Exclusive: Referees 'could be murdered' unless FA cracks down on abuse of officials

Exclusive: Referees 'could be murdered' unless FA cracks down on abuse of officials
Exclusive: Referees 'could be murdered' unless FA cracks down on abuse of officials

Grassroots activists fear a referee could get seriously injured or even killed amid rising concern over the treatment of match officials.

With football-related fan arrests surging inside professional football following lockdown, referees in amateur football are also reporting a concerning uptick in incidents and are urging the Football Association to introduce points deductions and lifetime bans to those who assault officials.

The FA has taken the unusual step of writing to every grassroots participant, whether coach, player or parent, to warn that ‘inappropriate’ behaviour went too far last season and that they will consider harsher sanctions.

The nature of those potential sanctions was not disclosed, prompting Ref Support UK – a charity that supports referees – to outline its own proposals and call for urgent action.

Satyam Toki, a Middlesex referee who was punched in the face by a player, was also damning about the “really weak” disciplinary system after his assailant had an initial 10-year ban reduced to five. “The people sitting in the FA obviously can’t see what is happening in real life,” Toki told Telegraph Sport.

The FA did acknowledge a significant problem in their letter to grassroots 'participants’, which was headlined ‘Enough is Enough’. It said that “for all the good that football can bring, sadly last season, at all levels of the game, there were too many examples of unacceptable behaviours that had the opposite impact”.

The letter added: “At the grassroots level, these included swearing, aggressive shouting and persistent arguing among spectators, players and officials. It is only a small minority of people that act in this way, but these individuals can spoil the game for everyone, causing children and young people to not want to play, referees and volunteers to drop out and spectators to stop supporting their team.”

The FA said that there were 1.1 “serious cases”, which include assaults or physical contact on an official, per 1,000 fixtures last season but did not provide other data. Martin Cassidy, the chief executive of Ref Support UK, stressed that many other incidents would also have gone unproven or unreported.

“The letter was sticking football on the naughty step: ‘We are going to do something but we are not going to tell you what’,” he said. “Referees are seen as fair game and, 100 per cent, it is getting worse. Time and time again I’m getting messages from people saying, ‘I’ve had enough, I’ve never had it so bad’. Nothing surprises us. The day will come when a referee is murdered. I feel that the only way the FA will make fundamental changes is when a referee is murdered.”

Ref Support wants lifetime bans for cases of assault and an emphasis on points deductions rather than fines for lesser offences. They also want abuse of a child official to be upgraded to a safeguarding issue and for wider potential sanctions for serious offences to extend to banning orders.

“If a streaker runs onto a pitch, or someone takes a flare into a ground, that person is banned from every club,” said Cassidy. “If a player headbutts a referee, he can still go and watch football.”

Middlesex FA said that "Mr Satyam Toki was contacted by the Middlesex FA Referees's Committee Chair, Chief Executive, Head of Fooball Services, Referee Development Officer, Academy Head Coach and the local Referees Association Board Member who all offered him support and help that he may require following the incident."

'The system is really weak – it gives power to people who want to do this'

Satyam Toki is a train conductor by day. At the weekend, his hobby is refereeing grassroots football matches. He does it for fitness. He does it for the social aspect. He is the first to admit that human mistakes can get made and he has come to expect the low level verbal abuse that remains endemic across English football.

What he could never have anticipated was what happened shortly after lockdown in 2020 when, in what was only a pre-friendly match, three punches were aimed at his face by a player from the Hackney-based Sporting Club de Mundial.

Toki, who was forced to abandon the match after 42 minutes, was left with a cut eye that needed medical attention but was ultimately thankful that the injuries were not more severe and that the player was restrained by team-mates and even opponents.

Satyam Toki was left with a cut eye after being punched while officiating
Satyam Toki was left with a cut eye after being punched while officiating

The shock, though, left him in tears and wondering whether he ever wanted to referee again. He did come back after several months but, despite the clear video evidence, his attacker had an initial 10-year ban reduced to five and received only a police caution. A caution does not amount to a conviction and is removed from someone’s record after six years.

“The system is really weak - that gives more power to the people who think about doing this,” says Toki.

“Physical abuse should amount to a life ban. There is no place for people like this in sport. There was no support from the local county FA. It has been taken lightly but it could have been so much worse. No one took this seriously. They need to make these rules harder.”

Toki, who is 30, has been refereeing for eight years and says that abuse has been noticeably worse since the first big national lockdown in 2020. “I want to protect other referees - unfortunately it is still happening,” he says.

The most in-depth published research into the scale of the problem was conducted before lockdown by Dr Tom Webb at the University of Portsmouth who uncovered stark differences between grassroots football in England compared to Holland and France.

In Holland, just 2.2 per cent of referees said that they experienced verbal abuse in every game or couple of games. This figure was 14.4 per cent in France but rocketed to 60 per cent when English officials were asked the exact same question in 2015.

Referees in Holland and France are also far more likely to have never received any verbal abuse (respectively 44.8 per cent and 30.3 per cent) against just six per cent of English officials who reported having never been abused. An experience of physical abuse was also highest in England at 19 per cent, compared to 16 per cent and 14.6 per cent in France and Holland respectively.

One big change at the FA is the support for a trial of body cameras on referees. This has been long suggested by Ref Support UK, whose own trials have suggested that they will not only improve behaviour by way of a deterrent and through gathering evidence, but also help referees as a learning tool for how they themselves handle incidents.

'All forms of abuse are completely unacceptable'

Cassidy said that many referees currently feel unwilling to report incidents as they often live in the same area as the perpetrator or they do not have faith that the incident will be dealt with. As well as the potential for lifetime bans in the most serious incidents, Cassidy also wants less emphasis on fines, which result in considerable revenue for the football authorities.

“Don't do a monetary punishment, particularly on the abuse of a child, but deduct points,” he said. “Say to them, ‘we will deduct six points if someone at your club is found guilty of threatening a child referee’.”

In 2017, the FA did introduce a mandatory five-year ban for anyone who assaults a match official, which can then be extended to 10 years if there are aggravating factors. It followed the threat of a strike by more than 800 referees. For physical contact or attempted physical contact, a 182-day suspension is recommended, with a minimum of 112 days.

In a statement, the FA said that it was committed to eradicating such behaviour and giving referees the “best possible” experience.

“We have been very clear that all forms of abuse, whether on or off the pitch, are completely unacceptable, and we will continue to do everything we can to stamp out this behaviour from our game,” said a spokesperson. “While it is a small minority of people that act in this way, this is still too many. This season The FA launched the new Enough is Enough campaign, making it clear that action will be taken against anyone whose behaviour is unacceptable.

"Match officials play a crucial role in creating a safe and inclusive environment for all participants. The retention of all referees is crucial, and this remains a priority as part of The FA’s wider Respect campaign."