One soccer ref makes every judgement decision. Is that absurd?

In last night’s Gold Cup semi-final between Mexico and Panama, Mexico escaped with a 2-1 extra-time victory. Like many recent CONCACAF games, a few judgmental calls more or less decided the outcome. This game included an early red card to a Panama player, and a late penalty kick awarded to Mexico. See Deadspin for highlights here.

Much of the commentary after the game ripped the game’s referee, American Mark Geiger. However, I’m not quite sure Geiger’s to blame.  Specifically, while I’m not smart enough to get into the technicalities of any soccer call, I did notice that Geiger was forced to make a red call decision from at least 40 yards away. This seems absurd.

Using the dimensions from each of the fields/rinks in the NFL, NBA, NHL, and FIFA, as well as each organizations respective number of officials, I estimated the amount of square footage that each ref is responsible for. For example, three NBA referees cover 4,700 square-feet, or about 1,600 per ref.

Here’s a chart with the estimated square-footage (in thousands) covered by each ref.

Screen Shot 2015-07-23 at 12.49.16 AM

It’s no contest. A soccer referee covers about 7 times as much ground in a game as NFL and NHL ones, and about 50 times as much ground as NBA refs.

There are obviously several caveats with such a simple chart. NBA officials have to call a much larger assortment of violations than FIFA ones, and NFL plays stop and start from one spot on the field, making it easier for the group of referees to reset. Further, its silly to think that putting a half-dozen more refs out there would make soccer games more equitable. Finally, I’m obviously aware that soccer has assistant referees; from my perspective, like NHL linesmen, the role of assistant referees is secondary on the game’s most important decisions.

However, its patently absurd to blame referees for wrong calls when they are making the decisions from half the field away. Would we expect an NBA ref to assess a flagrant foul from the opposite end of the court?  Or an NFL official to whistle pass interference from the opposite sideline?

Of course not. That’d be crazy.  But it seems just as crazy to blame soccer refs for failing a test that they never had a chance to pass.

From a relative outsider’s perspective, an extra ref would yield more accurate calls and could help curtail flopping. There’s probably a good reason why soccer has only one referee, but a quick Google search didn’t help. What am I missing?

Finally, here’s Noah’s take:

I think part of it is that play is more wide open than most sports, so it’s a bit easier to spot fouls. Which always seemed like sort of a dumb argument to me (the same thing with kickoffs in the NFL) but it does make some sense. And I think they’ve tried to empower the assistants to make more calls, but there’s always a strange balance of power issue because the assistants are just assistants. so yeah, having a second ref would make sense. If anything, it’s probably a man-power issue. There are so many terrible refs already that i can’t imagine having to double that number worldwide. 

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