The worst refereeing decisions in the history of football

I was inspired to write about the worst refereeing decisions in football by a couple of events. Firstly, the comical performance of the referee in the recent AFCON meeting between Tunisia and Mali (more on that one in a minute) and secondly by one of @cryptoandcoffee 's recent posts on the subject of refereeing which ended in a conversation about how crap the standard of officiating in football has become.

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image sources 1 2 3 4 all shared under creative commons license

For those of you who missed the news about the recent AFCON match between Mali and Tunisia, Janny Sikazwe, the ref for that game had a bit of a mare. Here's the sequence of events

  • Inexplicably blows for full-time after 85mins
  • Players go off and fans start to leave the stadium
  • Gets players to agree to come back out (Tunisian players allegedly already in the showers by this time)
  • Finishes game again after 89mins with no added time

At the very minimum, you'd expect a referee to know how long a game of football should last and/or how to tell time!

What's next?

Referees who can't put one foot in front of the other? Oh no, wait we already have them

Referees who turn up without the proper equipment? Nope, that's fairly common place too

But surely all referees are house trained, right? Doesn't appear to be the case

Let's be honest, I could probably write this blog on a weekly basis and with the terrible standard of refereeing in the world of football never be short of new material.

Here however, are a few of my most memorable examples of bad refereeing in football.

Over the line!

Certainly in this country there are few, if any, bigger sporting occasions than an England vs Germany football match.

I remember watching the 2010 World Cup match between the 2 sides at my local cricket club who had cleverly organised a club day on the date of this fixture, anticipating in advance that if England were to come through their group that a knock-out match against Germany would on one hand make if very difficult to get any players for a league game and on the other was a great opportunity to get bar sales up.

So we played a day of 10 over, 6-a-side cricket matches where there was as much drinking done as cricket being played and then paused in the afternoon to watch the big game.

Worth remembering that England were dreadful for much of the match and Germany deservedly went 2-0 up. However, there is something about the English psyche that makes us more dangerous when all hope seems to be lost and helped by some poor German defending from a corner we got the game back to 2-1 and then began to begin to play with a real sense of purpose.

It was during that good spell that this happened

I remember all of us at the cricket club shouting "over the line" in a manner reminiscent of Walter Sobchak in the movie The Big Lebowski

There is a lot of play acting in the game of football these days but you only need to look at the reaction of the players on both sides not to mention the benches to see that they knew it was in.

Also, as hinted at in the commentary was the controversial decision by FIFA not to use goal line technology in the tournament. In cricket, run out and stumping decisions had been referred to the 3rd umpire since 1992. Even tennis had been using the significantly more complex Hawkeye system to make decisions for the best part of 5 years prior to this but FIFA, in their infinite wisdom, decided not to use even the most basic forms of technology to assist in decision making.

Of course, as far as the Germans are concerned they might argue this was some form of cosmic karma after the similarly controversial decision to award England a goal in the 1966 final!

However as far as the worst refereeing decisions in football go, you'd have to go a long way to top this beauty as Roy Carrol literally throws the ball into his own net only for the officials to decide to play on and rob Spurs of victory against Manchester United.

To put this decision and the pain it caused me into context, you've got to remember how good a side United were for the first 2 decades of the Premier League and how rare a win for any team against them particularly at home was. It took me quite a long time to get over this particularly bad refereeing decision!

As far as refereeing decisions at Old Trafford go, I think Paulo Di Canio summed it up best in his autobiography when he said

To get a penalty at Old Trafford, Jaap Stam needs to take out a machine gun and riddle you with bullets and even then there will be much debate over whether you were shot in the penalty box or just outside

But of course for every goal that isn't given due to poor officiating there are always the one's that go the other way!

The best example of this came in a match between Watford and Reading and is memorable to me on 2 accounts. Firstly because having lived in the Reading area for a while, I had a few mates who were Reading supporters (someone has to be) who had travelled to the game and said it was the most bizarre decision they've ever witnessed and secondly, because the man covering it for Sky Sports was none other than the hapless Chris Kamara. If you've not come across Kammy before then you can watch a highlights reel of his best moments here

"There's a goal but it's not a goal but is a goal because the referee has given it as a goal."

If that's not a clear enough explanation for you then you'd better watch the actual highlights

From the hand of God to the hand of Frog

So far it appears that the average referee struggles to comprehend even the most simplistic of football's rules but this one really shouldn't be that difficult! After all the clue that football is a game played with primarily the feet is in the name.

Of course for English fans the most notorious incident was Maradona's Hand of God goal in the 1986 World Cup.

I mean how the officials believed that Diego Maradona out jumped a goal keeper who is 6 inches taller than him is difficult to believe. It seems when you watch the full footage that the officials are more concerned with whether Maradona is offside or not and in that regard come to the correct decision because while he is in an offside position, the ball clearly comes of the defender last.

The back drop to this goal is the political tension between the 2 countries as a result of the Falkland's War so for Argentina this was a big deal and very much like the Lampard goal that wasn't given, can be seen as divine retribution.

Of course Maradona's hand of god was followed up by what is arguably the greatest World Cup goal in history and therefore probably didn't have as big an impact on the final result as others have.

Take for example the famous "Hand of Frog" by Thierry Henry that cost Ireland a place in the 2010 World Cup. This one should have been disallowed firstly on account of offside and then for the blatant hand ball that followed

Would love to know how @ablaze feels about this one being an Arsenal supporter and an Irishman. Does time really heal all wounds?

Finally let's go back to Spurs and yet another bad refereeing decision vs Manchester United at Old Trafford. Starting to look like Paulo Di Canio wasn't quite as mad as he seemed!

Here Nani bursts into the box, falls over like Bambi on ice, grabs the ball with his hand and flaps around like a fish on the deck of a boat while everyone else gets back up and runs back into position expecting Spurs to clear the resulting free kick.

However, legend in his own lunch time, Mark Clattenburg, one of the worst referees that the league has ever seen, decides to play on presumably remembering where he is and that he'll have to face Alex Ferguson's wrath after the game if he doesn't award at least one cheap goal to his team.

On the basis of the number of bad decisions that go against teams when they are playing United, I can only hypothesise that the referee's manual is written in true Orwellian style to include as it's first rule that "all teams are equal but some teams are more equal than others!"

Cards, kicks and collisions

Of course some refereeing decisions particularly when contact between players is involved are more subjective than some of our previous examples of bad refereeing decisions in football.

That being said, I think that with these last few examples of poor officiating there can be very little doubt that the ref had a stinker!

First off here's German goalkeeper Harald Schumacher committing what can only be described as grievous bodily harm against French defender Patrick Battiston in the 1982 World Cup semi-final.

The challenge knocked out 2 of Battiston's teeth, broke 3 of his ribs and damaged his spine. The referee's response? No foul!

To add insult to serious injury, Schumacher would go onto save 2 penalties in the shout out that would settle the match in his side's favour.

While we're on the subject of assaults that took place on the pitch, how about this one from Ben Thatcher on the luckless Pedro Mendes who features for a second time as being on the receiving end on our list of the worst refereeing decisions in football.

In this example, the referee does at least acknowledge it as a foul by Thatcher on his former Spurs teammate Mendes but most would consider a forearm smash to the face as a red card offence.

Mendes was left unconscious and could later be seen convulsing on the floor following this awful challenge. In the aftermath, Manchester Police even launched a criminal investigation into the matter which ultimately prompted Man City to suspend Thatcher and fine him 2 weeks wages before the FA stepped in with an 8 match ban - justice ultimately done despite the refs lack of action at the time!

But of course even when the ref does decide to take disciplinary action on the pitch they regularly can't even get that right!

Here I leave you with Graham Poll, England's top referee and our representative at the 2006 World Cup, booking Croatia's Josip Šimunić not once, not twice but three times in the same game! Good job Graham!

What are some of the worst refereeing decisions in football that you can remember?


A lot of referees' decisions have definitely changed the fates of many games.

If I remember vividly, the England-Germany scenario was one of the major reasons that birthed the VAR story, which I think to a large extent has helped with some decisions like the handball to goals and offsides. The only blemish on VAR for me has been some red card decisions that double standards were employed.

Referees are humans and it's not out of place that they make errors. The only sad part is that those errors can't be corrected once the game ends, even if the referee eventually admits erring.

One bad refereeing decision that I'd not forget in a while was the sending off of Robin van Persie against Barcelona in the Champions League in 2011 by referee Massimo Busacca when Arsenal had just equalized and were leading on aggregate. There was just a second between his whistle and RVP's kick, but he still went ahead to give him a second yellow, even after the first was a contentious one that he was tricked into by Dani Alves. Still hurts very much though.

Haha, well RVP certainly wasn't happy about it!


Oh my God, this is traumatising

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Oh man, I remember all of these, but they bring out awful memories of some of the shitiest decisions ever in Belgian football history. In the 2002 World Cup 1/8 Final against brasil, we had the lovely referee called Peter Prendergast. This man saw a ghost foul by Marc Wilmots when he scored the perfectly legal 1-0 against Brasil.

You can see the faces of Wilmots, Mpenza and the coach, completely baffled to even protest. We dominated that game, and with 1-0 I think we would have taken it home. Eventually Brasil won the game, and the World Cup...

In 1994 something similar happened to us, again in the 1/8 final of the World Cup, now against Germany. Belgium was 3-1 down, with 20 minutes to go, Josip Weber gets fouled from behind in the box. A clear red card and a penalty for Belgium. But referee Ben Röthlissberger did see no harm in it. Eventually Belgium even scored 3-2, by a goal from Philippe Albert. But with a penalty kick and a man down, it was a whole different ball game.
You can see the fase at 14:42 in the video below. Horrible decision.

The names Prendergast and Röthlissberger are in the collective memory of every Belgian football fan, and not for good reasons!



I'm guessing that Belgium didn't get the memo from FIFA that said Brazil were winning the WC that year so don't bother trying to beat them because otherwise we'll get the ref to make sure of it! 🤣

The 2nd one. I mean there is no way that the defender can legally tackle the forward once he's allowed him to get goal side - a blind man would give that as a penalty!

Thanks for sharing


Yep, pretty awful memories to World Cups here in Belgium. Allthough 1986 en 2018 were awesome, we had some very bad decisions against us. That one against Germany, I was 13 years old, but I remember it as if it was yesterday. And then there is the 119th minute goal of David Platt in the World Cup of 1990, in a game were we completely ridiculed England, but the goal posts decided otherwise... Oh man, a hate-love relationship with the WC. Thanks for the Beer though! ;-)

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Well written and easy to read. A flood of memories.

I remember watching Lampards kick go in live. It was like 4am here in Australia watching it with mates. Of course as I go for Germany, I was a dickhead denying it went in and came up with some bullshit about camera angles or something. Unlucky because momentum shifted so much that I rkn England could have won that

Schumacher was deadset assault

Ben Thatcher only did that because that grub Joey Barton would've told him too. When Thatcher said no, Joey threatened Thatchers life so he had no choice ... #urbanlegend

Haha, you can always trust a sports fan to give a totally biased view of any event!

Perhaps the next challenge for the Sports Talk community is to to try and start a new #urbanlegend see if we can get it to go viral!


oh absolutely! @cryptoandcoffee banger idea here from @talesfrmthecrypt

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Hahaha I just can't stop laughing coming across this post. You just hit the nail on the head. Of a truth I watched the Tunisia and Mali match and I was deeply embarrassed. It is one of the worst moment I have seen. What was the ref thinkikg in that match. What a disgrace to the host country, Africa at large and the entire referee body.

It’s embarrassing for football full stop and I think as you can see from the examples above referring is a problem all over the world!

Thanks for stopping by


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Im Irish and a spurs supporter so there are two there that grinded my gears. I remember being in a pub in Mullingar on my own watching that Ireland game. We should have won that game. I was friends with one of the players on that team and he told me that the players were all sick of Trappatoni's defend defend defend so they just went for it and very nearly done it. Did you know that FIFA gave the Irish football federation 3 million euro to stop giving out about the decision. FACT.

I didn't know that! I remember there were a lot of calls for the game to be replayed, etc. but wasn't aware that compensation was actually offered!


Yeah it came out only last year when our FAI director got caught on the take so they had to publish their books for last 20 years.

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I really can't remember much of past worst referee.
But my major concern was how the whole focus was on African football. As if the western world didn't do that at all.
The allegation went one sided. They all saw Africa in bad light. Not knowing that bad referee isn't a big deal in world football.

Yeah, unfortuantely racial bias will always surface with this kind of thing but hopefully my post has shown that referees from all around the world regardless of race or nationality are equally rubbish :-)


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Wow, you packed loads into that post. What a brilliant trip down memory lane. Some crazy crazy decisions there. The French one really hurt at the time and Henry went down a lot in my estimation that day. The worst of all was the way he sat down beside Richard Dunne to console him after blatantly cheating moments previously. Do fuck off Thierry!!

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I loved Dunne as player actually, heart of a Lion, cut out of similar stone as our best ever defender Paul McGrath.

Haha, well gotta maintain that public image as a good guy. Those sponsors will soon be walking away if everyone is asking what's the French for ch ch ch cheat


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This issue of referee decisions, before I do think it was worse but with VAR these days, I just feel it's even more better back then. VAR has made football less interesting to some extent.

Yeah, I think a lot of people would agree with you especially when it comes to goals. You used to be able to celebrate a goal, now you have to wait nervously while they try and find a reason not to give it!


As fans, we just have to keep hoping and watching!

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Some people seem to love making the stupid argument that ref mistakes "add flavor to the game". I don't think injustice or unfairness is a good flavor to add to your sport.

No certainly not, I think most fans would be happy talking more about the game itself rather than the decisions that impact them. There are a lot of very simple changes that the footballing authorities could bring in that would support refs and improve decision making but they don't seem to want to make those changes which does suggest that someone has a vested interest in football continue to have a poor officiating!


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A performance I'll never forget is the horrible decisions that the ref made when United ended our unbeaten run. If VAR existed back then, the penalty wouldn't have even happened. Blatant dive.

It still hurts till this day.

The referee in that game was a joke and is yet another example of United getting very favourable decisions at home.

I mean they should have been down to at least 9 men before they even got that dodgy penalty. Neville 2 stonewall yellow cards (watch him complain that Reyes is diving when he is finally booked) and Van Nistelrooy a straight red for that leg breaker on Cole. Arguably Ferdinand should have been sent off as well!


The irony about history is that it doesn't take account of these events during conversations. Under Fergie, Manchester United were constantly being favoured by refs but that's a conversation people like to avoid

Maybe United fans like to avoid it but then who wants to have a conversation with one them anyway?

The joke in the UK used to be that most United supporters are little kids who live in the South of England I.e. a long way from Manchester.

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Poor officiating isn't new no more. I've decided to just get used to it or laugh over some and walk away. It doesn't really concern me.

But for the sake of fairness, referrees should do their jobs well

I think we should all expect better from football referees while at the same time remembering they are human beings making in many cases subjective decisions that we will never agree with all of the time

Thanks for stopping by


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