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Shifting to a New Model: Accelerating the Referee Certification Process to Reach Professional Status

Back in late October 2020, Baroness Sue Campbell, the director of women’s football at the English Football Association, emphasized that there is no time frame for the introduction of full-time professional referees in the women’s game until 2024.

Since her comment, the quality of refereeing in the Women’s Super League is still being heavily criticized by players, managers, pundits, and, of course, fans. Numerous errors have been cited: from not sending a player off after the issuance of a second yellow card, to the usual complaints regarding missed or incorrect calls, or the oft used phrase, “They lost control of the game.”

As a retired USSF-certified National and Professional Referee, I want to cut through the noise. What can be done to quick-start the process of getting more women qualified as “professional” referee prospects?

Consider the following: at the 2019 World Cup in France, the FIFA List of Referees & Assistant Referees indicated that not a single English referee out of twenty-seven made the list. Furthermore, only two AR’s were included. Yet the English National Team finished as the fourth-best in the tournament. Why, then, were there no English referees at the highest level at the sport’s biggest competition? Were there no FIFA-qualified women referees in England? Why not?

On this side of the Atlantic, the NWSL has been in existence since 2013, providing a highly competitive women’s league. Certainly, the fact that USWNT players were mandated for years to play in the NWSL brought quality to the league. The NWSL also attracted some of the top players from around the world such as Little, Henry, Nadim, Sinclair, Marta, etc. Yet only one US referee and two AR’s made the 2019 World Cup list. It again begs the question: If the highest quality women’s professional games are being played in certain federations, why aren't their referees utilized on the world’s biggest tournament?

The most likely answer is that FIFA spreads the referee candidate roster over as many federations as possible. Or, perhaps referees who represent those higher-ranked member nations are held to a higher standard. The problem with either of these approaches is that you are not guaranteeing that the referees present are the “best of the best.”

This saga has continued post-World Cup. Today, the FAWSL boasts some of the world's top players: Kerr, Harder, Mewis, Bronze, Miedema, So-Yun, Eriksson, and more. Consequently, the standard of refereeing in the women’s game has been scrutinized even more - and the criticism has not diminished. Likewise, in the NWSL, players joined that worldwide chorus expressing frustration with what they saw as poor and inconsistent officiating. In an August 2019 post-game interview , Ali Krieger was scathing in her remarks about officials in the NWSL:

“… I beg the league to set the standard higher. It is just unfortunate that you feel like the referees ruin the game. They are taking the fun out of the game because the referees are just not good enough. Male, female, it does not matter. We need good referees.”

While the structures of officiating are somewhat different in England versus the United States, they are similar in providing a pathway to reach the highest level. The problem is that below the highest professional tiers in any federation, referees are literally considered amateurs. Here in the US, those who make it to the NWSL/USL level are still faced with the reality of holding other jobs outside of soccer to make a living. For referees, MLS game fees pay about five times more than NWSL/USL game fees. The average NCAA Division I soccer game also pays about twice as much as the NWSL/USL level. The stratification structure may have been different in my day, but the reality was the same: officials in the women's game today aren't considered full-time professionals.

According to Referee’s Association chairman Paul Field, the FAWSL commenced with their Referee Development Program for Women in 2017. Yet he opines that the Premier League could still be a decade away from assigning its first female referee. Bottom line: Field believes the domestic English game will continue to pay the price for “…lagging behind the continent when it comes to embracing women's football.”

Currently women face entrenched barriers to quick promotion as referees, simply because the system demands experience, which in turn requires time. US Soccer, recognizing the complexity of its former nine-grade official’s certification system, consolidated it into a five-step license program in 2019. The new pathway design has multiple aims: clarifying a referee’s journey from grassroots to the highest levels of the game, lowering the barriers of entry for anyone wishing to participate as a referee, and offering all referees more mobility and flexibility in their development. (Click this link for more info about US Soccer's referee program.)

The new pathway sounds like the perfect solution. However, as already noted, the results have not necessarily raised the level of quality at the professional level fast enough. The reason is that it still requires time for a person to upgrade their status levels, as the stipulated criteria includes a minimum number of games per stage.

Could there be a way around this? If a former semi-pro or professional player wishes to continue in soccer by becoming an official, does she really need to start at the bottom and work her way up? One must believe that she has the experience to recognize what is a foul or to understand when a player is offside. Beyond absorbing a full understanding of the rules, what a referee needs is to understand mechanics, game management skills, officials’ teamwork, etc., which only comes from match experience. Of course, these exceptions would need to be evaluated and certified; but the objective - to accelerate the expansion of the professional referee pool - can be met by a careful qualified dispensation. In other words: not everyone masters a trade at the same pace.

There is a precedent for this in another field of soccer. Professional players have bypassed coaching license grades by dint of their playing experience. I submit that FIFA & and their member federations should apply the same principle for potential referees.

To that end, the respective federations should include a fast-track pathway for those that have experience at top levels as players and/or coaching. To achieve that objective in the interim, utilize existing MLS and EPL officials in the women’s game while mentoring those that have been identified with the potential to join their ranks. Shorten the number of games stipulated, should a candidate demonstrate consistent ability to officiate in any given stage of her development. Concurrently, incentivize those that qualify by implementing a paid apprenticeship program once they have reached the semi-professional grade. It would be an adjunct to the model that already exists, thereby increasing the pool of qualified women professional officials at a faster rate. Simply put, the benefits will outweigh the cost by: (1) Reducing criticism from player / coach stakeholders, (2) Raising perceived quality of WoSo by decreasing post-game controversies over officiating errors that were detrimental to the game, and (3) The fast-tracking paid apprenticeship program will increase the development of referees to learn & apply the professional skills required as well as increasing the retention of women referees.