Children as young as six referee their own matches
Dutch FA has experimented in last two years
Scheme aims to tackle abuse from touchline
Imagine a six-year-old Diego Costa refereeing a football match. Given his combustible temperament it’s likely there would only be one winner in a game he was taking part in – the team he was playing for.
At first glance the idea of six or seven-year-olds refereeing their own games would seem to be a recipe for chaos. But, that’s exactly what the Netherlands Football Association (KNVB) has been experimenting with over the last two years in a scheme dubbed “Fair Play Football.”
The KNVB scheme is designed to minimize the pressures kids face from sometimes overbearing parents on the touchline.
“In this way, children who are just getting to know football are more free to experience the game, instead of listening to instructions of their parents or coaches,” said a KNVB spokeswoman.
Speak to any parent of a girl or boy playing football and many will be able to recount experiences of parents bawling – sometimes foulmouthed – instructions from the sidelines.
“Children make the decisions on the field with each other,” the spokeswoman added.
“The parents and other spectators stand from 20 meters away from the pitch and are only allowed to cheer the children on: In this way children can play football more freely.
“The coaches are game supervisors and their job is to lead the game in the right direction.”
The Dutch program involves more than 700 teams in the Limburg and Brabant regions, with more expected to sign up in the near future.
One parent of an English Premier League academy player, who preferred to remain anonymous, welcomed the Dutch initiative.
“Self-refereeing is something that children should be taught at a young age,” said the parent. “Schools should be brought on board because there is always a bit of the playground given over to football. They are always self-refed.
“It might clean up the game because there would be fewer fouls. I think it will be a worthwhile investment to train them to self-referee. You would have to do that at the start of the season, giving them very clear rules and train them to respect the laws.”
Amateur football in the Netherlands hit the headlines in December 2012 when Richard Nieuwenhuizen, 41, was officiating for his teenage son’s team against Amsterdam youth club Nieuw Sloten in Almere.
Steven Lawrence, who moved his family to the Netherlands from Britain in 2008 to help his son Jamie’s football career, also believes the KNVB scheme should be encouraged.
Jamie, 23, now plays professional football for Slovakian club AS Trencin.
“I think this is a great idea – I talked with Ruben Jongkind at Ajax a while back about such an idea on the basis that it encourages autonomy and self-regulation,” said Lawrence, referring to the Dutch club’s talent development official.
“Children have a strong sense of fairness and by encouraging them to involve themselves in the refereeing of their own games they gain a perspective which will be very useful to them later on.”
Lawrence argued the experiment helps improve coaches as well.
“I think it’s also good for the trainers/coaches – they need to take on a guiding role and that helps their observation skills which in turn provides them with good information for individual training away from the competitive games.”
Lawrence said parents might also learn something from the experiment.
“I like the idea of keeping parents well back from the action – I’ve experienced some pretty unedifying touchline parenting including abusive language, threatening behavior, screaming instructions at the children, and on one occasion fisticuffs between parents.
“Never in Holland, though, where matches at the level I’ve been involved with have qualified referees and assistants and where the parents are pretty respectful.”