In ball games, refereeing plays a significant role in the quality and development of a sport. This is true in soccer, where the high demands of the professional game require high-quality preparation on the parts of the players and also the referees (10). In recent years, the demands of the game regarding conditional abilities have increased significantly (1,2,10,22). This has affected referees, who are required to meet these demands in order to keep providing high-quality refereeing (4,8,18,21). One of the most important factors for high-quality refereeing is the fitness level of the referees. Studies have shown (3) the positive effects that maximal oxygen uptake has on game performance. A high fitness level seems to be necessary for a referee to tolerate the physiological stress associated with competitive play (9,12). During a soccer game, the referee must be as close as he or she can be to where the game action takes place, in order to make the right decisions; thus, a high fitness level (mainly aerobic fitness) seems necessary (3,12,15). Of course, other abilities besides fitness level also have a crucial role, such as good psychological and mental preparation, motivation, conflict-handling ability, and communication skills (14).
The classification of referees into different competitive levels has been a complex and difficult phenomenon. Because game performance cannot really be measured using objective criteria, no one can really make a reliable classification of game officials; therefore, a need for an objective discrimination between referees has been raised. One part of the measurable inclusion criteria is the fitness level of the referees. Referees' conditional abilities are measured with the help of specific fitness tests defined by the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) (17) and the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA). According to these criteria, referees at the national and international levels must participate every 6 months in compulsory, predetermined measurements; so far, the measurements used are the fitness stop tests of FIFA and UEFA. The latter tests include a 12-minute run for distance (Cooper test) and 50- and 200-m sprint runs. The suggested limits set by FIFA (11) for the international level are a 12-minute run ≥ 2700 m, a 50-m run in ≤ 7.5 s, and a 200-m run in ≤ 32 s. The question raised here is whether these fitness tests can be used to classify referees and separate them into different qualification levels. It has been demonstrated (3) that, among the above 3 field tests, the one that shows the strongest correlation with game performance is the 12-minute run, which emphasizes, once more, the importance of the aerobic fitness of referees; the credibility of the sprint runs concerning referees' game performance is still an open question.
The purpose of the present study was primarily to assess the fitness levels of the Hungarian referee population at the elite and county regional levels and to compare the results with the international FIFA-level referees from 17 European countries. The results of this comparison will provide a useful aid to the Hungarian Soccer Federation and to Hungarian referees in the evaluation of their physical condition as reflected in the applied fitness tests. This study's secondary purpose was to investigate whether the FIFA fitness tests are suitable for providing reliable discrimination between referees of different competitive levels. We assume that differences in qualifications between the different competitive levels will be represented also in the referees' conditional abilities shown in the fitness tests; thus, FIFA referees will show the highest performance, and lower-level referees will have poorer results.
Experimental Approach to the Problem
To evaluate the conditional abilities of the Hungarian referees, we compared their fitness results with those of FIFA-level referees. All Hungarian referees registered in the referee lists of the Hungarian Soccer Federation were selected so that we would have reliable results. The FIFA-level referees were selected randomly with the collaboration of the national soccer federations of several European countries. On the basis of the results of the comparison, we can make a primary evaluation of the physical preparation of the Hungarian referees of different levels. Secondarily, the comparison of the qualified referees on different levels will help us to investigate how and to what degree the fitness tests represent the differences in quality between the referees, considering that the physical condition levels of the referees are a major component of their classification and of their inclusion in the referee lists.
The present study contains the field test results of FIFA-level referees from 17 different European countries. Also, we performed field test measurements on the entire Hungarian referee population. Table 1 shows the numbers of measurements in each group separately.
To assess the fitness levels of the referees, we used the stop tests of FIFA: endurance ability was measured by a 12-minute run (Cooper test), and speed ability was measured using 50- and 200-m sprint runs. The field tests were performed on the same day, usually during the late morning, after resting. The order of the field tests was as follows: 12-minute run, 1 × 200-m sprint, 2 × 50-m sprint, and 1 × 200 m-run. The resting time between the 12-minute run and the sprint runs was at least 30 minutes. The resting time between the bouts of the sprint runs was 10 minutes. Referee assistants did not perform the 200-m sprint run according to the test requirements described by FIFA (17). Time results of all the tests were assessed electronically (Infragate Radiotelemetric Time Measuring system, GUR-1). The referees started their runs from a standing position. All run tests were led by qualified physical education teachers and were conducted on a accredited outdoor tartan surface 400-m track. Weather conditions were similar; there were no cases of rain or strong wind. The measurements of the FIFA-level referees were performed in the referees' home countries. With the collaboration of the national soccer federations of each country, we received the results of the tests. We performed the measurements of all the Hungarian referees under our supervision. These measurements took place in several places across the country, with the cooperation of the regional county authorities in 4 periods: June 2002, July 2003, February 2003, and February 2004.
Data are presented as mean and SD. Mean values of the referee groups were compared by using 1-way analysis of variance. A post hoc analysis (Tukey honestly significant difference test) was used for the intergroup differences. Test-retest reliability and intertester reliability were not measured. The level of significance was set at p ≤ 0.05. The Statistica software system (version 6.0; StatSoft, Inc., 2001) was used for data analysis.
The field test results of men referees are presented in Figures 1-3. The distance covered during the 12-minute run was the longest on FIFA-level referees (3043 ± 127 m), followed by Hungarian elite referees (2939 ± 136 m). The shortest distance was covered by county III-level referees (2522 ± 270 m). The ranking of the results corresponded exactly to the classifications of the referee groups. The differences between the groups were significant in all cases. However, it is interesting to note that FIFA-level referees had a smaller range than county III-level referees (730 vs. 1856 m, respectively) and, thus, showed a higher homogeneity. Among the county III-level referees, 3.6% covered distances > 3000 m, and 9.26% covered distances ≤ 2000 m.
The 200- and 50-m sprint runs did not show any difference between the FIFA-level and Hungarian elite referees. Significant differences appear from the Hungarian third-division level and on to the county levels. In both sprints, FIFA-level and Hungarian elite referees performed the fastest times, and county III-level referees had the slowest times. In the 200-m run, their respective times were 28.79 ± 0.98, 29.66 ± 1.20, and 32.80 ± 2.92 s, and their respective times for the 50-m run were 6.82 ± 0.18, 6.84 ± 0.29, and 7.06 ± 0.38 s.
Field test results of men assistant referees are presented in Figures 4 and 5. Assistant referees performed only the 12-minute and 50-m sprint runs as prescribed by FIFA. The FIFA-level and Hungarian elite referees showed no difference in the 12-minute run (2950 ± 107 and 2900 ± 96 m, respectively), but county-level assistant referees achieved a significantly lower distance (2636 ± 327 m). In the 50-m run, again, FIFA-level and Hungarian elite referees had the fastest times (6.78 ± 0.21 and 6.61 ± 0.39 s, respectively), and county-level assistants were significantly slower (7.27 ± 0.97 s).
This study shows that in the field tests of a 12-minute run, 200-m sprint, and 50-m sprint, respectively, FIFA-level referees had significantly higher, higher, and slightly higher values then their Hungarian colleagues. Our results for the 12-minute run are comparable with those reported by Castagna et al. (3) in Italian first- and second-division referees (2866 ± 164 m). Italian referees had slightly lower performance than did FIFA-level and Hungarian elite referees in this study, whereas Höltke et al. (13), in a study of referees from the first and second German Federal soccer leagues, report values of 2997 ± 165 m. Rontoyannis et al. (20), in a study of Greek referees of different competitive levels, report values of 2778 ± 128 m. Regarding fitness level, Hungarian referees can be placed among those from great soccer nations with long traditions and high respect such as Italy or Germany. It should be reported here that soccer referee training in Hungary can be considered a successful program because, during the last 10 years, Hungarian referees have been very highly evaluated (e.g., Sándor Puhl). According to the upper limits suggested by FIFA (11), we can see that the FIFA-level and national-level referees performed beyond the upper limits (>2700 m), but county-level referees did not reach those limits. This latter finding suggests that the fitness test can provide discrimination criteria between national- and county-level referees; however, it seems that between the first and second national levels, the criteria are inadequate.
The fact that the significant differences between the groups were more marked in the 12-minute run than in the 2 sprint runs (200 and 50 m) seems to confirm the findings of previous studies (5,15), in which the importance of aerobic endurance ability in soccer refereeing has been emphasized. This also supports earlier findings that the distance covered by a referee during a soccer game decreases significantly from the first half to the second half of the game (6,7). However, this has not been confirmed by some other authors (18). Compared with the 12-minute run, the 200- and 50-m sprints do not reflect to the same degree the qualification standards of the referees' classification. The results of the latter 2 tests show higher variability than the 12-minute run. However, regarding the sprint runs, we noticed that a borderline between the various referee qualification levels can be drawn between the third division and lower levels, which may also refer to the big step in a referee's career. According to previous studies (17,18), high-intensity (>70%) exercise may result in decreased cognitive and psychomotor function. The importance of the physical condition must be emphasized here because we can clearly understand that a better fitness level-and, thus, a better tolerance of high-intensity exercise-will result in a higher game performance. Therefore, fitness-level differences may reflect the quality differences in soccer refereeing. It is also noteworthy that, in all tests, the results among the 3 levels of county-level referees differed significantly. The latter finding can be explained, to a degree, by the high number of subjects who participated in the measurements, resulting in a statistical significance of the differences. On the other hand, it shows a quality difference between the referees even on the lowest qualification levels.
It is widely accepted that the more a person trains, the better performance he or she can reach. This is true for referees: conditional preparation has a close relationship with training hours. Most likely, one of the reasons for the great differences between the FIFA-level and Hungarian elite-level and the lower-qualification-level referees is the amount of time engaged in training in order to be physically and mentally well prepared. Elite referees must participate on a weekly basis in compulsory training sessions organized by the soccer federation and instructed by qualified trainers. Regardless, elite referees probably follow training sessions individually on a regular basis 2-3 times weekly. On the other hand, the relevant authorities have less supervision over the training habits of lower-level referees, and thus it may happen that these referees spend less time developing their conditional abilities. However, there is no evidence regarding the referees' training background or exercise schedule, and therefore we cannot establish any possible association between the results of this study and training background. Furthermore, at the elite level, it is quite common to conduct the fitness tests more than once every 6 months, and thus the referees are required to be at a good physical fitness level continuously. Of course, similar to the athletes' selection, another reason could be referee selection. Through the selection process, talented referees will be more likely to progress to higher qualification levels. Moreover, mentality disparities between elite and lower-level referees result in the elite referees being more conscious and goal-oriented than their lower-level colleagues, and they also are better motivated to achieve good results during the testing procedures. However, we should mention here the high variability of the county-level referees. In the latter group, we found referees who approached the performance levels of elite referees, and we also found referees who had significantly poorer performance. A better selection or a stricter accreditation process at the county level would mean higher mean values for those groups, resulting in smaller differences between them and referees at the elite level.
The movement of assistant referees is characterized by short, intense exercise interrupted by long, low-intensity periods (16,19). Sprint performance among the assistant referees is important in the game. It was surprising, therefore, that top-class assistant referees (FIFA level) had the fastest times in the sprint tests and that they also covered longer distances in the 12-minute run. Here, we could once more notice the borderline between elite-level and county-level assistants, In both fitness tests (12-minute run and 50-m sprint), county-level assistant referees showed poorer performance than their colleagues at the elite level. It is considered positive that FIFA-level and Hungarian elite-level referees had no difference in their fitness test results, which once more reflects the high qualification standards of the Hungarian assistant referees concerning conditional abilities.
It can be concluded that the aerobic fitness level demonstrated in the 12-mimute run is the most significant conditional ability in refereeing. In this fitness test, FIFA-level referees showed a higher performance than Hungarian referees. The results of the sprint runs show that sprints do not reflect the quality differences between the different referee groups as well as the 12-minute run does; thus, we can conclude that higher speed ability does not definitely result in higher game performance. Finally, it seems that the major quality step in a referee's career can be located at the third-division competition level.
Among the conditional abilities measured by the FIFA and UEFA stop tests, the 12-minute run provides the most adequate criteria for discriminating between different competitive levels. The results of the fitness tests can help in the evaluation of the referees' physical condition in relation to the qualification criteria. Each referee can know the distance he or she needs to cover to be included in the various competitive levels. However, inclusion criteria for the international and national elite levels do not seem to offer accurate discrimination in every case, and therefore the results of the fitness tests should be supported by additional criteria.
This study was supported by the Hungarian Ministry of Education for doctoral research. We would like to thank all the Hungarian referees who participated in the measurements, and the national federations of the European countries for their kind assistance in the assessment of the fitness test results.
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Keywords:© 2009 National Strength and Conditioning Association
football; referee; conditional abilities; field tests