Football: Scientists prove that referees are human

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FOOTBALL REFEREES are expected to apply keen observation and cool judgement, uninfluenced by the baying of a partisan crowd. But now researchers have demonstrated that they are human like the rest of us.

An experiment in which a group of referees, coaches and semi-professional footballers were shown video recordings of a series of tackles and asked to decide whether or not to award a foul found their judgment was affected by the noise of the crowd. The finding could account in part for the well- known advantage enjoyed by teams playing at home.

Scientists at the Research Institute for Sport and Exercise Sciences in Liverpool showed video clips of 52 tackles recorded during the 1998 European Champions' League match between Lens (home) and Panathinaikos (away) to a group of 11 experienced semi-professional footballers. They were asked to assess the legality of the challenges, half with the sound up and half with it turned down.

The results showed that the two groups were in complete agreement on 27 incidents where it was clear either that a foul had been committed or that it had not. But when the legality of the challenge was not clear- cut, those who viewed it with the noise of the crowd were more likely to award a foul against an away player than those who viewed the same clip without the crowd noise.

The decisions of the group that watched with the sound turned up closely matched the actual decisions taken by the referee in the match. The group who watched without the sound more often disagreed with the referees' decisions.

Professor Alan Nevill, who led the study, said: "It was really amazing how different their choices were... They appeared to be swayed when they didn't know quite what to do. They looked for some cue or guidance and it appeared to come from the crowd in a quite significant way."

Professor Nevill, who supports Arsenal despite being based in Liverpool, said he believed top referees recognised the crowd effect, but compensated for it by sometimes being too severe on the home side. "I have no evidence for that but it is my experience. It's an impossible job being a ref. I wouldn't do it," he said.