English Premier League Refs Face Ridiculous Pressure

One ex-ref fears the worst: an official taking his own life.

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There aren’t many jobs where you have to deal with the collective rage of tens of thousands of people at once, with routine, in-your-face abuse from individuals who may be earning more in one week than you earn in a year. Where your mistakes are endlessly analyzed on TV and social media.

Count global soccer refs among them.

The pressure on soccer referees is huge.  Former English Premier League referee Mark Halsey caused a stir this week: the British tabloid newspaper The Sun published a passage from his autobiography, in which he expressed his fear that a ref could take his own life if he does not get more help in dealing with the pressures of the job.  While the abuse of soccer referees around the world has been well-documented, Halsey is specifically concerned about refs in the pressure-cooked English Premier League.

Jeff Winter, a former high-profile Premier League referee who retired in 2004, believes that abuse towards referees has worsened over the past decade – and he largely attributes this trend to the game’s rising financial stakes. While top referees earn a salary ranging between £70-85,000 per year, Deloitte reported that Premier League soccer players earn an average of £30,000 per week. The increase in prize money for the Premier League champions has increased by 1,852% in just 20 years. Today, with so much cash potentially hinging on one match, it is little wonder that the refs suffer more abuse. “A match official giving a penalty or disallowing a goal can seriously damage the job retention prospects of team managers,” Winter says. “The fans and managers are less tolerant – perhaps that then filters down to the players who are under pressure to win at all costs.”

Tom Webb, a senior lecturer in sport and exercise science at the University of Portsmouth in England, contrasts the respect shown to match officials in rugby (Britain’s other major team sport) with that of soccer.  “There’s much less money in rugby – what that means is there’s less pressure, less riding on the results and less pressure on referees from players,” says Webb.

While the PGMOL (the group that assigns officials to English football fixtures) rightly point out that English professional referees receive robust physical and psychological support, when it comes to dealing with abuse on the pitch, Winter believes that many match officials find themselves in a catch-22 situation: “I’m fairly confident from my own experience that if the referees conducted a clean-up campaign and all the star names were being cautioned and suspended, the same people who were calling for a clean-up campaign in the media would then start complaining that people are paying money to watch the footballers – and not match officials brandishing cards,” he says.

Two referees who officiate in the Welsh leagues – 54-year-old Kevin Russell and 17-year-old Jack Mullen – both tell TIME that refereeing is not a job for the faint-hearted and that you need to have “the skin of a rhino”. Winter adds that match officials who can’t face the pressure are probably in the wrong job – but all three agree that Halsey’s warning about match officials committing suicide deserves to be taken seriously. Especially since German referee Babak Rafati was found covered in blood in the bathtub of his hotel room hours before a Bundasliga match in Nov. 2011. He had tried to take his own life after facing growing media pressure and being fearful of making mistakes. His life was saved after being rushed into intensive care – and he later confirmed that he had been suffering from depression.

“It’s all very well saying referees have got to have a strong mentality but let’s be honest – no one likes to read constant criticism in the newspaper and no one wants to have high-profile figures poking fun of them and doubting their ability on TV or any other forum,” Winter says.

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