Calling the shots

Navigating self-confidence and flaring tempers as a soccer referee


Vassili Prokopenko

Spectators and coaches can get into a mindset of invincibility, in which their words don’t have consequences, and referees are objects to boss around.

By Ian Cooper

Defenders backpedal as the soccer ball arcs above them, falling to the foot of the striker. He shoots, scores, and his teammates surround him in celebration — until I raise my flag.

I signal to the center referee that the striker had been offside — meaning the striker illegally stood behind the defense to receive the ball and score an easy goal. The referee blows his whistle, and the players abruptly turn to me, desperately pleading their case. 

“Ref, did you seriously not see that?” the player ranted. “You have to be able to do these basic jobs.”

Still, I stood by my call. 

After involvement with this sport for a decade, I first stepped onto the field as a referee in April 2022 for an under-17 club game. Over time I’ve expanded to various age groups, from groups aged ten or 11 years old to young adults aged 18 to 19. The best part of refereeing is when I’m on the field with players who share my passion for soccer, watching them hone their skills and eventually progress onto bigger fields and more competitive teams. Like players, we thrive on the exhilaration of being in the thick of a tense and competitive match between college recruits.

My soccer experience made refereeing the perfect occupation for me. It exposed me to the reality of being on the other side of calls in the game I love. However, it put me on the difficult road to developing confidence in my decisions and practicing assertiveness to earn the respect of the players and coaches.

In the most competitive matches, I struggled to be assertive, not because I lacked experience but because I underestimated the environment that often develops during games. As a player, my passion for the game led me to pick up my fair share of warnings from the referee for backtalk. I assumed that such behavior was acceptable and part of the game. 

Being on the receiving end of those complaints is a whole other story. The line between passionate play and unnecessary behavior became increasingly blurred with each game I officiated. It might start with acceptable comments, such as “that was offside,” but it can escalate into personal attacks. Spectators and coaches can get into a mindset of invincibility, in which their words don’t have consequences, and referees are objects to boss around.

Referees should not need to block out hate for simply doing their job. I can relate to the intense and overwhelming passion of playing the game and understand when players let their emotions overflow, but I don’t think that refereeing should be a profession constantly subjected to ill feelings from others. Every weekend I go out and referee, it’s a near certainty that a parent, coach or player is ready to attack my decisions and qualifications. Even after the game, coaches from teams who won by 10 goals approached me to criticize a call I made 15 minutes into the game.

What spectators don’t see is that all referees study the rules excessively, keeping in touch with the latest regulations or changes occurring each year. We want to provide the best possible experience for the players, coaches and parents. It’s easy to fall into the pit of seeing a referee’s uniform and not seeing a person or a face. But referees are still people and are deserving of respect.