The performances of the referees during the Euro 2020 tournament have been almost universally praised. They have contributed to an extremely exciting tournament. So instead of controversial refereeing decisions, the focus has been on the quality of the football being played and the return of supporters to stadiums.
Referees have not been routinely criticised (as is usually the case), even when a questionable decision divides pundits. For instance, the penalty awarded to England for the foul on Raheem Sterling in the semi-final against Denmark.
The games have benefited from the quality of refereeing. So much so that many, like ex-footballer Gary Lineker, have asked the Premier League to take note.
Perhaps the acceptance of the odd mistake is because there have been so few errors by referees in the first place. Perhaps this acceptance is also because the media, pundits and commentators are fundamentally pleased that the tournament is taking place at all after its postponement due to COVID-19. Maybe the refs are being given some leeway because of these factors. Nevertheless, they have been very consistent in this competition.
Improved use of VAR
Refereeing decisions at Euro 2020 have been clear and the laws of the game have been applied in the same way, no matter the referee, their country of origin or the nationality of the teams on the pitch.
Research has suggested that this is not always the case at major international tournaments. Indeed, referees at international tournaments are often criticised for not officiating in the same way, and this is usually due to the fact that national leagues and competitions are different.
Euro 2020 appears to have bucked this trend and there are a number of lessons that competitions, such as the Premier League, could take from this to assist referees moving into next season.
At Euro 2020, Video Assistant Referees (VAR) have been used much more sparingly and has been consigned to background checks of contentious incidents for the majority of the matches. A minimal number of on-pitch decisions have been overturned. The decision has to be clear and the error obvious.
This approach maintains the authority of the on-field referee. It might sound like a minor factor, but if we remember back to the last Premier League season, VAR was front and centre in a significant number of matches and poorly received by supporters, with on-field decisions overturned regularly. This arguably eroded the confidence of the on-field referees and the trust in these referees from players, supporters and the media.
VAR intervention was not always perceived as accurate and referees were asked to review the monitor at the side of the pitch more often than in Euro 2020. The infrequency of such incidents during Euro 2020 has been far less intrusive for supporters, both at the stadium and watching the matches on television.
Let it flow
For the Premier League, this lack of VAR intrusion should be a template for the future. For instance, the use of the offside lines, superimposed onto the screen to measure the body position of players to judge whether they were offside, were often criticised due to perceived inaccuracies. These decisions also took too much time to arrive in the Premier League, in Euro 2020 this has not been an issue, with decisions often made more rapidly.
It seems referees have also been instructed to let the game flow wherever possible. Consequently, matches have resulted in high numbers of goals and in high quality football, such as the matches between Croatia and Spain and France and Switzerland (both ending 3-5).
The instructions from European football’s governing body Uefa to the referees selected for the tournament have obviously been clear and therefore interpreted in the same way by all referees, no matter the match or the teams involved. It shows that VAR can be utilised and that clear and obvious errors can be dealt with and corrected – but only when absolutely necessary.
Other national leagues should take note. Not only has this approach improved the spectacle for fans, but it has meant that referees – and their decisions – are not constantly the topic of conversation. If referees have been commented upon during this tournament, it has more often than not been from a positive perspective. How refreshing would that be in the Premier League next season?