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!


Refereeing – nothing replaces experience

Last week I wrote about the World Championship refereeing and characterized it as “fair and honest”.  I also noted that, overall, the standard was good if one takes into account that many of the referee couples did not previously have much experience from this type of event.  I have now received some feedback from acquaintances who were present in Sweden and felt that they I should have noted the inconsistency that was evident from couple to couple and also from match to match with the same couple.

I have to agree with these comments to some extent.  This kind of inconsistency was noticeable, although, as I emphasized, the teams in a match were generally treated in a very even-handed way.  To some extent, a lack of consistency (or a “clear line”) for instance in handling personal punishments can sometimes depend on a lack of clarity in the instructions received.  But here I felt that most of the concerns were related to a shortage of Championship level experience on the part of several couples.  When the pressure is on, then there is a risk that more spontaneity and reliance on sudden instincts will become apparent, as opposed to the ability to draw on years and years of experience with the same kind of situations in the same kind of atmosphere.

There is simply no easy substitute for experience.  If a referee needs to analyze and think about every situation and decision, instead of just relating it to his/her vast “archives” of game situations, there will inevitably be deviations from a clear line and instead a sense of relative inconsistency.  But this does NOT mean that the IHF policy for nominating referees is incorrect.  As I noted in my previous article, there is not much choice, as the previous generation of top referees is for the most part no longer available.  So it is a matter of making good judgments in selecting and supporting the best of a younger generation.

And it cannot be emphasized enough: it is not sufficient to make good selection decisions; these referees need a particularly strong education and nurturing to help make up for their lack of experience.  Of course, they need to be supported in their respective continents through optimal assignments as a preparation between Championships, something which particularly outside Europe is easier said than done.  But the IHF needs to see them as a group that constantly needs to be monitored and supported.  In addition to those who were in Sweden, there may be up to ten more couples who could be seen as legitimate candidates for the next Men’s World Championship in 2013.

This combined group simply must get special attention, not just through sporadic moments of observation and feedback, but through a massive and systematic follow-up effort.  While there are no shortcuts in making up for experience, this kind of close and personal monitoring will clearly contribute to increased stability and consistency.  I know from my own experience that the IHF Referee Commission has only limited resources, especially in terms of manpower.  But these resources can be supplemented, and especially used better through substantially increased financial resources.

Surely the IHF top management, including President Moustafa, will realize that the investment in the IHF Global Referee Training Program that has been so successful up to this point is just a start.  Now the continuous development of this asset must follow, without any constraints in political and financial support.  This is the only hope of having “the best of both worlds”:  young and talented referees who are suited to the fast-paced game but also trained and competent well beyond their years of experience.


New focus for the offense (and for the referees)

During many years, one of the more difficult and controversial aspects of the game has been the struggle between the pivot and the defender(s) on the 6-meter line.  The difficulties partly result from the fact that much of the struggle occurs long before the ball gets anywhere near the pivot. The pivot tries to get into a good position to receive a pass, or at least wants to disrupt the defense to make it easier for the teammates to shoot from the backcourt.  But the reliance on the this approach depends on the availability of a strong but agile pivot.

All of us can think of many such specialists over the years, but in this World Championship I was surprised to observe that very few teams really had a first-rate and effective pivot. Yes, Gille and Vori were as difficult as always to get a grip on, but Denmark, Sweden, Spain and Iceland all suffered a bit from not having outstanding pivots this time.  Among the other teams, Myrholt from Norway may have been one of the few to give his team an edge.  So this may explainwhy there were not so many scenes where the players were seen wrestling or falling to to the floor at the 6-meter line, without a clear indication of who really initiated the battle.  I am sure that the ones who were particularly greatful for this were the referees, who had been prepared to have to focus a lot on this situation.

By contrast, it seems that several teams had instead concentrated on developing a more effective attack from the wings.  I saw several absolutely superb players with very elegant and surprising moves.  Especially Denmark impressed, with at least two or three such specialists, even if none of them got on the All-Star team.  The attacks from the wing were typically facilitated by unsually fast ball movement, which caused the defense to have to move laterally and then often helped an attacker to get an amazing amount of space and a very good angle for a shot.  But many of the wing players were also real acrobats, who needed very little space to have room for a quick and surprising move from the corner.

It also seems that both the attackers and the defenders have become considerably more sophisticated in executing the wing play and the defense against it.  In the old days, the attacker wanted to get away from the defender, avoiding contact.  Now it is common that the attacker seeks a slight and quick body contact, just enough to gain some extra momentum for a spin move.  Similarly, the defenders are aware that taking a big step into the attacker, using legs or arms will always be too obvious, creating a risk for a 7-meter throw and/or a personal punishment.

But this means that the referees have a new area of difficulty.  If both players are moving towards each other for what could be seen as a ’50-50′ contact, there may be no reason for action.  But just how much body contact should the attacker be allowed to iniate without being seen as guilty of an offensive foul?  Surely it should not be allowed to make the defender lose his balance and prevent him from blocking the shot or to force him to step into the goal-area.  And the defender who now uses ‘small’ methods to have an impact on the shooter!?  A last-second minor hip movement/tackle, where arms and legs are kept demonstratively still, will have the necessary (illegal) effect, but it is awfully difficult to observe.  (Do you remember the situation where Dalibor Doder got injured against Spain.  There was no 7-meter or 2-minute suspension against , but in some strange kind of justice Doder incurred an injury…).


World Championship refereeing seen as fair and honest

Being the former President of the IHF Referee Commission, it is only natural that I received a lot of spontaneous feedback on the refereeing from old handball acquaintances during the Championship.  Of course, I also had my own observations from watching 27 games live and another 7 or 8 on television.  The feedback I received reflects what people see as the most important aspect, especially considering some bad experiences they may have had in the past.  “The referees are being completely fair and honest” is the best way of summarizing the comments I heard.

What my sources imply is that they understand that mistakes are inevitable and must be tolerated.  But as long as the mistakes come out roughly 50-50, as a sign of an unbiased and evenhanded refereeing, then there is general acceptance.  And clearly this matches my own observations.  Yes, there may have been some games where some individual mistakes may have come at a critical stage and possibly may have had an impact on the outcome.  But that is the ‘human factor’ in sports.  With so many games being decided with just a margin of just a couple of goals, also a very strong referee performance may include a critical error or two.

To some extent, I would ascribe the fair and honest refereeing to the emergence of a young new generation of referees.  As I intend to discuss in some future posting, their lack of experience may occasionally become apparent, and there may have been problems with some particular aspects of the rules interpretations in a game.  But these referees are at the beginning of what they hope to be a long career at the international top level, so they will not risk everything by being conspicuously, or even marginally, biased in their work.  They know that they have knowledgeable and alert observers keeping an eye on them, with video software available to capture and confirm any problems.

If anything, the young referees may in some instances have gone too far in instinctively deciding on the basis of their first impressions, somewhat ignoring ‘tactical’ considerations in their game management.  (I will get more into this in a separate posting).  In some other cases, they may have either been too eager to project toughness or, alternatively, a little bit lacking in courage in some situations.  But this is something totally different from bias or favoritism.

One might say that the IHF initiated a ‘youth movement’ at the elite level a number of years ago.  In part this happened out of necessity, with many older, more experienced couples retiring, and in part as a response to the increasing speed of the game requiring a stronger emphasis on fitness and agility. It may be too early to be sure, but it seems from the indications so far that the IHF can be proud of the emerging competence of the new generation of elite referees, especially their adherence to the motto of ‘honesty above all’.