“Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come” — Victor Hugo


South African football supporters complain bitterly about the non-improving national football referee skills, and they continue to do so at an increased crescendo.  The South African Football Association (SAFA) has done little to nothing to improve the part-time amateur referees’ lot. Specifically, the attention to PSYCHO-SOCIAL variables in attaining & striving for professionally competent and complete elite referees are severely lacking, and continue to lack.

The “Complete Elite Referee” can be defined as an individual who has achieved optimal balance between technical (20-30%) and the psycho-social (70-80%) dynamics.

Technical Variables (20-30%):

(1) Knowledge of the Laws – textbook knowledge;
(2) Interpretation of the Laws – differentiation between the letter & spirit of the Laws;
(3) Application of the Laws – possession of natural affinity for the job;
(4) Physical fitness – athletic ability of meeting/surpassing the physical demands of the job.

Over the years, SAFA spent 95%+ effort in trying to improve the above variables while hardly recognizing or improving the skill-set of the following major factors to attain the ‘Complete Elite Referee.’

Psycho-social variables  (70-80%)

(1) Confidence & self-esteem – able to stand proud under intense public/ media scrutiny and criticism.
(2) Honesty & integrity – impeccable track record of non–allegiance and strong principles of professional independence of thought.
(3) Man-management skills – able to deal with deviant behaviour without relying always on the Laws of the Game but on people skills as well.
(4) Stable social life — individuals able to form and sustain social relations both within a family and society at large.
(5) Stress management – able to shut out personal challenges & maintain focus.
(6) Pressure management – able to withstand and cope with media/player/spectator and other external influences.
(7) Ability to work within a team.
(8) Personality – instilling trust and confidence in colleagues.
(9) Professionalism while on duty – upholding the correct image of the officiating code.
(10) Train-ability – the referee must be amenable to development advice.

As clearly shown, not only are the psycho-social variables more numerous than technical abilities, but they also speak to higher order demands on the psychological and social entity of the aspiring Elite Referee.

Demonstrably as legio examples will show,  a referee who has no or little synergy between the above two sets of variables simply cannot handle the rigors of top level competitive football.

To continued bewilderment, SAFA as custodian of referee development,  concentrates for years now on the first set of variables, to the exclusion of the second set of dynamics.

Zero synergy between these sets of dynamics also results that most South African referees will lack — and continue to lack — top level referee skills in the foreseeable future. What to do? The solution is utterly simple:

(1) Improve and concentrate also on the 2nd set of major variables, skills and attributes of aspiring Elite Referees.

Polishing at most 30% of attributes influencing referee skill is — and continue to be — a recipe for disaster and disaster management.

(2) Ask the referees what they want and implement their solutions to their voiced problems! 

Stands to reason you would think, not? Alas!

If the above ‘referee  policy’ extract seems familiar to some, let it be known that it was, as integral part of a referee policy concept document presented to SAFA. As far back as 2007, from concerned National Referees Panel members and their then representatives, to SAFA’s National Referee Committee (NRC). With no result.


An objective analysis of how various administrators in this country handled refereeing affairs reveals a stark contrast between their school of thought and the exposition of the Complete Referee above.

Furthermore, the pressure that comes from societal expectations of a referee who “appears on TV” may inhibit adequate performance for a referee who, given South Africa’s specific socio-economic background, happens to be struggling financially. Or whom stays in an informal settlement dwelling that belies his status as a local “celebrity.”

This is an aspect directly linked to the psychological variable of self-esteem. Simply put, a happy and content referee will give the best performance. A referee will be content when he is made part of the process that dictates his career path; when he is a meaningful participant in all related referee fraternity activities.

It is common knowledge — and the author’s unequivocal experience in a decade plus at the top level of South African refereeing  — that all previous and current  administrators of the various SAFA referee structures have tended to regard referees as ‘bird-chicks’ whose mouths are forever open for anything the ‘big bird’ shoves down open mouths, whether palatable or not. A top-down rather then a bottom-up managerial style.

Yet, amongst the top level South African referees over the years, there were always highly qualified intellectuals, some of whom have been more qualified in management and leadership then their leaders. The referee fraternity has been graced by the membership of lawyers, accountants, pilots, school principles, teachers and other highly competent individuals holding management positions at their work places.

The collective wisdom and leadership acumen of these people were seldom, if ever, tapped into by the various SAFA referee structures, let alone receiving recognition.

There has never been a SAFA-accepted administrative and management policy framework, despite such a policy framework presentation to SAFA , a framework that (in the past) was created BY the referees FOR the referees, upon which administrative and managerial future actions could be premised. Hence the clamour for a professional referee charter within the fold of the Association, a groundswell that many countries have taken up where acumen of political will and managerial skill is in no short supply.

“I started an amateur and retired an amateur” — Former South African FIFA Referee, Ace Ncobo

Needless to say, any organisation governed according to subjectively created precedents — in the absence of clear referee management policies, precedent dictates actions — will not have a healthy corporate governance record.

Thus, the referee governance culture of SAFA is, essentially, counter-productive in the quest to achieve optimum professional levels of performance the referees are certainly capable of.

There are no short-cuts in top level referee development. SAFA either lacks managerial skill and political will to remedy the situation, or worse, could not be bothered.

South Africa has the best developed pro football league in Africa. Sadly, the inconvenient truth (and paradox) is complete referee development is still non-existent.

It is self-evident that SAFA’s  current elite referee development policy of getting the Premier Soccer League’s (PSL) national referees together twice-yearly, for a “polish-up” seminar on such technical dynamics — dynamics that are only 20-30% part of an Elite Referee’s make-up — will not magically instill any higher level of professional standards in officiating. Professional standards the game of football in South Africa deserves.

"Coaches were back in office to prepare for the new season two months ago. The officials went for assessments and fitness tests with only two weeks left before the season kicked off. Now what kind of outcome should we expect?" Ex-Fifa Referee Ace Ncobo
“Coaches were back in office to prepare for the new [PSL] season two months ago. The [match] officials went for assessments and fitness tests with only two weeks left before the season kicked off. Now what kind of outcome should we expect?” Ex-Fifa Referee Ace Ncobo, Aug. 2013.
The result of SAFA’s short-sightedness in not having a holistic approach to complete development of the aspiring elite referee is utterly predictable: most South African referees will continue to lack much needed top-level officiating skills. Indefinitely.