Referee observers - giving back to refereeing

While the fans in the stadium are glued to the exploits of the teams and players on the field at a UEFA match, the referee observer in the stands only has eyes for the referee team.

Referee observers in a group discussion at a recent UEFA course in Amsterdam
Referee observers in a group discussion at a recent UEFA course in Amsterdam ©UEFA

The referee observer views the action from a totally different perspective. UEFA’s referee observers are carrying out their crucial role for European football’s governing body as assessors, advisors and coaches to the men and women who manage matters on the field of play.

Enhancing refereeing through experience 

UEFA deploys 230 referee observers - a group here watches a presentation in Amsterdam
UEFA deploys 230 referee observers - a group here watches a presentation in Amsterdam©UEFA

UEFA deploys 230 referee observers, including 47 female observers, to accompany and evaluate the referees at every UEFA competition match. Their endeavours help to nurture European football’s good health, because they are working in tandem with UEFA and the referees to enhance the overall quality of officiating – and to identify the next generation of match officials is also part of their mission. 

The observers who work with UEFA are all former international match officials – for a very sound reason, as UEFA’s deputy chief refereeing officer Hugh Dallas explains: “They understand what a referee or assistant is going through on the international stage,” he says.

“Because they have been there and officiated at international level, referee observers are ideally placed to give important support, advice and guidance to the referee team on the various aspects of the job.”

Being there - offering help

The referee observer accompanies the referee team from when they arrive at a match venue until the debriefing session that takes place after the game.

From before the match until after the final whistle - referee observers are there for the referee team
From before the match until after the final whistle - referee observers are there for the referee team©Sportsfile

“The observer’s role,” Dallas says, “is to be there for the referees, to represent them at the UEFA organisational meeting on the morning of the match, and to make sure that the referees are focused and fully prepared for the tasks that lie ahead.” 

“When the match eventually comes around, referee observers take their place in the stand, and assess how the match officials perform,” Dallas explains. “They identify areas where there may be room for improvement – for example, positioning, management or possibly more accuracy in their decision-making.”

Assessing and advising

The observer assesses the overall performance. Anything that the observer wishes to highlight will be covered in the post-match debrief session. “The observer’s role is also to provide accurate feedback to UEFA and the national association on the officials’ performance,” Dallas stresses. “UEFA needs to know how the match officials have performed and if, in the opinion of the observer, they are ready for their next assignment, with clear guidelines set out for them on how they can improve in the future.”

“Now, of course, the observer also has to assess the video assistant referee (VAR) and the assistant VAR, and to ensure that the correct protocol is followed, so another two officials are added to the observer’s assessment list.”

The referee team leads the players out for the 2019 UEFA Youth League final between Porto and Chelsea in Nyon
The referee team leads the players out for the 2019 UEFA Youth League final between Porto and Chelsea in Nyon©UEFA

From UEFA’s youth tournaments to the UEFA Champions League, the referee observers provide information on match officials that is essential for the UEFA Referees Committee to carry out its duties – especially in terms of placing the referees in the correct categories, which determines what level of competition they will officiate in.

Marking and checking 

Various guidelines apply for the marking system of a match official – for instance, how a referee observer calculates the final mark. "But overall," adds Dallas, "referees are not promoted or reclassified based on a single performance, as they are all monitored through a period of time.”

The marking that the observer gives to a referee for the performance also depends on the difficulty of the game. “The observer has various benchmarks which they follow,” Dallas emphasises. “If the match is more difficult, this could allow a higher mark – it depends how difficult the observer thinks that the match is.”

The final whistle is blown, the teams and referees return to the dressing room – and the referee observers begin another phase of their assignment. “After the match, the observer enters the dressing room to make sure that everything is well,” Dallas explains.

“They check the disciplinary sanctions to make sure everything is accurate before the important match information is sent to UEFA. The observer then receives a recording of the match from the host broadcaster, and while the referees are relaxing and showering after their exertions, the observer will begin to prepare any particular incident from the match that they wish to discuss during the debrief session.”

Managing people

Then comes the key moment, when the referee observer and the referee team settle down for the all-important debriefing. It is at this stage that observers must deploy the management skills that served them well during their international refereeing careers. “This is the reason why we have stipulated that observers must be former international match officials,” Dallas stresses.

Hugh Dallas -
Hugh Dallas -©Sportsfile

“In particular, top referees have developed strong people skills, so we’re asking them to carry these skills on from their careers into their new duties as observers. It could be that the referee has had a very difficult game – the skill of the observer is in delivering feedback during the debrief which, on some occasions, requires diplomacy!”

“It’s extremely important that the observer doesn’t intimidate the match officials – the observer is there as a coach, mentor and advisor… not as a fault-finder. We always ask our referee observers to be constructive, and to find positives. Normally, the referee will be asked to provide a self-analysis at the beginning of the session. Honest referees normally find the same issues that the observer has identified.”

The observer then has 48 hours in which to submit his post-match report to UEFA. Every report is checked by UEFA’s referee officers, in particular to make sure that the text and mark given are accurate before the report is approved and sent to the referee and his/her national association.

Training skills

Training, further education and refresher courses are part and parcel of UEFA’s referee observer activities. UEFA holds training courses every two years for potential observers who are recommended by their association.

One key item on these courses has been the role model test. The potential observers watch a recording of a full match and compile a report on the referee team’s performance. They then take part in a role-play scenario, in which a UEFA Referees Development Panel member acts as the match referee and is interviewed by the trainee observer in a 15-minute debrief. The observers are assessed to see if they have the skills to do the job that UEFA requires of them.

Alongside this, the experienced observers are gathered by UEFA for refresher and further education meetings, in which they exchange ideas and experiences, and learn about any important law changes or updates to the UEFA Referees Committee guidelines.

Learning from each other

“By bringing them together," Dallas says, "they are actually learning from experience about developments in each other's national associations. The observers hear good ideas and worthwhile proposals that they may consider introducing in their own country. This networking aspect is very positive and extremely worthwhile.”

In fulfilling their role, at both UEFA and domestic levels, referee observers are giving back to refereeing after their careers come to an end – an aspect that Hugh Dallas considers as vital in the drive to pinpoint and foster the potential top referees of tomorrow.

“The observers have been steeped in refereeing since they entered the refereeing fraternity,” he reflects. “It’s essential for UEFA and the national associations that they focus on quality and keep their former top officials involved, so that they are available to educate and coach the younger referees. It means that their experience is being made use of – and that in the long term, it is refereeing that benefits.”