Is ’50-50′ refereeing not what we want??

I have touched on this topic in some other context in the past, but the Gislason embarrassment (which I wrote about last week) causes me to bring it up again.  After a game where Kiel played unbelievably poorly and also were let down by their normally great goalkeeper Omeyer, coach Gislason had the nerve to wonder in public if the EHF had ordered the referees to keep Kiel out of the Final Four.  Amazingly, three weeks later there has been no EHF announcement of action taken in response to Gislason’s accusation of fraudulent behavior on the part of the EHF, with the complicity of the referees.

But it appears that a major cause for the anger was that the referees had the audacity to be neutral!  They did not follow the example of most referees in ‘home and away’ competition under the jurisdiction of the EHF, i.e., favoring the home team in a ’60-40′ fashion or something in that direction.  This past season I have watched around 75 games in the Champions League or in the other EHF Club competitions, live or on a delay basis, using the EHF-TV web casts.  So when I say that 60-40 is common and that the home team can count on at least 55-45, then I do have a basis for this statement. 

Having spent a long career in the IHF, where most events take place in one country and are decided through individual matches, I have always pondered the contrast with the many EHF events that are based on the ‘home and away’ system.   Most of the top EHF games are handled by referees who are also used in IHF events.  Yet, there is this blatant difference between refereeing that is reasonably close to 50-50 in neutral locations and refereeing that consistently tends to be 55-45 or 60-40 in favor of the home team in ‘home and away’ games.  This difference was clear when I attended the Men’s World Championship in Sweden and also saw many games from the Women’s European Championship on the internet. 

Over the years I have had many opportunities to discuss this issue with experts, including coaches, former top referees and psychologists.  We know that there are other advantages that come from being a home team:  no need for tiring travel, playing in a familiar and comfortable setting, and having the support of a sometimes fanatic home crowd.  But is it really unavoidable that a ‘refereeing bonus’ should come on top of these other, legitimate advantages?

Is the pressure so enormous in these games?  Are the referees genuinely striving very hard to offer 50-50 but fall victims to a subconscious, unintended bias that comes from the crowd pressure etc?   Is it related to the fact that the group of EHF referees that has the experience, competence and confidence to resist pressures and handle very difficult assignments is in fact quite small, smaller than what the EHF really would need for its vast competition activities?  Partly this may help explain the problem, but also the recognized top referees have problems of this kind.

Recently I wrote about the suspicion that referees knowingly try to ‘take the easy way out‘ in some game situations where they feel they can get away with this approach because chances are slim that they will be caught.  This concerned giving incorrect 7-meters when a defender is in fact standing outside the 6-meter line, not inside, when being run into by an attacker.  It also involved the temptation of allowing a goal scored after a foul that caused a player to touch the floor in the goal area before releasing the ball.  Here the correct solution would be a 7-meter, but too often a goal is given. 

Could it be that the same tendency, in a broader sense, exists in the handling of home/away games??  Is there a view that 55-45 or 60-40 is not just good ‘self-protection’ but also fully acceptable, because in the two games it comes out even?  I hope I am wrong in implying that referees may be so calculating, but I am beginning to fear that I am far too often justified in this belief.

The problem becomes acute when there are referees who are determined and able to stick to 50-50 also in ‘home and away’ games.  I know that clubs and national teams in Europe know exactly which referees they love to have when they play a difficult away game.  And by the same token, these are the referees whom they might prefer not to have at home.  My understanding is that the EHF, to some extent, try to assign referees in such a way that, for a given match-up, both matches are handled by ’50-50 couples’ or both matches are handled by referees who might be technically competent but are known to have a 55-45 or 60-40 tendency. 

Unfortunately, if the reader innocently wonders why we do not then insist that all referees stick to 50-50 so that we get consistency, I fear the answer is that this would not be realistic.  As I noted above, the number of EHF games is so huge and requires so many referees that there is little hope to get to a situation where one could rely exclusively on referees who are strong enough to live up to such an expectation.   But at least it might be a step in the right direction if the demands on the referees and, perhaps above all, the evaluation and follow-up of the referees were to be strengthened in this respect.

In the meantime, while the upcoming ‘Final Four’ may not offer an entirely neutral setting for German-Spanish match-ups, it is at least not a ‘home-away’ format.  So let us hope that the referees come with a determination to keep all the games under control and with a ’50-50′ objective.  In this regard, I am really pleased to see that Gjeding/Hansen, the solid Danish referees who were affected by the Gislason outrage, were promptly given a nomination for a game in the Final Four.   Good luck to all the couples!


Budget-conscious Swedes ‘sold’ part of the home court advantage

It has become increasingly common in recent decades that two countries join together and organize a World/European Championship.  But it is surely more unusual that the one and only organizer, in this case Sweden, more or less gives away home court advantage to one of the main rivals, Denmark.  This is what Sweden did, quite knowingly and for strictly financial/budgetary reasons, realizing that this might come back and haunt them on the court.

Malmö is located just some 20 minutes away from Copenhagen, just across the bridge.  But Sweden still had Denmark play both the preliminary round and the main round in Malmö, in front of crowds totally nominated by Danes.  And this even though Sweden knew that they would play in this group in the main round, after having started out with strong crowd support in Göteborg.  The fanatic Danes had even bought up most of the tickets for the main round in advance!

So it was really lucky for Sweden that the final match in the main round against Denmark was not a matter of managing vs failing to advance to the semi-finals;  instead it was ‘just’ a matter of avoiding France as an opponent in the semis.  Denmark won the game.  And then, can you imagine, the Danish fans had become so spoiled that they were genuinely upset and protested loudly when they realized that Sweden was finally using its privileges as organizer and the right to play the semi-final against France in the 12000-seat Malmö arena, while Denmark was ‘relegated’ to the 4000-seat arena in Kristianstad, 90 minutes further away from Copenhagen.

A frantic ticket swap effort ensued, both on the internet and outside the Malmö arena.  Danish supporters with tickets to Malmö now scrambled to find scarce tickets for their game, while peddling tickets to the Sweden semi-final in tough competition with the scalpers.  In the end, both teams really got overwhelming crowd support, but only Denmark managed to take advantage, beating Spain.

More generally, the Swedish way of organizing the event was indeed characterized by budget considerations and cost effectiveness.  Typically, the IHF and the organizer insist at the outset that “this will be the best Championship ever”.  And then the hope is that the IHF President will indeed use the key phrase ‘best ever’ in his post-event press conference.  But this time he pointedly chose a more modest label.

Certainly, the organization was not weak and error-prone.  The Swedes are experienced organizers of handball events, and they have the necessary infrastructure.  They know what it takes to put on events that are technically solid and offer all the services needed.  But the problem is that participants, especially the teams and the media, are used to being pampered in an unlimited manner, just for the sake of image and positive feedback.  Such extravagance is not the Swedish approach.

Instead the Swedes could point to having exceeded their budget estimates in all areas, including ticket sales.  And IHF could boast with a TV coverage to more countries and to larger aggregate audiences than ever before.  Of course, the number of tickets sold was not as huge as in Germany 2007 with consistently larger arenas. But the focus is more and and more on television coverage and an adaptation to ‘new media’.  The web cast coverage was a matter of special pride to the TV rights holder, UFA sports.