Foreign players revolutionised the Premier League. Should refs from abroad be next?

Estimated read time 12 min read

The modern Premier League, in its self-mythology, is all about flow: the flow of the game (technically sophisticated, “end to end”, heavy on goals and improbable acts of attacking wizardry); the flow of players from country to country and club to club; the flow of managers, who have become the new football economy’s ultimate mercenaries amid a murderous churn of coaching staff hirings and firings; the flow of owners, a multiplying collection of asset strippers, money launderers, nation states grasping at global status and power, and venture capitalists out to make a quick buck; the flow of supporters, as old loyalties have loosened and allegiances have become more transactional, more revisable; and the flow, above all, of money, prodigious amounts of money, without which none of the weekly somersaulting, knee-sliding, corner-flag-slapping extravaganza of the Premier League would be possible.

Continuous movement is the league’s mantra, both on and off the pitch. Footballs, pounds, dollars, people: all of them must be kept in a constant state of motion, ready for action whenever and wherever opportunity arises. Removal of restrictions on the circulation of labor and capital has been a key part of the English top flight’s emergence as a truly international league over the past three decades. The Premier League now stands uncontested as the world’s most powerful advertisement for sporting globalization, and its journey from parochial stronghold of the English game – all mud, tackling, team spirit, and British grit – to central clearing house of the world’s footballing passions can be told in a single statistical pair. On the first weekend of the inaugural Premier League season, in 1992, there were only 13 foreign players among the 22 starting lineups; of the 533 players registered at the start of the 2023-24 season, 360 – more than two-thirds – were from outside the UK.

Frictionless, borderless, and filthily profitable, the Premier League nevertheless retains one small foothold in footballing regionalism: almost all referees in English football, even in the top flight, are English. Somewhat incongruously, a league that is now the playpen of pickpocket Scandinavian forwards, unstinting Japanese wingers, and Zara-model Spanish managers is still officiated by a proud core of homegrown referees. In theory there’s nothing wrong with this, of course. Even for those of us who watch from overseas, maintaining a sense of Englishness about the English game seems important in a world where sport is becoming flattened and globalized, where elite football leagues are losing the quirks and eccentricities that give them an identity. Squalid plans such as the dormant Super League, however much fans rightly rail against them, in all likelihood represent the future of elite club football in Europe, in which the historic distinctions between leagues will melt away and the sport will dissolve into a single, low-stakes exhibition of charmless footballing perfection. Against that backdrop, the Premier League’s persistence with its mild policy of refereeing nativism seems almost sensible, like a charmingly anachronistic nod to what’s left of English football heritage.

But this is, unfortunately, before one actually considers the work that English referees produce on a weekly basis. Fans have always moaned about referees, of course, and adjudicative howlers from English officials are a rich part of the sport’s history: who could forget Graham Poll, the only English referee at the 2006 World Cup, handing a player three yellow cards?

But things definitely seem to have become worse over the past couple of seasons, and the Premier League’s new confusion of technology and video assistants has made officiating a far greater focus of debate among fans than it was even five years ago. Suddenly, referees have joined players and managers among the sport’s main characters. For the committed fan, Anthony Taylor, Michael Oliver, Chris Kavanagh, and Simon Hooper are now names that roll off the tongue as easily as those of the biggest players, and time throughout the league season is marked as much by officiating calamities as by goals and match results. The missed penalty for André Onana’s Schumacheresque hack on Sasa Kalajdzic, the two unawarded red cards in Newcastle’s match at home to Arsenal, the farce of the video review for Luis Diaz’s disallowed goal against Spurs: the season just ended was rich in refereeing misfortune, and those examples came from only the first two months.

It hasn’t helped matters that the protocols governing the use of the VAR are so chaotically and inconsistently applied, with none of the clear in-game communication to fans that makes video review in other sports like basketball, rugby, and cricket so effective. Match officials have made things even worse for themselves by publicly litigating controversial decisions after the fact in a misguided and haphazard spirit of transparency; in the days and weeks following a refereeing clanger, we all now wait for the inevitable contribution to the discourse from Howard Webb or some suit at the PGMOL, the empty apologies and clarifications only fueling the fire of fan rage.

Clearly a big part of the problem here is about technology and communication, about the systems that have been put in place to deploy the video assistants and strike the right officiating balance between fairness and flow. But some of the blame must also lie with the personnel, with the men who hold the flags, review the tapes, and – most critically – blow the whistles. Speed, decisiveness, courage, an intolerance for continental nonsense and trickery: the qualities essential to English football’s traditional sense of itself are nowhere to be found in the canon of recent Premier League refereeing disasters, which have instead been marked by a strange mixture of pettifogging pedantry and bland, bullocking arrogance.

Could opening the Premier League to foreign officials make a difference? Is it time for the English top flight to fling open the borders to overseas pea-blowers as it has for the world’s players, managers, and owner-billionaires? This question is now under real consideration at the highest levels: when the Premier League holds its annual general meeting next week, clubs won’t only vote on the proposal to scrap VAR, they’ll also debate whether to open the competition to foreign referees. Widening the labor pool in this way would fit the Premier League’s historical trajectory, completing its journey from insularity to cosmopolitanism, from being an almost totally closed national competition to becoming a global magnet for footballing talent. (There’s the question, naturally, of what this would do to the quality of the leagues in the sending countries, which will presumably be stripped of their best and most experienced match officials, but the numbers migrating will probably be small; there are only 20 full-time professional referees in Select Group 1, the Premier League’s top officiating tier.) The international prestige and status of the English language certainly helps: English is already the default officiating language at the World Cup and in the Champions League for matches involving teams from countries that are linguistic strangers, so most top foreign referees are already fluent enough to be able to control professional football matches in English.

Clément Turpin has been praised for his refereeingView image in fullscreen

Foreignness is no guarantee, of course, of refereeing competence. The French official Clément Turpin won almost universal acclaim for the style – light-footed, unobtrusive, decisive when needed – in which he managed the first leg of the Champions league semi-final between Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. But in the return leg, the hugely experienced Polish match official Szymon Marciniak – overseer of the 2022 World Cup and 2023 Champions League finals, consistently described as the best referee in the world, a true A-lister – had a rather less impressive showing, blowing (most likely incorrectly, according to the footage) for offside and denying Bayern what would have been a spectacular late equalizer to send the tie into extra time.

The perceived quality of refereeing in any given match probably rests more on the overall quality of the spectacle than any particular incident or intervention; people loved Turpin’s performance at the Allianz Arena in part, I suspect, because the match itself was so beltingly entertaining. Every referee is fallible, regardless of nationality; the assistant ref matily blabbering through a botched video review could just as easily come with a Dutch or Italian lilt as an English one. Will ineptitude with a non-British accent make the Premier League more interesting? Will a whole new style of on-field oversight make fans any less angry at the injustices of the whistle than they already are? Could a future Michel Olivier succeed in winning the people’s love where the present Michael Oliver has failed? It seems unlikely.

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Opening the league to the very best foreign officials could make the competition sharper, quicker on its feet, clearer in its decision-making, but it would almost certainly revivify English football’s latent xenophobia at the same time – especially as the first non-British officials make their earliest mistakes. The list of prominent local footballing figures who have lamented, at one time or another, the growing influence of foreigners over the English game is impressively long: it includes some of the usual suspects like Sam Allardyce and Glenn Hoddle, but also more nominally progressive characters like Football Association CEO Mark Bullingham and England manager Gareth Southgate, who last year added his voice to the national chorus of alarm over the influx of foreigners blocking the development of domestic talent. Concerns like these were more common around two decades ago, when the English national team appeared to be in chronic decline, but they’ve become easier to dismiss as the Premier League has continued its march to global supremacy, the clubs have all grown fat off their riches, and England, no longer a big tournament punching bag, has finally begun reap the benefits of having its youth nurtured at club level by the world’s best managers.

Referees define the basic character of a league much more meaningfully than they’re often given credit for. By definition they are the enforcers of standards; by extension they’re also bulwarks of identity, the people with the power to decide whether a league will be hard tackling or soft in the challenge, lenient on simulation or tough on divers, a competition that plays on or proceeds in stops and starts. The moment a foreign referee gets something wrong, as they inevitably will, it’s not hard to see the criticism they attract shading beyond mere ref-bashing into something much darker. For a league that worked so hard to rid the English game of its most toxic historical influences, these may not be forces that the authorities will want to unleash.

On the other hand, there’s a sunnier scenario possible here, which is that foreign referees may in fact end up doing a better job than their native counterparts. How much worse could things really get? Overseas officials could supply – in very different form, of course – the kind of imaginative fizz and innovation to the task of match control that the first foreign players brought to English football’s on-field action in the dwindling years of last century. To say that there are no foreign referees in the Premier League today is incorrect: there’s one, the Australian Jarred Gillett, a former top A-League referee who began officiating in the UK after moving to Liverpool to undertake post-doctoral research. Gillett was the man at the center of one of the league’s more fascinating (and encouraging) recent experiments with technology: the “RefCam” that he wore throughout the match between Crystal Palace and Manchester United at Selhurst Park on 6 May. Full footage of the match from Gillett’s perspective has yet to be released, but the teaser that has been made public humanizes the referee – an important cultural corrective in an age where match officials are subject to such insane vitriol – and shows the thinking and game awareness needed to control a match at the highest level. RefCam offers some hope that technology, when deployed intelligently, can become an effective part of the Premier League’s future.

There’s no knowing whether Gillett himself had any input into its introduction, but the fact he was the man wearing the body camera suggests that foreign referees can play an important role in pushing the sport forward, in embracing fresh thinking and finding new solutions to the problems that keep the internet’s most angry football fans awake at night. Last December Rebecca Welch became the first woman to oversee a Premier League match. Changes in personnel can change the culture of officiating, breaking up some of the smug male laziness behind decisions like the fiasco over the Diaz goal. A new culture, in turn, can make the sport better, fairer, more inclusive, less rabid – without sacrificing the things that make the Premier League such winning entertainment. Referees, wherever they come from, can and should be part of improving the game.

In the space of just over thirty years the Premier League has gone from an era in which the players were the sport’s undisputed protagonists to one in which they’ve had to share the stage with managers and, increasingly, owners. But across Europe and especially in England, soccer is moving in a much more technical, legalistic direction. Those who master details and regulations will dominate the sport, both on and off the pitch. Amid the clatter of new technologies, new rules, new ways of visualizing and understanding the game’s possibilities, the age of the referee is upon us. Whether the celebrity officials of the future will be British or foreign is now up to the clubs that run England’s world league to decide.


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