January 08, 2018

The Referee as a Game-Manager

On page 61 of the current edition of the FIFA Laws of the Game 2017/18, it says: "Each match is controlled by a referee who has full authority to enforce the Laws of the Game in connection with the match." However, in football refereeing there is broad consensus that referees will not succeed by only administering the literal meaning of the laws. Instead, most match officials agree that much more is needed to keep sovereign control over the game and to gain the players' acceptance: Football referees are expected to manage the game. This leads us to the concept of the football referee as a game-manager - a role-interpretation that is popular both in research and practice.

The role of a football referee: Law Enforcer or Game-Manager?

Law Enforcer or Game-Manager?

In the past, football referees were widely perceived as authorities who were empowered to execute decisions in their role as association representatives - Rullang, Emrich and Pierdzioch (2015) call this the referee's "formal authority qua office" (p. 223). In this sense, match officials were supposed to ensure the players' adherence to the Laws of the Game by sanctioning potential misconduct and offences - making use of disciplinary tools and game-related sanctions such as free kicks or penalty kicks.

However, times have changed and the formal authority of a referee is no factor that necessarily helps him or her anymore. Referees need to convince on a personal level in order to be accepted and respected - specially in environments, generations and societies who members have become more critical in terms of dealing with authorities. Moreover, the social character of football as a game demands more than merely applying the lawbook, and officials are usually integrating contextual factors into their decisions: Whether a certain incident is penalized with a yellow card, will, among others, depend on things like his or her previous line or even the game time (see Unkelbach & Memmert, 2008).

That's why Mascarenhas, Collins and Mortimer (2002) as well as Brand and Neß (2004) have proposed the concept of a game-manager in their respective research. A good refereeing performance thus is also reflected in aspects such as interpreting the written Laws of the Game against the background of the "spirit of football" (which is also emphasized in > Law 5!) in order to make the game "playable" and an attractive spectacle - or, in other words, to referee a game in a common-sense-based way:

"The most important law is not written down - the so-called 'Law 18' - and this is about common sense. A referee may have a great knowledge and understanding of the laws, but to apply them in a correct manner is a required skill." (Dallas, 2015)

Moreover, referees are expected to manage the players on an interpersonal level by communicating effectively and being a respected personality on and off the pitch. With the aid of this, very good referees might even manage to sell potentially erroneous decisions as correct ones by applying convincing communication strategies. Thus, they can keep both game control and acceptance at a high level despite possibly crucial mistakes, while other referees - who focus on enforcing their decision taken only - might begin to struggle and, in consequence, lose the grip to the game.

Besides, referees are not only expected to sovereignly deal with decisions to be taken as a reaction to potential misconduct, but also to anticipate offences and ideally even prevent them pro-actively:

"There was a time [when] a very good referee had to know the soccer game rules by heart. This is over. Today, only the referee who can estimate ... what might happen during the match has the potential to reach world-class." (Collina, 2015)

A law enforcer (see Plessner & Betsch, 2001) would not care about these aspects that much - and most likely even neglect the statements above. Instead, a referee interpreting himself as a law enforcer would feel entrusted to execute the written Laws of the Game and would most likely even refuse to bother himself with aspects like management, communication or common sense too much. He or she would, above all, take care of the written laws and aim at applying it in a strict, consistent way - which would then, to a certain extent, also result in preventive refereeing.

Both approaches and role-interpretations offer chances and risks, as shown in the following table.

Law Enforcer
Main goal
Enforcing the Laws of the Game
Making the Game "playable"
Focus on
the Laws of the Game
Managing the Game
Application of the Laws of the Game ...
in a strict, literal way
in a common-sense-, football- and big-picture-based manner
Impression / Perception
as consistent and strict (+)
as pedantic and narrow-minded (-)
as partner of the game and players (+)
as inconsistent (-)
Predictability, consistency, clear line, zero tolerance for offences and thus a prevention of hard play and injuries
Attractive, fluent game thanks to common-sense and game-orientated interpretation of the Laws of the Game
A lack of common sense and contextual, situation-based interpretation; harming game-fluency and reducing its attractiveness by being in the spotlight
Danger of overstraining the Laws of the Game at the cost of fairplay and the players' safety, failing to adequately punishing offences (in case of overinterpreting the game-management-concept)

The rejection of the unidimensional concept of referees as law enforcers is supported by self-reports from match officials who are active in other sports. In their paper, Brand and Neß (2004) found that referees active in basketball, handball and ice hockey clearly rated themselves as game-managers rather than law enforcers on a corresponding scale. The results were particularly interesting due to partly significant differences between referees who are officiating at different levels - there seemed to be a statistical relationship between the officials' role-interpretation and the league level they were actually officiating in. A comparable investigation with football referees had not been conducted before a study I did as a part of my Bachelor thesis.

Investigating the Role-Interpretation of German Football Referees

As a part of a bigger investigation that was mainly supposed to collect data on the personality structure of football referees with an established personality test, the 2286 officials participating in the study (in the following called "participants") also answered an item relating to how they perceive and interpret their own role. After eliminating those participants who did not meet our statistical criteria, 1486 male German football referees remained in the sample. This sample is thought to be quite representative for European and maybe even worldwide refereeing: On the one hand due to the high, representative sample size of more than 1.000 participants and on the other hand as German refereeing usually is neither known for having a very lenient nor a very strict philosophy of refereeing.

The participants were asked the following question (in German): "Do you consider yourself in your refereeing role rather as a law enforcer or game-manager?"  They answered the question on a six-step-scale ranging from 1 (= law enforcer) to 6 (= game-manager).

Information on the highest league the participants have been refereeing in was collected to facilitate a nuanced league- or even success-based consideration of the results. The two highest league levels (professional football and regional leagues including "Bundesliga", "2. Bundesliga", "3. Liga" and "Regionalliga" = top leagues) were summarized to the group "Higher Divisions", the two middle league levels ("Oberliga" and "Verbands-/Landesliga" = regional level) formed the group "Middle Divisions" and the two lower German league levels ("Bezirksliga" and "Kreisliga" = county level) formed the group "Lower Divisions".

(How do you consider your role as a referee? Vote here!)

Results: German Football Referees perceive themselves as Game-Managers

German football referees clearly interpret themselves as game-managers rather than interpreting their own role as the one of a law enforcer only.

Interestingly, the self-concept as a game-manager seems to be even more distributed in higher divisions as illustrated in the following table and diagram (click to enlarge!).

The table and diagram illustrate the mean scores (1 = law enforcer, 6 = game-manager) by group. They also include statistical values.

Total Sample
Higher Divisions
Middle Divisions
Lower Divisions

1= sample size, 2M = mean score, 3SD = standard deviation (showing the dispersion of responses);
**p < .01, ***p < .001 (statistical significance)

To be precise, referees officiating in higher divisions perceive themselves, on average, much more as game-managers (M = 5.22) than referees active in middle divisions (M = 4.87, p < .001, d = 0.34) or lower divisions (M = 4.44, p < .001, d = 0.65), while there is a similar pattern of differences between middle and lower division officials as well (M = 4.87 > M = 4.44, p < .01, d = 0.36). These differences are non-random, but statistically relevant and practically important which is indicated by the highly significant effect sizes (d = 0.20 indicates small differences between mean scores, d = 0.50 indicates moderate mean differences and d = 0.80 large mean differences).

Game-Management as a Predictor of Refereeing Career Success?

The results are quite clear: Based on the representative sample of German football referees match officials seem to interpret their role as the one of a game-manager. At the same time, the referees participating in the study distanced themselves from understanding refereeing as a unidimensional task of law enforcement.

These findings reflect that referees experience their complex role as one that also comprises elements of management such as a context-based, adequate interpretation of the Laws of the Game, common sense, game empathy and many soft skills in the area of personality and communication.

Meanwhile, the observed league-level-based differences allows several explanations. The circumstance that referees in higher divisions understand themselves as game-managers more than their colleagues in lower divisions do resembles a chicken-egg-problem: It could be that officials who climb the refereeing ladder become more aware for the need to integrate a common-sense-based, management-orientated approach into their refereeing and thus develop sophisticated management skills mirrored in a corresponding role-interpretation. In this case, refereeing would serve as a socializing opportunity where people are able to gain transferable management skills they might also use outside football - for example in business-related management or leadership settings.

It could however also be that nowadays specially those referees are selected for promotion to the highest levels who are strong in the area of game-management thanks to interpreting themselves as game-managers. In the latter case, the role concept of a game-manager would be a predictor of career success as a match official - while following the isolated self-concept as a law enforcer might be an obstacle to reach the highest levels. It is therefore not surprising that match officials like Nicola Rizzoli (photo below) - a former Italian top-flight referee known for excelling in game-management qualities (sometimes overstraining the Laws of the Game and the safety of the players, as critical voices would argue) - was entrusted to officiate a Champions League, Europa League and World Cup final respectively.

Alternatively, both explanations might be valid at the same time, which seems to be quite intuitive from a practical point of view.

To prevent any misunderstanding: The results and feedback from many participants suggest that game-management does not exclude enforcing the laws if needed. Knowing the laws and applying them in the best possible way rather seem to be a relevant part of the game-management concept - and this is a very essential point and will be picked up again below.


The results of the study described above have several implications both for football referees and referee associations.

While referees can use refereeing to grow personally and are proposed to actively work on their soft skills, referee associations are recommended to address their officials' self-concept as part of their educational programs. Analogously to Pierluigi Collina's statement, the time when referees were selected, assessed and educated only based on Laws of the Game input or tests is over. Instead, referees should be offered educational programs that clearly foster their soft skills, help them improve qualities like game-reading, player interaction, communication or self-management both by theoretical input and practical activities in the form of role games or, as another example, video analysis.

At the same time, referee assessment formats that mainly concentrate on decisions and widely fail to adequately mirror a referee's quality in softer areas like game-management, leadership, personality or communication do not meet the standards of modern officiating. Innovative tools that highlight decisions and management abilities in a development-orientated way might supplement or even replace the methods currently used by most associations in future.

The question of what style you prefer as a referee is often discussed in an ideological black-or-white-way. It is however absolutely essential to understand that game-management neither replaces nor excludes the application of the Laws of the Game. The laws are the base on which a referee can build and unfold his style of managing a game. Knowing the laws is the minimum prerequisite every referee has to fulfill - applying them in the correct and best possible way is an essential part of managing a game effectively. Only a referee who bases his management skills on a profound interpretation of the laws - combined with the responsibility to prevent any threat to the safety of the players as well as the courage to intervene if needed - will thus succeed at the highest level.

The relationship between "Laws of the Game" and "Game-Management" is no antagonism - the individual role-interpretation is therefore neither an either-or-issue, nor an ideological question: It is about finding the right balance when considering both the lawbook and the big picture of the game and spirit of football. Actually both elements are two sides of the same coin: A refereeing mindset which equally serves the laws, game, players and audience.

In conclusion, a modern football referee's role is a quite complex one and comprises more than merely applying the written Laws of the Game - even if knowing and interpreting them is an indispensable part of the job. Match officials are moreover entrusted to interpret these laws against the background of their meaning, the good of the game and common sense. They understand themselves as game-managers as a representative study with German football referees has clearly shown. For this reason, associations are recommended to expand their programs and methods by components that cover those abilities and skills needed to be an effective manager on and off the field of play. The study mentioned above serves as a first empirical basis that demonstrates how important it is to make referees strong in these areas - something PsychRef will attempt to assist with.

Take Home Messages

The role of a football referee comprises more than merely knowing and enforcing the Laws of the Game. Match officials are expected to be game-managers nowadays.

A representative study with German referees has shown that this is also reflected in self-reports of match officials: They perceive themselves as game-managers much more than as law enforcers – particularly in higher divisions.

Referees are reminded to actively work on their management skills and consider the knowledge and application of the Laws of the Game as an indispensable fundament for this. 

Referee associations are recommended to sharpen the focus of their development and assessment procedures on skills and abilities that qualify referees for fulfilling their complex management task - e.g. in areas like communication, personality or game-understanding. 


Brand, R. & Neß, W. (2004). Regelanwendung und Game-Management – Qualifizierende Merkmale von Schiedsrichtern in Sportspielen. Zeitschrift für Sportpsychologie, 11(4), 127-136.

Collina, P. (2015). “Visionary” know-it-all referee is the new normal in int’l football: star referees. English.news.cn. Zugriff am 22.05.2016, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2015-12/28/c_134957760.htm.

Dallas, H. (2015). In M. Chaplin, The importance of referee education (2015). UEFA.org. Zugriff am 22.05.2016, http://www.uefa.org/protecting-the-game/refereeing/news/newsid= 2207221.html.

Mascarenhas, D. R. D., Collins, D. & Mortimer, P. (2002). The art of reason versus the exactness of science in elite refereeing: Comments on Plessner and Betsch (2001). Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 24, 328-333.

Plessner, H. & Betsch, T. (2001). Sequential Effects in Important Referee Decisions: The Case of Penalties in soccer. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 23, 254-259.

Rullang, C., Emrich E. & Pierdzioch, C. (2015). Mit Zuckerbrot und Pfeife – Die Bedeutung unterschiedlicher Autoritätsformen im Rollenselbstbild von Schiedsrichtern (With a Carrot and a Whistle – The Importance of Different Forms of Authority in the Role Self-Perception of Referees). Sport und Gesellschaft – Sport and Society, 12(3), 215-239.

Unkelbach, C. & Memmert, D. (2008). Game management, context effects, and calibration: the case of yellow cards in soccer. Journal of Sports and Exercise Psychology, 30(1), 95-109.


  1. This is an excellent piece of reading material, proving the high level refereeing requires academic approach while soft skills are necessity regardless of the refereeing level.
    A short comment - whether football referees will be law enforcers or game managers and should there be division between levels of refereeing with that regard, is up to national referee committees. They are the ones responsible for passing the clear message to instructors and assessors on how should referees develop.
    Once again, great job!!!!


Copyright © . PsychRef - The Psychology of Refereeing
Theme Template by BTDesigner · Powered by Blogger