Why football players (and referees) behave like animals, and why that’s not an insult

With almost every blow of the whistle, a referee knows that half of the players, coaches and crowd are likely to disagree with his decision. Authority on the pitch is clearly important and referees need certain qualities that allow them to deal effectively with the verbal and physical aggression they are likely to receive. According to the International Football Association Board (FIFA), football referees have full authority to enforce the laws of the game and can use their body language to show authority and help control the match (FIFA 2010). Similarly, the website of the British Football Referees’ Association (2010) states that a referee always has to “keep control [of the game], by bending his authority to encourage the flow of the game”.

But what factors could help referees to control the match and enforce their authority? Although most football fans would suggest a referee’s eyesight or his mother’s profession are the most likely explanations, we decided to take our inspiration from elsewhere. Specifically, we decided to let findings from the animal kingdom inform us, and asked whether a referee’s height made any difference to the number of fouls given, and hence the flow of a match. Why height? Studies of many animal species show that bigger males are usually the most dominant. Think, for instance, of a massive silverback gorilla dominating his entire group. In humans, this connection between body size and dominance also seems to hold true; the term ‘big man’, for instance, is used in many societies to denote an individual of both authority and importance. And indeed, taller men have higher status compared to shorter men throughout the world, including Western societies.

Tall men foul short

We extended these findings to the world of professional football refereeing (Stulp et al 2012a). In the context of both league play and an international tournament, we found that taller men were more likely to hold more prestigious refereeing positions compared to those who were shorter. Over six seasons of the French Ligue 1, the highest professional football league in France, we found that the 38 referees who officiated a match were, on average, 4 cm taller than the 64 assistant referees who participated in a subordinate, advisory role. We also observed similar patterns in the most prestigious of all football tournaments, the World Cup. We looked at data from the most recent World Cup in 2010, hosted by South Africa (not a particularly fond memory for the author, who is Dutch), where a total of 29 trios, consisting of a referee and two assistant referees, were invited to officiate during the tournament. In 26 of these trios, the referee was taller than at least one of his assistants, and in 17 trios, he was taller than both. In a pattern strikingly similar to the French Ligue, we found that referees were, on average, 4 centimeters taller than their assistants. Height clearly has a strong influence on whether an individual becomes a referee, or only makes it to an assistant position.

Showing that referees tend to be taller than their assistants is interesting, but it doesn’t answer the question of whether height actually influences a referee’s behavior on the pitch. To address this, we contacted Impire AG (www.impire.de), a company that specialises in sports statistics. They provided details from five seasons of the Bundesliga (the top German league), covering 1530 matches. As a way of assessing how well referees were able to control the match, we took the number of fouls the referee awarded during a game. We considered only those fouls that were directed toward another player, and which therefore required the referee to exercise his judgement. We did not include other rule violations, like handball or offside offences, where the ability of the referee to exert his authority is potentially much less important. In line with our predictions, we found that taller referees awarded fewer fouls during a game than shorter referees. It seems that taller referees are better able to control the game by “bending their authority”, with the result that players commit fewer fouls over the course of a game. When referees are taller, players are either more wary of committing fouls in the first place or are less inclined to retaliate when others commit a foul, or these referees choose to resolve incidents in another way (e.g. deciding to “play advantage”).

Could it be that taller referees really do just have bad eyesight, and notice fewer fouls? Unlikely. Noticing fewer fouls would indicate poor refereeing. Yet, more experienced referees also award fewer fouls, suggesting that this is, in fact, a sign of better judgment, increased competence and greater confidence in their abilities. It is also the case that both height and refereeing experience are determinants of professional success. Taller referees or those with more experience are more likely to be assigned to matches in which the stakes are high, that is, games where the visiting team is high-ranking, whereas shorter referees or those with less experience are assigned to matches in which the visiting team is lower ranking1. The effect of two extra centimeters in height was comparable to approximately one extra year of experience with respect to both the number of fouls given during a match and the rank of the visiting team.

Well-matched teams produce worse behaved matches

Ensuring that the best referees are assigned to those matches likely to be the most difficult to control is a major task. While taller (or more experienced) referees are assigned to matches in which the visiting teams are higher ranking, these aren’t necessarily the most aggressive and difficult to control. So, when would we expect most aggression? When two top teams are playing, because more is at stake? Or when a top team is playing a poor team because the poor team is outplayed, and resorts to more aggressive tactics? If so, should we then expect the most aggressive matches of all to occur between the poorest teams, because lacking the skills, they are forced to play a dirtier game?

Again, we can let the animal kingdom guide us here. Animal contests tend to be more intense and aggressive when opponents are similar in competitive or fighting ability. Sticking with our previous example, gorillas of similar size would fight longer or more aggressively than gorillas that were hugely different in size. Turning to the German Bundesliga, we predicted that matches involving more closely matched teams would show higher levels of aggression (an obvious exception to this rule are derbies, which tend to be intense and highly aggressive). Indeed, when teams were similar in rank (for example, two average ranking teams playing one another), more aggression occurred on the field, in the form of a greater number of fouls directed toward other players (Stulp et al 2012b). In contrast, when a low-ranking team was playing a high-ranking team, aggression on the field was lower. Not only did the similarity in rank between teams result in an increased number of fouls, but more cards were also handed out during these matches. As we predicted then, matches are most likely to get out of hand when the playing teams are well-matched in terms of their competitive ability. In such matches, good, authoritative refereeing would be a distinct advantage. Given our other findings on referee height, it seems reasonable to suggest that taller referees should be assigned to such games, and help keep control of the players.

Journalists everywhere like nothing better than to compare football players and fans to animals. Clearly, they are right. As we’ve shown, football players and referees indeed behave like animals, but it’s certainly no insult to say that they do.