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Man in the Middle Episode 2: Psychology's role

UEFA has unveiled the second episode of its new four-part series – Man in the Middle – examining the personal and professional lives of Europe’s top referees. In this the second of a two-part article, read about the psychology of refereeing.

Episode two of ’Man in the Middle’, released on Monday, takes an in-depth look into the psychology of top referees – why they take up the role, and how they have to learn to deal with the various pressures and demands of a high-pressure, high-stakes job.


In the second of a two-part series of extracts from episode two, we focus in particular on how UEFA Champions League referees deal with criticism and how they bring their own experiences to bear in their refereeing, through the thoughts and words of:

  • Stuart Carrington, English university lecturer and author of the book Blowing The Whistle: The Psychology of Football Refereeing
  • Roberto Rosetti, chairman of UEFA’s Referees Committee
  • UEFA Champions League referees Ovidiu Hațegan (Romania) and Gianluca Rocchi (Italy)

Read part one on referees' psychology

Dealing with criticism

Stuart Carrington: "Referees are salespeople. People forget that. A large part of their job is to sell a decision, as well as to make it. Referees need to be prepared, and are prepared, for criticism. And I think that there are different reasons why this criticism is aimed at referees.

"We’ve historically had this distrust of the referee. Sociologically, they’re an easy target. They often don’t have the chance to justify their actions or to talk back or answer back."

Gianluca Rocchi: "I’ve asked myself many times during my career if it was correct or not to have this kind of pressure. Sometimes people are thinking the referee’s very happy when he sends off a player. No, absolutely not. I’m absolutely disappointed when I have to send off players.

"I don’t like it when I’m reading the newspaper or reading some social media posts, that someone is thinking that I destroyed the match myself, or the referee did in general, because I don’t want to destroy anything.

Being yourself on the pitch

Carrington: "The skills that referees acquire and develop throughout their career may prepare them for what a psychologist would label a ‘negative life event’, partly because every game, you’re probably going to be criticised.

"However, they have to remember that they are bringing themselves into that situation. So, regardless of their level of expertise, you can never really avoid bringing your own personality and bringing your own experiences on to the field."

Roberto Rosetti: "We have to be ourselves. We cannot change. Of course, we have to improve, we have to work every day. When I was a referee, I was very, very motivated. I was really hungry. I wanted to get my targets.

"When you are totally focused on what you are doing, and you try to do your best, people around you immediately can understand and can respect you for what you are on the field of play."

Ovidiu Hațegan learnt of his mother's death at half-time during a game in 2018
Ovidiu Hațegan learnt of his mother's death at half-time during a game in 2018

Ovidiu Hațegan [who learnt of his mother's death at half-time during a match he was refereeing]: "It was for sure the most difficult moment in my life, even though I knew that it would happen. When I left for that match, everyone, the doctor said: 'No, no, don’t worry, you can go because things are stable, and in two days you will be back, so no problems.'

"Everything was OK, but at half-time, I got the calls. When I saw the two missed calls, I knew that something bad had happened. I had a discussion with Roberto in the dressing room. I was crying. It was a really difficult moment… and then I thought about it, I thought about all the good moments, and I decided to also whistle the second half for her, because she was very, very proud of me, so it was a rollercoaster of emotions during the second half, I have to be honest… and at the end, as you have probably seen with the captain of the Netherlands, he realised that I was crying. Around me, everybody was just: 'Well done ref, congratulations'.

"Then he came, he hugged me, he asked me, and we talked a little bit, and immediately I wanted to get off the pitch to go to my dressing room. If I’m thinking now, I don’t think I would do it again but, in that moment, I was thinking only about her, and she probably gave me the strength to continue.

"You have to be strong in life in order to move on and to fight for your future, and you have to think about the past with love and appreciate what you have in the present."

Highly trained … highly skilled

Carrington: "When we talk about bringing yourself on to the field, there’s this really wide range of what that encompasses or what that entails. What’s important to remember is that referees are highly trained and highly skilled individuals. Spectators will focus on the bigger decisions, but referees will want to get every decision right.

"To put into context how hard that is, during an average 90-minute game of football, officials will make approximately 300 to 350 decisions, and only 50 of those decisions will be objective. So that means there are about 300 subjective decisions that occur – it’s about one every 10, 12 seconds – so referees don’t really have time to sit back and think: 'OK, well, I’ll take my foot off the gas', so to speak.

"I think referees would want an easier game and they want to avoid controversial decisions, and first and foremost, they want the game to flow and for an entertaining game of football to occur…Additionally, when that whistle goes at the end, that’s kind of like game finished, closure, because they’re sort of back in the real world."

Reacting to retirement

Gianluca Rocchi retired last season
Gianluca Rocchi retired last season©Getty Images

Carrington: "When we ask how difficult it might be for someone to recover from being forced to retire from officiating, I think that depends on: a) the individual and, b) their perception of why they’re forced to retire, so the attribution that they have for that retirement. The other side to it is how an individual will cope with having their identity removed."

Rocchi [who retired mid-season owing to mandatory age limits]: "It’s better to finish when you are not in the last moment [of your career], because, OK, you can enjoy the moment, but the last match is not a party. The last match, if you have a passion [for what you do], it’s not an easy moment. So, sometimes it’s better that you don’t know if your last match is your last match."

Carrington: "An elite referee has spent many years working hard to get to that level, much like a player, much like a coach. And now you’re being forced to remove that away."

Rocchi: "I can’t watch the game without feeling sad. When I was on the pitch, I didn’t even realise where I was, but now I’m at home, I do. So I never really fully appreciated what I was doing."

Don’t forget…referees love football – and their jobs

Hațegan: "I love refereeing. For me, every match is the same, it’s fascinating and gives me a lot of positive emotions."

Carrington: "It can’t be underestimated, and it can’t be overstated enough how much referees love football.

"And there’s two reasons why that’s important: one, it’s actually really hard to become an elite-level referee. And two, in order to be an elite-level referee or to even climb the ladder, you have to remember that these guys are out there doing it alone, they have to train alone, there are no people necessarily there to motivate them – and let’s be honest, it’s a tough job."

Watch episode two of 'Man in the Middle' now

Catch up on episode one here