Pitchside Europe

Can a European ‘ref-swap’ concept work?

Italian publication Il Tempo put forth an interesting suggestion on Saturday ahead of the huge Serie A table-topping clash between Juventus and Roma in Turin on January 5.

You see, much like with the Premier League (and every other major European division), there are looming fears that the selection of referee for such a high-stakes fixture could prove critical.

Il Tempo have suggested that all four of the regular Serie A officials in contention for this big gig, while very good at their jobs for the most part, run the risk of bringing too much ‘baggage’ – too many external factors – into what could prove a title-deciding game at the start of 2014.

Instead, they have pitched that England’s own Howard Webb be drafted in for Juve-Roma.

And it’s not impossible, either. The Premier League finishes its festive congestion with a complete matchday round on New Year’s Day, takes a break for the third round of the FA Cup before returning on January 11.

The real question is: Would such a concept really improve and protect key games in a domestic calendar?

If the answer is even as positive as a ‘maybe’, perhaps we should consider it on a wider, more permanent scale before rallying behind it.

Imagine a footballing continent where, for perhaps a dozen fixtures per season, a top European league would be able to ‘borrow’ a high-ranking official from the network of foreign counterparts. Such deals would be quid pro quo; Italy can have a leading Spanish ref for a huge game in April if they send one of theirs to La Liga for, say, El Clasico.

In such a trade, both divisions would have a relatively-routine run of games on the weekend they are outsourcing an official, and could afford to give another country’s big match a more neutral judge.

Great idea, right? Brendan Rodgers would surely agree, after his ill-advised implications following the Liverpool defeat at Manchester City.

We’re still not sure if the Il Tempo-inspired concept, while novel in theory, would actually prove a hit in practice.

For example, foreign appointments are the done thing for Champions League and Europa League games – but while complaints about officiating are much less common in European competitions, they certainly still exist.

So we’re simply going to fire over three key pros, and three major cons to a potential future ‘network of European officials’. Feel free to list a few of your own, plus your thoughts on the idea as a whole, in the comments section below.

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THREE ARGUMENTS FOR REF-SWAPPING

Immunity to outside factors: Okay, so the belief of many diehard fans after a huge game that a referee may favour one side, or is influenced by things such as the crowd atmosphere, is usually a load of bull. But it remains safe to say that referees from overseas who are completely ignorant to the many nuances of the North London derby would definitely find it easier treating their weekly assignment as exactly what it is – just a job.

Broadens horizons of international standards: To become a top domestic official, there are stylistic aspects of the game exclusive to each country you must be familiar enough with. This means referees for Champions League, World Cup etc. ties have to adapt well to various styles. Something like a European network of officials would increase their experiences, and surely make them better referees going forward.

Less natter, more action: Surely the top ‘con’ of this idea is having a referee who doesn’t speak the same language as the players? Well, no. Creating a language barrier could actually hinder teams’ attempts to argue decisions, instead of accepting that those decisions are final. Officials have a whistle, flags and a set of very clear hand signals. Assuming they bring a team of native assistants with them, it’s all they should need. Works well enough at World Cups etc.

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THREE ARGUMENTS AGAINST REF-SWAPPING

Undermines other refs: It probably isn’t healthy for the majority of domestic officials to have the big games outsourced. Fans and clubs alike may disagree, as they search for the decisions that are fair for (read: in favour of) their side. But imagine working your way up to almost the very top of your own profession, only to be denied the chance to sink or swim on the biggest stage because a few predecessors did a bit of a shaky job. Would you consider that fair?

Style clashes: This one is pretty much the ‘mirror universe’ argumental doppelganger of Pro #2. Yes, referees would be picking up skills by learning the ways of different leagues, but omelettes and breaking eggs, and all that. This ref-swap concept isn’t a scenario that can really afford wrinkles to iron out along the way – it would have to improve the game from the off.

Different ref, same scapegoat: With all due respect, John Q. Footiefan reading this feature, you’re going to blame the referee and call him all sorts of horrible names whenever your team loses a match, anyway. English, Italian, Spanish, German, Turkish, Macedonian or Venezuelan: A referee will always be an evil/useless so-and-so, if some cabbie or warehouse supervisor doesn’t have water-cooler bragging rights on Monday morning.

Liam Happe | Follow on Twitter