The referee is the umpire who must have special knowledge of the rules and regulations in association football. The media coverage and difficulty of the job of the referee has increased dramatically over the years. Under the close scrutiny of the television cameras, referees are under even greater pressure not to make mistakes. Indeed, match analysis has shown that in the 1986 World Cup, 17.4% referee decisions were apparently wrong. Similarly, in a major football tournament, 26% of offside decisions were wrong when closely examined using TV images. Referees have been shown to have to make a decision every 40 seconds at the top level.

Mental skills such as visual perception, attention, concentration, composure and decision-making are all required by referees at any level of the game. The ability to cope with the pressures of refereeing has increased in importance. As referees are required to keep up with the game they are likely to suffer from physical fatigue and this will no doubt affect mental performance and hence decision making.

Indeed, studies on the physical requirements of top-level football referees have shown them to run similar distances to professional players. For example, referees in the English Premier League ran 9.5 km and an International level referee was found to run 11.36 km. The English referees covered 47% of the distance at a jogging pace, 23% walking, 12% sprinting and 18% running backwards. The International level referee produced one high intensity action every 84 seconds.

The study on English referees demonstrated a fatigue effect where the work-rate dropped towards the end of the game. Another study on Italian 1st Division referees showed a reduction in distance run during the second half. However, the International referee did not demonstrate a drop in work-rate at the end of the game and the Italian referees actually covered more distance during the second half in high-intensity movements. The style of play of the teams may play an important role on the work-rate. A team who plays long direct passes may require greater distances to be run by the referee in order to keep up with the play.

Heart-rates of top English referees have been measured during match-play and a mean of 165 beats/min was recorded. This amounts to an aerobic loading on referees of 70-75% VO2 Max, similar to the exercise intensity of running a marathon and which is comparable to top level players. Players do however, have additional energy expenditure due to executing match skills such as tackling and dribbling and make more acute angled changes in direction. The added difficulty for the referee is that his movements are dictated by the play and unlike players (such as defenders) who can take rest periods, he is constantly moving.

From this information, training for referees should therefore be similar to that of players - endurance runs, speed and strength training and stretching. Professional referees should be training at least 3-4 times a week. If we take into account the fact that many top referees also work professionally and are often 10-15 years older than players (and undergo similar physical stresses as players when taking part in matches), we can understand the difficulty of the job.

Professional referees have to undergo regular health checks and fitness tests. Physical characteristics of top Brazilian referees have also been studied. Their average age was around 38 years old, a weight of 80.2 kg, height 180 cm and a % body fat of 19.3%. These results, apart from the age are not too dissimilar to those of professional players. Fifa has also set minimum fitness standards to evaluate speed and endurance for male international referees.

Speed test Maximal Time (s)
50m Sprint (followed by 15 min rest) 7.5
200m Sprint (followed by 15 min rest) 32.0
50m Sprint (followed by 15 min rest) 7.5
200m Sprint (followed by 15 min rest) 32.0
Endurance test Minimum distance (m)
12 minute run (Cooper test) 2700

* This information was published in 1994 and standards may have since been raised.

Finally, the referee has an important role to play in the medical supervision of the game. Basic knowledge of medical issues will help deal with injuries cause and symptoms. The referee must be able to take quick and reliable decisions when a player is injured.

Overall, this article has demonstrated that referees require good fitness levels and the physical capacity to keep up with the nature of the game as well as medical knowledge of injuries and of course, the ability to make split-second decisions which may decide the outcome of a game.

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