EURO 2010 – Refereeing and on-court atmosphere

First of all, like John Ryan, I want to express my delight over the high-quality broadcasts from Austria. Thank you, EHF, for ensuring that. One would wish that such handball propaganda would be available worldwide more often!

For me personally, it was a special experience to sit at home, like a ‘spider in a web’, having an overview of everything that was going on. During many, many years, my typical experience from World Championships amounted to ‘being stuck’ in one group, seeing the same few teams and referee couples for a week at a time. One then becomes somewhat ‘myopic’, getting an in-depth view of one segment of the overall event, but without any opportunity to make comparisons across the whole event and to spot any important trends. Indeed, despite not being on duty this time, I felt more ‘on top of things’ than ever before.

Nevertheless, I will try to tread carefully, not intervening unduly with the job of my old EHF and IHF colleagues. But apropos individual referee performances, it was especially nice to see the good progress of two younger couples, Horacek/Novotny (CZE) and Nikolic/Stojkovic (SRB). By contrast, I feel that several of the more experienced couples did nothing to strengthen their status The exceptions were Olesen/Pedersen (DEN) and Lazaar/Reveret (FRA) who confirmed their standing from 2009, and I was also happy to see that Abrahamsen/Kristiansen (NOR) had such a strong showing. Some other couples were able to use their experience to keep some games under a semblance of control and to appear reasonably even-handed, but this is not enough if questionable observations or judgments then start piling up. Finding the right mix of more experienced couples and younger, motivated couples will be a key issue for 2011. Fortunately, there are also a few couples who recently showed a good level in the women’s World Championship.

But the clearest impressions involve overall problem areas. It is a bit frustrating, but rather typical, that [u]the same old issues tend to come up[/u]. For instance, it tends to get me ‘worked up’ when I see so many unwarranted 7-meter decisions given, with the ‘excuse’ that a defender was in the goal-area. In far too many cases, these observations were simply wrong; as I have asked myself over the years, why does this have to be so difficult? And then the decisions regarding ‘offensive foul’, in those situations where an attacker tries to penetrate at the 6-meter line, at the same time as one or two defenders move laterally to close the gap. In no other area did the inconsistencies seem to be as great as in this one. Of course, the continuous struggle between pivot and defender, also when the ball is not anywhere near, continues to present difficulties. Nothing new for the referees or for my old colleagues, but the hard work needs to continue.

Editor's Note: Christer elaborates in detail on 'the same old issues' in the forum:

This leads me to what was for me the real revelation from my position of overview. One tends to focus on the strengths and weaknesses of individual couples, and their ability or inability to stay consistent during a game. But here the striking thing was the [u]clear differences in approach from one couple to another[/u], regarding style, game control, ‘tactics’, observation skills, concentration, judgment of key situations, or essentially the whole spectrum of refereeing. Each couple may have maintained some notion of consistency, but there was no ‘common line’, not a strong consistency among couples. Clearly, this must be a source of concern and problems for the teams. It should not be necessary to become surprised and have to adjust from one match to the next in this way. Here I believe is a key target for further, urgent improvements. Easier said than done, of course, but critical for the happy co-existence between teams and referees.

As regards this co-existence, for the most part the atmosphere on the court and between referees and team officials was no worse than what is normal. The number of ‘incidents’ was relatively limited, and some of those cases that did arise clearly resulted from inconsistencies between couples, as just discussed. But, as I commented in an article a couple of months ago, most of the awkward scenes involving referees and coaches were more related to [u]systematic, ‘tactical’ provocations[/u]. All of us can easily distinguish between the spontaneous and brief reactions that are fully normal and understandable, and the continuous 60-minute ‘drama’ along the sideline, with gestures and outcries before and after referee decisions. The latter is a behavior against which not enough action is taken. Coaches are smart enough to understand that such behavior is not likely to improve referee performances, but they are also ready to believe that they may occasionally succeed, more than the opponents, in causing referee mistakes in their favor.

Finally, what is also frustrating is the awareness that some teams are capable of having a subtle influence in other ways that I view as unethical. Some of the methods involve on-court ‘theater’, where some players, often the ‘stars,’ have mastered the skill of faking and provoking, ‘dying’ on the court several times during a game. The referees need to be supported strongly in their efforts, not just to avoid falling for the tricks but to punish them. But it is even worse if the influence takes place off the court, when political clout enables teams to have impact on referee nominations and/or to create an atmosphere such that everyone involved in the games, including the referees, feel the pressure.