21 August 2017 – With South African Football Association (SAFA) referee, Christopher Harrison, being invited to the prestigious CAF Referees Young Talents Workshop recently, the importance of proper match official development has indeed been highlighted and at the same time makes the body extremely proud.

Only referees who have proven to display a sound knowledge of the laws of the game and show sheer consistency, fitness and the overall highest standards of officiating, are recognised and invited to such events.

SAFA prides itself on producing only the best developed talent when it comes to match officiating and has a solid history of officials who have made it all the way to the top and participated in FIFA World Cups.

Match officiating is at the heart of every single football match, at every single level of the game. Without professional referees and their assistants there will be mass interpretation of the laws, rule breaking, cheating and to put it bluntly, sheer and utter chaos, both on and off the pitch.

However, what is the key to unearthing, developing and honing such talents, not just locally but with regards to the world game as a whole? What are the key factors and variables that go in to such projects, to ensure a healthy state of football in general?

A commitment to referee education has become a priority, from the highest of echelons down to national and local bodies too. Referees are licensed and trained by all national organisations that are members of FIFA, such as South Africa itself. Each national organisation recommends its top officials to FIFA to have the additional honour of being included on the International Referees List.

In essence, it is up to the national bodies to train, professionally develop and produce referees of the highest quality. The onus is upon such bodies to outline the relevant training programs and classifications of referees, assessors and instructors.

In South African terms, SAFA takes this extremely seriously. The SAFA Referees Programme is an internally controlled and supervised programme whose main objective is to develop South African referees to the highest possible level, locally and internationally.

As part of its Vision 2022 plan, SAFA has streamlined its governance structures, combining several Standing Committees into clusters to ensure better coordination and oversight of its programmes. The National Referees Committee (NRC) is part of the football and technical cluster of committees and includes the SAFA Technical Committee and the SAFA Medical Committee.

Some key strategic objectives include: development of officials to function at the highest levels of the game, training and development for all levels of the game and the appointment of referees for FIFA sanctioned games.

There are a number of sub-projects that also play a vital role in overall development. Such projects consist of female referee development, retraining, youth development and fitness. Such initiatives are extremely important in ensuring consistent production of officials, the highest standards of training, a diverse and inclusive mix of referees, an upgrading of necessary skills and updated laws and ensuring the highest standards of fitness that meet international requirements.

Such programs and systems inherently mirror international ones in providing quality assurance and performance reviews to ensure constant improvement, reward consistency and even the disciplining of non-performers. Match reviews (video clips of matches to analyse key incidents) and inspections, also come into play here.

In general terms, referees need to be given superior and invaluable advice in technical and instructional sessions/tests, in order to aid improvement.  A significant test that referees undertake with UEFA for example, is a test of the Laws of the Game. “We think that this test is particularly important for the new referees at the introductory course because it’s the first time that we have met them, and they’re the custodians of the Laws of the Game on the field, so they have to know what they’re doing,” stated UEFA referee officer Dallas Howard, at the 23rd UEFA Advanced Course for Top Referees and 24th UEFA Introductory Course for International Referees.

Simply put, all of the points mentioned above play a massive collated role in the development of match officials in football. National bodies need to ensure that all such aspects are taken into account when training and developing match officials, all for the benefit of the beautiful game. All we want is for the correct decisions to be made on the pitch. The referee must simply not be the individual responsible for the outcome of a match. Currently, South Africa via SAFA’s intricate, expertly designed and revolutionary referee system, is a shining light and perfect example of exactly how this needs to be achieved. In future, unique scientific methods also need to be employed in referee development. SAFA are most definitely on the right track in this regard.

By Dhirshan Gobind