The Referees

In DVD/Blu-ray, R by Ben Winkley

There isn’t much left unknown about football, the all-conquering global sport, but referees are probably the last part of the game with an air of mystery about them.

There isn’t much left unknown about football, the all-conquering global sport, but referees are probably the last part of the game with an air of mystery about them. Most actively shun the limelight and, perversely, this silence is partly why they have become so demonised, as managers, players and fans cry out for explanations as to why such-and-such a decision was made.

The Referees, a Belgian documentary, shines a light on these contentious figures and in doing so provides a much-needed reminder that the men in black are staunchly professional, immensely proud of what they do and, above all, human.

The film follows three referees – England’s Howard Webb, Italy’s Roberto Rosetti and Spain’s Manuel Mejuto Gonzalez – as they take charge of some of the biggest games in the sport’s calendar at the 2008 European Championships. Astonishing levels of access are granted as the referees and their three-man teams are followed through their daily routines, from identikit hotels to the games themselves.

It becomes quickly apparent that the referees are themselves in a competition running parallel to the football, with the prize being the honour of taking charge of the final. The pressure is intense. A common assumption is that match officials get most of their negative feedback from spectators or the team coaches, but the biggest critics are clearly the sport’s governing body and its phalanx of clipboard-wielding match assessors primed to scrutinize every decision.

In one key sequence, Webb shrugs off online death threats made by a bilious section of Poland’s national support, but his eyes expose the frustration and hurt at the match assessor’s comments on the performance of he and his team in the same game.

There are constant reminders that these referees – these people – take immense pride in their work, and the film provides glimpses of how that work affects their families and their off-pitch lives. Webb’s father and extended family appear, as does Rosetti’s wife and her friends.

The in-match footage, with a microphone focused on the referees, reveals how much verbal interaction there is on the pitch, both among the refereeing team and between the ref and the players. There’s also an interesting cameo from veteran English referee David Elleray, a man familiar to English football fans of a certain age. There was outrage when in the late 1980s he was miked-up for a television programme that exposed how much abuse top-class refs get.

Now modern, multi-camera coverage allows every outburst and profanity to be lip-read in living rooms, but rarely is the subtle interaction between referee and player exposed as it is here.

When it comes to seeing who stays beyond the group stages, there’s no hiding place – the assessor announces the decisions are announced with all present, like a reality TV show. Unlike reality television, though, The Referees treats the viewer with intelligence and is aware that it will attract an audience that knows what’s going on without having to have to be spoon-fed.

The tricks of reality television and some of the recent spate of garlanded big-screen documentaries – nudged narratives, editoralising – are absent, and The Referees is all the better for that. Free of voice-over or commentary, the camera is pointed where the action is and lets the action speak for itself. It’s a solid piece of reportage.

It is often said that the best referees are those that pass through the game unnoticed. This is film-making from the same school.