Are football commentators too harsh on referees? Maybe not, new research shows

Soccer player receiving a red card from the match referee. A new study has found that football referees don't suffer as much criticism as they believe
Soccer player receiving a red card from the match referee. A new study has found that football referees don't suffer as much criticism as they believe
  • University of Portsmouth lecturer analysed live commentaries from football matches
  • Findings were surprising as there was far greater percentage of positive and neutral comments than negative
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FOOTBALL referees aren’t criticised by sports commentators as much as they think they are, according to new research.

A study carried out at the University of Portsmouth found that professional pundits don’t make as many negative comments about referees’ actions as is believed.

Dr Tom Webb

Dr Tom Webb

Dr Tom Webb, a senior lecturer in sports management and development, analysed live commentaries and post-match discussions for 20 English Premier League matches to reach the findings.

The study, Referees and the Media: A Difficult Relationship but an Unavoidable Necessity, published in Soccer & Society, showed that the amount of time spent discussing the referee during live commentaries amounted to a total of 37.5 minutes over the entire 20 matches.

And of the 267 total comments made about the referee during the matches, only 29 were judged negative.

Dr Webb said: ‘Most people will be surprised by these statistics. We analysed 20 live matches, including the post-match analysis, which is a significant amount of coverage – at least two hours of content per match.

The negative comments were minimal compared to the positive or neutral comments

Dr Tom Webb

‘The negative comments were minimal compared to the positive or neutral comments. That was really unexpected.’

Interviews with referees in previous academic studies found that match officials believed the media was responsible for much of the pressure they felt.

Dr Webb’s study found that post-match analysis was more critical of referees’ performances, but these negative comments were reserved for an error which was obvious and was thought to have affected the outcome of the game.

The sport scientist also carried out interviews with people working in sports media, and found that views about the standards and quality of Premier League refereeing were generally positive.

He said: ‘The pressure that referees find themselves under today is unprecedented. Matches tend to be determined as much on decisions about tenuous penalty kicks or marginal offside decisions as on the superior play of one team.

‘These refereeing decisions can be pivotal for a team’s prospects of winning championships, qualifying for lucrative European competitions or avoiding relegation.

‘But the pressure that referees believe they are under is not an accurate reflection of the current environment.’

Dr Webb broke down discussion during the 20 matches into four categories, with the following results:

*Neutral comments: 113 incidents (41.85 per cent)

*Positive comments: 69 incidents (25.56 per cent)

*Comments questioning the referee’s action: 59 incidents (21.85 per cent)

*Negative comments: 29 incidents (10.74 per cent)

Dr Webb said: ‘There is an acceptance that mistakes can and will be made, but that referees are trying to do their best under difficult circumstances. Comments recorded during live broadcasts also supported this.’

He believes referees’ perception of the pressure they are under can lead to errors in performance, increased tension before matches and worries about making wrong decisions.

Knowing that this perception is not borne out by the statistics could therefore help ease the pressure they feel, resulting in fewer errors on the pitch.

‘If there is to be an improvement in the relationship between referees and the media there are a number of discussions required, as well as a greater degree of understanding, particularly from those within refereeing to ensure that the reduced pressure identified here is communicated.’

By contrast, an online survey carried out by University of Portsmouth in collaboration with Loughborough and Edge Hill universities found that verbal abuse towards referees is rife.

Sixty per cent of respondents reported being verbally abused at least every couple of games.

How were the comments categorised? Dr Webb split the commentators’ judgements into four categories: neutral, positive, questioning and negative.

Neutral comments:

There were a larger number of neutral comments across the 20 live matches (113 incidents, equating to 41.85 per cent of the total comments).

Many of these comments about referee performance were neutral, factual statements such as: ‘Foul. Carroll wanted a free kick and then he got it after a foul from Chiriches.’

In these statements the commentators and pundits offered no positive, negative or questioning comments, merely stating what had occurred and the decision that had been given.

Positive comments:

The positive comments were the second largest grouping (25.56 per cent).

These comments often supported a decision given by the referee or the approach that the referee had taken in a specific situation.

For example comments such as: ‘It looks as though he was brought down, but the referee rightly waved play on’, were assigned a positive category, as the commentator or pundit supported the referee’s’ decision.


The third category was that of the commentator or pundit questioning a decision or action by the referee.

This category had 59 comments in the live matches and was 21.85 per cent of the total percentage of responses.

An example of a questioning comment was ‘ on and did that strike the hand of Oviedo? It’s hit him on the hand, I’m not sure if he is in the box, occasionally you see it given...would only have been a free kick as it was outside the box.’

The comment asks questions regarding the judgement of the referee but does not criticise the decision or comment negatively, or the action taken by the official.


The negative comment category was attributed to 29 comments across 20 live matches equating to 10.74 per cent of the total number of comments in the live matches. These comments were typically more critical than those in the ‘questioning’ category and statements such as and statements such as: ‘foul and free kick against Davies. He’s gone down a bit easy, once again Swansea fans are livid. He missed the ball and I think you should expect the referee to give a free kick in that situation’ or ‘goal kick, and we see there, the referee has got that one wrong’, were assigned to the ‘negative’ category.

These comments are openly critical of a decision that the referee has taken.