and off like a bi-weekly course. Some people just go straight on every week. I think in terms of the actual classroom content and the practical fundamentals, it takes about one month.
The curriculum is much more structured these days. There’s much more funding. I think it is exciting to see that more and more people are playing football so they need more and more referees.”
Referees can face criticism from all sides! Is this why some are dropping out of the game?
“So some people say being a referee is not glamorous, because you know, fortunately you get criticism, definitely more criticism than praise 90% of the time. Decisions will always be criticized and analysed.
I think what you mentioned is actually a referee problem that football organizations across the world face. Now, people get to a certain age or they meet a certain threshold, and then they just like ‘Okay, I’m done with this. I don’t need this!’
I think refereeing trains you and challenges you to have really good short term decision making skills. I mean I’ve seen that applied everywhere like on my job!”
Any tips for budding referees or those who think it is an easy job?
“I think if you if you’ve ever thought about refereeing or watch referees and get mad at referee, give it a go! I think it’s a good exercise for you to figure out yourself. Understand how much you care about football and just another perspective. Everyone thinks they can do it until they can actually do it. So just do it!”