The men in the middle

It takes two to tango, but for a good sporting event there usually has to be a third the referee or umpire

Gavin Foster

Mike Gajjar’s game is cricket, while Michael Katzenellenbogen eats, sleeps and drinks rugby. Ian Mcleod prefers the game that uses a round ball, and Darryl Ribbink is a boxing man. Despite the differences in their sports, the three top referees and the umpire have remarkably similar ideas about their jobs.

All four agree that they carry out their duties for love rather than money. “To be honest I was shocked to hear that I’d be paid when I first started umpiring,” says Gajjar, one of South Africa’s top umpires.

The officials’ rewards, although far behind those of the players, are respectable. Top rugby referees earn between R1 000 and R10 000 a match, while umpires are paid retainers of between R1 000 and R 8000 a month during the cricket season, and a match fee of R785 a day for domestic games. Tests are worth R14 000 each, and one-day internationals R4 800.

Soccer and boxing lag behind in monetary terms, but the perks of international travel, fine food and good company make the jobs worthwhile for the men in the middle.

What are the hardest decisions to make?

Gajjar: “The most controversial are always the LBWs. It’s an opinion, not a fact. Run-outs can also be tricky. The TV view isn’t always accurate, but it’s generally nice to confirm that you’ve got it right or wrong.”

Mcleod: “Everybody thinks that it’s difficult to judge a player offside, but that’s the easiest rule in the book. What does give us a problem are the shots that hit the crossbar and bounce down on to the goal line. If the assistant ref isn’t on the ball you’re in trouble.”

Ribbink: “Contrary to what people think, it’s not difficult to stop a fight on medical grounds. The hardest thing to do is to disqualify a fighter. The spectators don’t like it but that’s what you sometimes have to do.”

Television’s made it hard for referees and umpires to make mistakes, with every couch potato having become an expert on sport. If an official realises he’s acted hastily, made a mistake, does he try and even things up later in the game?

“No,” says Katzenellenbogen. “You have to accept that you’re going to make mistakes. It’s no use correcting one error with another one. If you realise that you’ve made a wrong decision you can reverse it on the spot, but you can’t come back to it later. Joost van der Westhuizen disagreed with a knock-on ruling of mine recently, and told me he thought I’d made a mistake. I replied that it was my first in about 60 minutes. He smiled and said, ‘Ja, you’re allowed one or two.'”

“You have to handle it ball by ball,” says Gajjar. “When you realise you’ve made a wrong decision you feel bad about it but you carry on. Most players are pretty good about it though.”

“You have the power to change a decision as long as the game hasn’t restarted,” says Mcleod. “If it has, tough. You can’t change anything and you can’t be generous later. That’s the biggest failing of junior refs they try to even out the score. You have to concentrate on the job, so you can’t worry about what you should have done.”

Boxing is different from the other sports in that if a fight goes the distance the referee can sometimes be surprised at the decision of the judges. “Sometimes the oke you think should have won doesn’t,” says Ribbink, who has refereed 26 world title fights, including a unique three in one night. “It’s happened to me. You can’t show any emotion, though you just have to live with it. I’ve handled over 250 fights, so I generally know who’s winning.”

Most referees’ and umpires’ careers are far longer than those of the sportsmen themselves. With their experience are they sometimes astounded by the actions and decisions of the players? Generally, yes. Ribbink won two South African amateur titles as a young man, and he knows all about tactics. “Sometimes in the ring I watch a guy taking a beating. I think, ‘Why doesn’t he move to the left? He’s got no brains. For God’s sake move left you’re going to walk into his right cross!'”

Mcleod, who was chosen to referee at the World Cup in 1998, also knows a lot about tactics. “As a ref I try to read the game, anticipate where the ball will be, and be in that area. I so often find myself in great positions that I’m sure I’d be a leading goal scorer in some of these clubs. Sometimes the temptation’s there to put the ball in the back of the net!”

Cricket captains too can find their decisions weighed and found wanting. “Some of the decisions they make are mind- boggling. If umpires had to start rating captains on their imagination, three-quarters of them would score a zero,” says Gajjar.

Just when does the ref have to physically intervene in the contest? Katzenellenbogen says: “It gets quite hectic sometimes. Occasionally the guys go into a match wanting to fight, not play. We try to be fair and stamp it out as soon as possible, but don’t always succeed. I reffed a match between Eastern Province and Tonga about two years ago. It was going fine until suddenly all 30 okes started moering each other. I thought, ‘Jees, this is interesting!’ You try to keep the peace and the players say everything’s fine, and then it erupts.”

And the fans? Are they a nuisance? Too critical? “These days the public is entitled to be more critical at this level of play you’re expected to perform,” says Katzenellenbogen.

Says Mcleod: “I have a good rapport with soccer fans they’re an important part of the game. Wherever I go I’m stopped in the street. They like to have a chat, and it gives my wife the zig that’s why she won’t take me shopping with her!”

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