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Additional assistant referees – a success story

With additional assistant referees being used in the 2012/13 UEFA club competitions, Pierluigi Collina explained the reasons for the positive outcome of a four-year experiment.

An additional assistant referee watches the action at last season's UEFA Champions League final
An additional assistant referee watches the action at last season's UEFA Champions League final ©Domenic Aquilina

Additional assistant referees will continue to be deployed in this season's European club competitions – with UEFA satisfied at the progress of the system which gives match referees two additional sets of eyes to help them in their decision-making.

The UEFA chief refereeing officer Pierluigi Collina took the opportunity at UEFA's 2012/13 kick-off events in Monaco to look at the positive results of the experiment which ultimately led to football's lawmakers, the International Football Association Board (IFAB), deciding in July that additional assistant referees should become part of the Laws of the Game.

The referee, two assistants and fourth official are joined by two additional assistant referees positioned alongside each goal line, with the particular brief to watch for incidents in the penalty area. The experiment began in autumn 2008 after a green light from the IFAB to UEFA to do the tests, and the first match affected was a UEFA European Under-19 Championship qualifier between Norway and Slovenia.

Since then, close to 1,000 matches have seen additional assistant referees used, including 290 UEFA Champions League games in two seasons, 615 UEFA Europa League encounters in three seasons, three UEFA Super Cup matches and 31 games at UEFA EURO 2012.

"With football getting even faster and the players fitter, it seems that sometimes the men in black face a mission impossible," said Collina. "Two extra pairs of eyes focusing on the penalty areas are of valuable assistance to the referee, and strengthen the refereeing team in confidence and numbers, while allowing the game to flow. This is the real reason behind having two extra officials on the field of play."

The former Italian referee showed, also through the use of video examples, the reasons behind the success of additional assistant referees. "The most important result that we achieved is certainly a better assessment of incidents, particularly fouls that occurred inside and just around the penalty area, when the referee was not able to make a decision because of his position," he said. "Sometimes it is very difficult for a referee to decide when he is not in the best position to make the decision.

"Another important result we achieved in these matches is a clear reduction of incidents, particularly holding, pulling and also blocking at set pieces – so mainly at corners and free-kicks."

Collina explained that the presence of additional assistant referees is stopping a lot of fouls being committed. "Because of their presence, the number of these kind of incidents has diminished," the 52-year-old said on Friday. "If you consider that during a match we have an average of ten corners and eight free-kicks taken around the penalty area, you can instantly understand and recognise how important this presence is as a deterrent.

"We noticed that during EURO 2012, there was an increased number of goals scored from headers. This is a consequence of the diminishing of pulling and pushing which makes it is easier for an attacker to score a headed goal. We also had better control of the goal line to assess whether the ball crossed the line or not."

During UEFA EURO 2012, the decisions taken by assistant referees on offside were monitored, and underlined the value of the additional assistant referees. Some 435 decisions were made with the attacking player one metre from the offside line. "435 decisions taken – 95.9% accuracy," said Collina. "It means that we had a very small number of mistakes made by assistant referees. The assistant referee can focus their attention only on offside; they do not have to worry about what is going on in the penalty area, their main task is not to assist the referee on something going [on] in the penalty area but only to focus their attention on offside."

What can be done to improve the additional assistant referees' work? "We can achieve a higher standard of performance by the additional assistant referees as a result of increased experience and preparation of the additional assistant referee," said Collina. "Also, from the referee's point of view, they have to trust the additional assistant referee. And it could be useful in the future to think about changing the name of the additional assistant referee – because they are referees, not assistants." Collina also raised the idea of the additional assistant referees being able to make a gesture when they take a decision.

Every confederation and/or national association is free now to use additional assistant referees in their competitions, and the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) has been the first to introduce the system in its top-flight Serie A programme.