A crisis of confidence is growing around Premier League officials and the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) this weekend after a VAR error in Saturday’s game between Liverpool and Tottenham that has been described by pundits as the nadir of officiating in England since VAR was introduced.
Unlike most controversies surrounding officiating, there is no room here to argue about subjectivity and interpretation. Here, a breakdown in communication between the VAR officials and on-pitch officials was caused, it has been claimed, when lead VAR official Darren England believed a goal by Liverpool’s Luis Diaz had been given.
Instead, it had been flagged offside. As a result, England—watched by at least three other people in the VAR room—sent a “check complete” message confirming a good goal and then did nothing to correct the error with on-pitch referee Simon Hooper believing his team’s offside ruling had been confirmed and restarting play.
Matters were made worse for the PGMOL and chief Howard Webb when it emerged England and assistant Dan Cook had been in UAE on Thursday to oversee a Pro League game, a duty for which they will have reportedly been paid £15-20k. Tiredness from the trip has been proposed by some as a contributing cause in Saturday’s error.
There is no suggestion that Premier League officials, including England and Cook, were given directions to officiate in a manner that might benefit Manchester City, but with both City and the Pro League intimately tied to the UAE’s ruling elites the optics are far from good and at best there is a clear conflict of interest.
Thursday’s officiating work in UAE for England and Cook wasn’t a one-off, with many fans learning for the first time over the past 24 hours that English officials regularly travel to take on lucrative work in UAE—and potentially other states in the region—and that clearance to take these jobs is signed off on by Webb’s PGMOL.
The resultant situation means Premier League officials could regularly be earning six-figure salaries for side-jobs in the region—at times potentially making more for than for their domestic refereeing duties—before returning and being expected to impartially judge matches impacting clubs owned by the states paying them.
Even if there’s no actively nefarious intent on the side of any of the involved parties that crosses into the realm of active bribery and corruption, there’s a clear conflict of interest in regularly being paid large sums of money by the UAE and then being put in charge of owning a club widely understood as being owned by the UAE.
And in real world in any case, bribery and corruption rarely involves handing over stacks of cash along with explicit marching orders. Far more common is the soft power approach, a steady drip of gifts and favour and well paying consultancy gigs over time meant to instil loyalty and shift unconscious bias in a favourable direction.
Nobody may be able to say precisely what England, Cook, and other English officials have received—monetarily or otherwise—this week or this year or over the past ten years from taking on work in UAE. Nobody may be able to say precisely what the motivations may have been for the UAE Pro League to offer them such work.
What can be said unequivocally is that the optics aren’t good. What can be said is that it’s a situation with the potential to undermine of the impartiality of English officials. And it can be said that it’s the fault of the PGMOL for signing off on such work and creating a situation filled with uncertainty and ripe for conspiracy theorizing.