In the game of football, players, coaches, fans in the stands and teams’ managements make their marks in the success and failure of a team. Another group that has significant influence in how well a game is played is the “Men in Black.”
Over the last few years, it has become very common to read or hear complains about game officiating by the losing sides. In fact, it is now a standard mode of operations for la osing manager to question one or more calls. Rather than owning the responsibility of the failure, many point the fingers to the referees. Questionable calls by referees become more visible when calls are made for or against the two popular Tehran teams; Esteghlal and Perspolis.
This article attempts to:
• Evaluate the current state of officiating in Iran
• Provide a historical comparison by looking at the officiating level of the 1970’s Iran’s leagues
• Compare and contrast how much of what happens on the field in Iran are unique to Iran by looking at how other countries’ leagues are handling their referees issues.
For this article, several experts in the field of football officiating as well as football reporters from other countries were interviewed. All interviews took place between October 18th and October 25th of 2006. These individuals are:
• Sayed Reza Ghiassi – Chief of Referees Committee under three different IFF Presidents, most recently under Daadkan. Mr. Ghiassi refereed matches in the 1960’s, 70’s and early 80’s.
• Jafar Namdar – Chief of Referees Committee from 1970 – 1978. Mr. Namdar officiated as the main referee in two world cups and three Olympics.
• Esfandiar Baharmast – Current Director of International Referees Development in the United States. He is responsible for 500 referees of National, Major League Soccer (MS) and International levels. Mr. Baharmast began referring in the United States in 1977 and officiated two World Cups in the 1998 world cup. Last year, he held a training class in Iran.
• Dr. Parviz Sayar (surgeon) – He is a recognized expert in the field of refereeing who spent many years officiating in Germany and in Iran. Aside from practicing medicine, he is a regular and well respected commentator on referee issues.
• Vincent Okker – Sports journalist with “Voteball International” in Netherlands
• Jinseo Cho – Sports Journalist with “Korea Times” in South Korea.
The Health of the System
It is common to question the competence of a referee when he makes a bad call. On the other hand, in recent years, referees in several countries such as Vietnam, Italy, Hungry and Germany have been charged with corruption.
Syed Reza Giassi – The health of the system is of utmost importance. We monitor every referee that is in the system. If there are any questions, rumors or even an appearance of a problem, we would follow up and investigate. The integrity of the referee committee legitimizes the game.
When I was in charge, at the beginning of every season, we would review our “code of honors” with every referee. We advised referees to stay far away from the players’ agents, players, clubs and clubs managements. We told them not to interview with the press and even in private don’t say anything negative about a player or a team.
Mr. Enayat, the current head of the Referees committee, is an honest man with integrity. I personally recommended him for the job when I left my position.
Parviz Sayar – Our referees are decent humans and have great degree of integrity. I am confident that our referees’ system is not corrupt. They work hard and care.
So, Why All the Fuss and Poor Calls?
Syed Reza Ghiassis - Several factors cause the media and fans uproar against referees. First, this typically happens when a major club plays and second when the game is broadcast live and a large audience gets to watch the game. A key problem is that the players, coaches and fans don’t understand the basic rules of football. They don’t know the 17 rules of the game and as such argue about basic rules with false assumptions. Players and coaches’ arguments result in fans involvement. Fans then start insulting the referees and create a hostile environment. Additionally, I believe that some of the fans insults are organized by specific individuals.
Then, you have the young referees that are working very hard to become great in their profession but they still lack adequate experience for the big games. We need to be patient with our young referees. Many of them are educated and are engineers, medical Dr.’s and lawyers.
Jafar Namdar also believes that the system as a whole is healthy. He says:
Overall, the quality of referees in Iran is not poor and is in par with the quality of our football teams and clubs. A Referee’s job is difficult. He has to make the call in moments and seconds. During my time (1960’s and 70’s), we had amateur players, coaches and referees. Nowadays, a bad call could impact people’s pockets and hence the additional pressure on the referees.
Dr. Parviz Sayar offers a different yet an interesting observation on this topic:
In Iran, there are a lot of side issues affecting the game. There is a lot of pressure on referees. Let’s examine the recent Perspolis – Saipa match. Saeed Mozaferian is an educated person and a civil engineer. He manages a firm where many other engineers working for him. He is young, brave and not affected by any group or organization. Mr. Mozaferian will also be one of our best Iranian and Asian referees in years to come. This year, his name was refereed to FIFA as an International Referee.
In the match between Perspolis and Saipa, he called two correct penalties. I agree that he had a few mistakes but overall he whistled a good match. Last year, in IPL, he called 11 matches and his rating of 8.4 qualified him as a very good referee. Perspolis – Saipa match was a sensitive game for him to call because it was a match involving Perspolis, in Azadi, in front of a big crowd, and the game was also live on TV.
After the game, the press unjustly “stepped all over him.” Our newspapers are biased. Those who promote Perspolis or Esteghlal take harsh positions against the referees when their teams are defeated. Interestingly, you have a player in Perspolis who missed many “sure chances” and the same press left him alone, didn’t hold him responsible and went after the referee.
On the stands, things were worse. You have 50,000 fans simply chant all kinds of family insults, against referee’s parent, wife and children. This is wrong.
Then, our “Discipline Committee” and it’s head, Mr. Shah Hosseini properly punished Perspolis and Esteghlal for the fans’ behavior stating that they have to each play a game with no fans. Unfortunately, IFF that needs to ensure the independence of the process stepped in and forgave both teams’ fans.
Do you realize what the consequence was? In the match between Esteghlal and Rahahan, BLUES fans insulted the referee as bad as the Perspolis fans did.
According to Jinseo Cho, In South Korea, the situation is not much better:
Refereeing has been a persistent problem in South Korea's K-League. There have been many accounts that coaches and players have openly argued with referees. The two bad habits of Korean referees are:
• Once they make an unfavorable decision against one team (for example, a red card on a player), then they tend to make it up with another call later on.
• They blow whistle too often when it is not needed.
Another big issue is that referees don't get the respect from players and fans in South Korea as referees in Europe do.
According to Vincent Okker, in Netherlands the story is the same. He stated: Every weekend teams complain about referees who were inconsistent and unfair. 99 percent of these complains are from the teams that lost. Yet, the situation is not as extreme in some other countries.
Where Do They Come From?
Different countries have different programs to recruit and train their referees. Without a doubt, the system in the U.S. is one of the most amazing ones. Let’s review how Esfandiar Baharmast describes the elaborative process in the United of States:
There are 140,000 referees in the U.S. system. These people engage with the referee programs when they are 13-15 years old. At that age group, they are allowed to call the U13 games.
Eventually, they get to the State level. We monitor them throughout their career, assign points to them and evaluate their work constantly. Points are awarded based on the number of games they officiate, points earned in matches and their physical fitness.
The more promising referees are then invited to “Referee Academies” in conjunction with U17 tournaments. The most important U17 tournament is “Disney Tournament” in Orlando, FL. Teams from Real of Madrid, Netherlands and other countries participate in this tournament and referees between the ages of 19 and 26 officiate these games.
Next, the referees enter the national Level. Better ones get invited to the “Dallas Cup” (U19). Usually, Brazil, Real Madrid, Manchester United and teams from other countries send their U19 teams. Our promising national referees call these games.
Then, the better referees get to call 3rd and 2nd division matches. The better ones call MLS preseason games and finally the best work in MLS.
Syed Reza Ghiassi explains how the system in Iran finds the referees:
Every province in Iran has a “Referee Committee.” The head of these committees are our eyes and ears in those locations and recommend promising referees. We send observers to the local matches and rate these referees.
The better ones then would make it to call lower division matches before the best of them make it to Iran’s Persian Gulf League. When I was in charge, we always held classes for the referees prior to the start of the season. Last year, we had 18 referees that worked in the Premier League. Of them, there were 10 – 12 that had the confidence to call any game and we had another 6 that were used for “easier” matches.
In the old days, a similar process was used to recruit Iranian referees. Jafar Namdar explains the same “Referee Committees” concept in every province and then adds:
We held training classes in provinces and cities all the time. Back then we had 12 National referees. In our weekly conference calls, somewhere around 50 – 60 referees would attend. In today’s Iran, it is not easy to officiate. While players and coaches have turned pro, our referees are still making very little money. Despite all these pressures, these referees do fine. We have to keep the side issues away from the game and have to allow the referee organization to stay independent.
Are They Independent?
Syed Reza Ghaissi – During my times as the head of the committee, we were truly independent. No one from the federation ever asked us to do any favors for any team or player. When the new federation came to power, because I knew that Mr. Mostafavi (interim IFF chief) would involve himself in every aspect of the game, I chose to resign. I then recommended the current referee president, Mr. Enayat, whom I respect greatly.
Jafar Namdar also believes his committees were independent in his days. He says:
We were in charge of all aspects of our work. That was a very important factor in the health of the game.
Syed Reza Ghiassi – We need to provide regular trainings for our referees and we need to bring the very best as instructors. Last year, when Mr. Baharmast was brought over, we received tremendous benefits from his experience and knowledge. The fact that he also spoke our language helped us that much more.
Dr. Parviz Sayar – Our referees need to receive proper trainings. They need to be able to speak a major language other than Farsi. They need to watch crucial European matches and observe how referees call those games. They need to read books in other languages and translate them for others to read. They need to be fully fit.
Additionally, the Referee Committee should have a very good relationship with Asian Football Confederation and FIFA.
Becoming “International Referee”
Syed Reza Ghiassi – Every year, the Referee Committee nominates referees to Asia and FIFA as international referees. Iran has nominated the following as international candidates:
- 10 main referees
- 10 side referees
- 4 Futsal referees
- 4 Beach Football referees
Asian Football Confederation has come up with a new scaling system and as such last year recognized 7 of our referees as international referees. We judge our referees based on “evaluation points” they receive from the matches they call, results of written exams, ability to speak English, physical fitness tests, ability to work with the Referee Committee and personal character.
Esfandiar Baharmast – We don’t always nominate as many candidates as we are allowed. Sometimes we nominate 6, 7 or 8 people. This year we only nominated 6 referees. Our logic is that we leave some spots open so that next year if we have promising referees, we could nominate them. Imagine if we fill our spots with all 29 – 31 years old candidates, then for years to come, great prospects could not be promoted.
Jafar Namdar books Soceroo Ray Richards for time-wasting over a free kick during the Australia-Chilie game in 1974 World Cup
Ah, The Perspolis vs. Esteghlal Factor
It is a common practice these days for the two darby matches of Perspolis and Esteghlal, foreign referees are brought over.
Syed Reza Ghiassi: Earlier in my years as the head of the referee committee, for six times I used Iranian referees for this important match. That was not the case last few years and can not be the case these days. There are so many emotions, “side issues” and pressure involved that even I would bring foreigners.
Jafar Namadar provides a glimpse to the past on this topic: Back in 1970’s, we also brought foreign referees for this particular match. In those days, we coordinated so that the referee would come to call a game for 1 day and then hold training classes for several days subsequent to that.
We need to bypass Asia and bring highly qualified European referees for such matches.
Jinseo Cho - In Korea, we are very sensitive about our big matches. Every year, the K-League invites German referees from Bundesliga for a few games, so that they could set examples for our domestic referees as well as conduct training sessions.
You Don’t Get Rich Being a Referee
Syed Reza Ghiassi - Last year, main referees were paid 100,000 Tomans (about $110) per game. At the end of the season, I recommended a 30% raise that was approved. At the moment, Iranian referees are paid 130,000 Tomans a match ($141).
Jafar Namdar – In our days, we paid each main referee 100 Tomans (around $13) per match.
Esfandiar Baharmast - In the USA, the top 5 referees get $850 per match. The bottom 5 referees receive $450 per match.
By comparison, Korean referees have it the best.
Jinseo Cho - Every year, K-League sign contracts with referees. Their annual salary defers for each referee, depending on their performances and experiences. It is known that the salary ranges from 20 million won to 50 million won ($20,000 - $50,000).
Vincent Okker – Netherlands has no professional referees. They are all part timers. Interestingly, at Euro2004 and the World Cup 2006 there were no Dutch referees..
Refereeing a match is about “moments” and “seconds.” A good call or a bad call could potentially change the outcome of a match. While it is true that in Vietnam, Italy, Germany, Brazil, Ecuador and a few other places referee scandals have impacted the health of “The Game”, in Iran, scandals have not been the core of referees’ issues. It is mostly youth and inexperience that has caused most controversies. Jafar Namdar made an interesting observation about why there are so many complains in today’s football in comparison in 1960’s and 1970’s. He said:
“Back in 60’s and 70’s, players were amateurs and so were the referees. We were on the field for the love of the game and getting recognition. Today, one bad call or a poor play impacts the pockets of many including the players and club management. As a result, when your team loses, you have to point the finger at someone.”
If we agree that referees in general are “not bought” and true to their professional, we have to assume then that most errors during games come from poor positioning, inexperience, insufficient training and being simply human. Unfortunately for the referees, their mistakes are shown over and over on the TV screens, scoreboards. Then, the whole country gets to watch these mistakes every Monday night in the “90 Program.”
Insults and chants of anger by fans in one hand and the apparent lack of respect toward the referees by players that at times includes threats toward the referees on the other hand are as guilty as any other factor in creating a crisis within the referee community. There is no one solution but the common theme is that continued training programs for the referees combined with tough disciplinary measures against teams and players whose behaviors contribute to the stadium rudeness would be the initial “baby steps” in the path to improvement.
Of the 100 calls and another 100 a referee wouldn’t call in a game, only the few bad ones are remembered. It is not fair but that is the nature of the game. Referees need to be sharp, trained, confident, brave and have thick skin to survive today’s football matches in Iran.
Acknowledgements – My thanks to all interviewees with their generous times. I also like to thank Kazem Ghiassi who helped in introducing me to Syed Reza Ghiassi.