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European football faces a referee shortage. Who's to blame?

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Late last August, UEFA head of referees Roberto Rosetti stood in front of a PowerPoint presentation and made an impassioned simple plea: "We need referees!"

He pointed out that roughly one in seven registered match officials quit the game every year and that while football is booming around Europe, with increasing numbers of teams and leagues both in the men's and women's game, the pool of match officials isn't keeping up. Across UEFA's 55 member associations, they're about 40,000 referees short.

"It's a vocational crisis," he said, using a terminology most often associated with young people not opting to join the clergy. Rosetti is a former FIFA referee who today is the high priest of European match officials, charged with (among other things) leading the selection and assignment of referees in the Champions League and Euros. It stands to reason that he'd speak in quasi-religious terms because, let's face it: officiating is a calling.

This is a challenge faced by football associations around the world, and one of the problems identified by Rosetti is the abuse that referees encounter. He doesn't mean at the senior level -- officials in their 40s, who've been taking it for the past 25 years and have made a career out of refereeing, have evidently made peace with it -- he means further down, at the grassroots level. He means situations were 14-year-old boys arrive to officiate youth teams -- and do it on their own, too, because there are no assistants at that level, let alone fourth officials and VARs -- and get insulted and spat at by their peers on the pitch and the parents on the sideline. Where 16-year-old girls get chased around the pitch by furious coaches. Where a 22-year-old referee in amateur football gets violently attacked by adults, is hit on the head and has to flee. (In case you were wondering, two of the players who attacked him received bans of five years and three years respectively.)

Obviously violent assault is a criminal matter. But the verbal and social media abuse -- especially when you're out there on your own and it's coming often from folks older than you -- is enough that many young, would-be match officials might say "screw this, I'm going back to TikTok." The ones who stick around and work their way through the system may be built of sterner stuff, or they love refereeing so much they'll put up with anything. (A tiny minority, though I'm sure Rosetti would disagree, may enjoy the abuse.) But the point stands: Why is this happening, and what can we do about it?

Earlier this year, Rosetti met with referee representatives from across Europe. One of the conclusions they reached is that some of the bad behaviour to which refs are subjected at grassroots level is a consequence of how they see elite referees treated on TV. Players surrounding match officials, getting in their faces, coaches on the sideline ranting and coming out of their technical area -- that sort of stuff. And that's part of the reason there has been a crackdown on dissent in the Premier League, Serie A and elsewhere across Europe.

Source: ESPN

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