“I will never go back to refereeing”: Is there a culture of abuse in grassroots football?

There is one job in football that many supporters, myself included, would never even entertain the thought of taking on.

Away from the camaraderie, the glamour, and the adoration of the fans that players and coaches enjoy, the man with the whistle stands mostly on his own and rarely receives more positive acknowledgement for his job than a mention on the back page of the matchday programme.

Often described as the loneliest job in the game, the role of the referee is vital to the sport; without them, no competitive matches would be possible, and playing football would be restricted to having a kick-about in the park with your mates. However, the abuse they receive on a weekly basis is completely disrespectful of this fact.

The professional game has seen referees throw in the towel prematurely purely due to the sickening abuse piled onto them from supporters. Take former UEFA ref Anders Frisk, who retired in 2005 after receiving death threats following the infamous Champions League tie between Chelsea and Barcelona, fearing for his family’s safety.

However, the issue is not just limited to the elite. Abuse aimed at officials in grassroots and youth football is also incredibly common. According to a BBC report in 2015, research carried out by three UK universities revealed that two-thirds of referees in England regularly experience verbal attacks during matches.

Just go to any local ground on a Sunday morning; whether it’s adult Sunday league or youth football, you will be lucky to last ten minutes without hearing the match officials – often as young as 14 or 15 – subjected to obscenities by players and spectators alike.

“Parents were the worst,” said Oli Boucher, a qualified referee who spent the 2013/14 season officiating youth football in Cornwall. “I’ve been called a whole manner of things by parents, being a child myself.”

Oli was 15 years of age when he donned the black shirt for the first time, but gave up after just a year due to a culture of torrid abuse he found himself subjected to during almost every outing. And although he accepted that criticism of decisions is warranted in its own right, some of the behaviour he was experiencing was far from just scrutinisation.

“It was mostly criticism of the judgements I’ve made, which was fair, typical swearing from the players never bothered me. I had one football coach, at East Cornwall under-14, who made me feel so shit that I reported him. His behaviour was disgusting and set a bad example to his players.

“It varied game by game but you always had abuse in one way or another. The coach knew my age, but treated me like a seasoned professional. He blamed me for his side losing and for ruining his team’s season and that I should be ashamed of myself. It got to me, but thinking back, I really couldn’t have cared about his team’s feelings whatsoever.”

Each match day started to become more of a chore than the last, and the pressure on his mental health eventually began to take its toll.

“That’s why I left and I was glad that I did. It was a learning curve but as I said, it affected me at a young age. I will never go back to refereeing, because it drags you down.

“When I was a referee the system was ridiculous. I had very little support. I was thrown straight into it without any guidance whatsoever.”

There are thousands of young referees across the country just like Oli who have stopped officiating for similar reasons. Lee Markwick, Welfare, Representation and Partnerships Officer at the Referees’ Association, knows well that mental health problems can often lead to budding refs hanging up their boots.

“We lose a lot of referees every year, and we know from our evidence when we ask our members – especially those under 18 – why they gave up refereeing, they say it’s because of the abuse.”

Lee’s job is to support the mental welfare of amateur referees who are affected by abuse – verbal and physical – by offering advice and directing those in need to appropriate psychological support services. However, he points out that the effects are rarely confined to just the individual referee. In many cases, their families and relatives can also be profoundly impacted.

“What we often forget about is there are other victims involved,” he said. “Let’s say an under-18 referee goes home and says to their mum and dad that he or she is very upset. That parent or guardian will take on that stress as well, so they get affected by what’s happened.”

“We have had referees that have been physically assaulted, and they go home and they’ve got a black eye or a broken nose. When they walk in the door, their partner or their children see that. I think people often forget those other victims so we support them as well.”

Physical abuse, while less common than verbal abuse, is perhaps more prevalent in the grassroots game than most people might think. The BBC reported in 2018 that a Sunday league goalkeeper from Norfolk had been sentenced to almost two years behind bars after rendering a match official unconscious when his team conceded a penalty. In a few extreme cases, referees have even been killed, such as in the case of Ricardo Portillo; his tragic death in 2013 was reported by CNN after he was attacked by a teenage player during a ‘recreational soccer league’ match in the United States.

The threat of physical abuse appears to be more common than actual physical abuse, though, as detailed by Alex Nicolaou, an active referee in the London area who mostly officiates youth matches.

“I would say that the threats are the worst. I remember once a parent told me to “be careful after the game” during the half time break. I had to inform the coaches and luckily he was forced to leave the match altogether,” he recalled.

“Parents and coaches tend to get more heated than players and often there are instances where threats are made. If this does happen, you have to report something like this as it doesn’t set a good example for the kids playing.”

Like Oli, Alex finds himself regularly subjected to attacks from parents, coaches and spectators, but learned to deal with the effects of verbal abuse through improving mental resilience.

“Once you begin refereeing it is a very nervy feeling and you won’t forget the first few instances of abuse. However, if you learn to block out most of it and disregard it as the heat of the moment, it won’t get to you. I think that’s the issue with a lot of referees not lasting more than their first few games, the initial shock of being on the end of so much abuse.

“I have never considered quitting as, at the end of the day, it’s income for doing something I like. However, I know referees who have quit as a result of getting abuse every Sunday morning and I don’t blame them one bit.”

He believes that young referees should be taught how to block out abuse, conceding that whatever is done to combat the issue, it will always remain.

“First and foremost, there needs to be a lesson on how to deal with certain types of abuse when learning to become a referee. Luckily I have never been on the receiving end of physical abuse and it is obvious to abandon the game when that happens, but you are not prepared for an instance like this.

“There should be a realisation that these things do in fact happen on a weekly basis, so you should be taught and prepared to know what to do if it does occur.”

Meanwhile, Oli would also like to see football learn from other popular sports, such as rugby, in terms of showing respect to match officials. Another preference going forward would be for young referees to have access to specific support officers, as he feels this would have helped him during his time in the game.

“Take rugby for example. The referees are respected, their judgments are scrutinised which is fair but the level of respect is leaps and bounds above football. Grassroots football won’t change soon; I don’t think it is bound by the same ideologies as the professional game that abuse is unacceptable.”

“Younger referees need a mentor to help them with any issues faced in the game. There is going to be abuse, you can’t stop that, but for younger referees there needs to be someone to discuss things with when it gets too much.”

Despite the attempts of the Football Association (FA) to stamp out abuse towards match officials with its ‘Respect’ campaign, which launched in 2008, it is clear that the issue remains deeply rooted into the culture of football, especially at grassroots level. The mental health of referees can be, and often is, affected negatively by this, with many choosing to retire prematurely as a result.

So next time you’re watching your local side or your child’s school game, and a throw-in that appears marginal is awarded to the opposition, or a last-minute winner is chalked off for offside – please spare a thought in your mind for referees like Alex, who accepts abuse as part of his sport, and Oli, for whom it became too much to handle, before opening your mouth.

Leave a Comment