How online abuse is keeping young German referees away | Sports | German football and major international sports news | DW

Felix Zwayer experienced hate on social media.

It hit him last season after refereeing the best Bundesliga game between Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich. A controversial sanction decision had sparked talk, with Dortmund’s Jude Bellingham indirectly accusing the 41-year-old of corruption, alluding to the betting scandal that hit German football in 2005.

Zwayer himself is not active on social media, but has received anonymous hate mail and, according to police reports, a death threat has even circulated online.

This is not an isolated case. Referees are increasingly becoming targets of hostility on the Internet. The possibility of open discussion is often abused by trolls, anonymous individuals who feel free to attack without restraint or consequence. As a result, the German refereeing system is struggling with a noticeable decline in the recruitment of young referees.

“When I started in 1994, we had around 80,000 referees in Germany. Today there are around half of them,” says Zwayer. “How are we supposed to attract young people when there are rants on social media about referees every weekend without objectivity? It’s not very sexy. Young people aren’t ready for that.” The inhibition threshold for becoming a referee has become “enormously high” due to online discussions, Zwayer said.

Steinhaus-Webb has been director of the women’s department of the English Football Association since 2020.

Amateur matches soon without impartial referees?

For Lutz-Michael Fröhlich, a former Bundesliga referee and now managing director of sports and communications at DFB Schiri, a joint DFB and DFL initiative for refereeing services in Germany, his industry has a huge image problem.

“When in doubt, the referees are to blame. The referee is the scapegoat – that’s the general perception. There is a lack of support and appreciation for effort and performance.”

Fröhlich calls on players and coaches to make positive comments about referees in public. What is exemplified in professional football finds imitators.

“What we see on Sundays in the district league or with the youngsters is often a mirror image of what happens in the Bundesliga.” The situation at the local level is dire, he said. “If the downward spiral in the number of referees continues, many matches in the amateur and youth sectors will soon have to be played without impartial referees.”

“It must be possible to prosecute insults”

“The decline of referees is not exclusively a German problem,” Bibiana Steinhaus-Webb told DW. The former referee, who in 2017 became the first female referee to officiate matches in the men’s Bundesliga, sees a trend at least in Europe.

“We have to deal with the problems of young referees everywhere. It will be a big task for the associations to continue to make refereeing attractive in the future,” she added.

The 43-year-old also sees the referees’ poor image, fueled by hostility on social media, as the main problem. “In England, there has been a specialist department within the Football Association since 2020 which deals with online abuse and lobbies for the introduction of new laws.”

“This commitment is quite successful and should be seen as a model for other associations,” says Steinhaus-Webb, who worked for the English referee association Professional Game Match Official Limited (PGMOL) as director of the women’s department for over a year.

Bayern Munich's Franck Ribéry shouts at referee Frank Willenborg in 2018.

On and off the field, the referees are not sufficiently supported.

The misery of social networks

The “Online Abuse” initiative aims to identify the authors of anonymous social media posts and hold them accountable for their defamatory posts. “It must be possible to prosecute and punish such insults. No one would accept such insults on the street, so why would identical statements be acceptable online?” asks Steinhaus-Webb, who describes action against cybercriminals as essential.

“There has been a huge development in women’s football in England with the 2022 European Women’s Championship. This tournament has been well used to recruit young female referees. important new candidates have been found.

But for Fröhlich one thing is clear: “As long as referees – whether at amateur level or in the top leagues – are constantly criticized and insulted online, it will remain difficult to inspire young people for this honorary position.”

This article has been translated from German.

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