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Are Football Referees Allowed to Bet on Matches?

You may be aware that professional footballers are prohibited from betting on the sport, and that relates even to matches in which they are not involved. There have been numerous instances of players breaking these rules and facing hefty fines and suspensions as a result. Such cases tend to receive much media attention too, which is why many fans know that players have to keep away from football betting.

What about the rules for the much-less discussed officials though? Is a referee free to have a weekend flutter or must they refrain from all football-related bets until they hang up their whistle and cards? Although it may seem a little extreme at first, it is regularly the latter that applies, but not in all cases as we will now explain.

What is FIFA’s Stance?

Yellow and Red Regulations and Guidelines Folders

FIFA make rules regarding betting extremely clear so there is very little room for confusion. The FIFA Code of Ethics, which covers gambling, explicitly applies to “all officials (and) referees” and ignorance of the rules is certainly no defence. The Code of Ethics states, among other things, that referees are:

“Forbidden from participating in, either directly or indirectly, betting, gambling, lotteries or similar events or transactions related to football matches or competitions and/or any related football activities”

Additionally there is another even broader point that prevents referees from taking part in the betting industry, when connected to football, even if they are not placing any bets themselves.

“They shall not have any interests, either directly or indirectly (through or in conjunction with third parties), in entities, companies, organisations, etc. that promote, broker, arrange or conduct betting, gambling, lotteries or similar events or transactions connected with football matches and competitions”

For the avoidance of any doubt, FIFA also provide definitions for what they mean by direct and indirect. The former is quite self-explanatory but for the latter the additional clarity is helpful. Imagine if you had a referee, for example, that asks a friend of his to place a bet on his behalf. This would fall under the scope of indirect involvement, as illustrated by the examples FIFA provide:

  • A third party places a bet under his/her name on a football match with the money of someone involved in football, and the person involved in football receives the proceeds
  • A third party places a bet under his/her name with his/her own money on a football match together with someone involved in football, and they share the proceeds
  • Someone involved in football shares inside information, which is information that only that person has due to his/her position in the game and which is not available to the public, with a third party. The third party places a bet on this football match based on the information received

National Rules

England Flag in Corner of Football Pitch

All professional referees are bound by the FIFA code of ethics but they may also be subject to additional rules from their regional governing body, for example the English FA. These rules will not contradict FIFA’s policy, telling them they can freely bet, but they do allow for some discretion.

For example, the English FA states that

“the betting rules are different for … any Match Official, referee, coach or referee assessor, operating at Level 4 or below.”

For these lower-level refs, the following applies:

  • No Participant can bet on a match or competition in which they are involved that season, or which they can influence, or any other football-related matter concerning the league that they play in
  • Participants are also prohibited from using or passing inside information for betting
  • These are the only Participants who will not be subject to the worldwide ban

Why Are Such Strict Rules In Place?

Euros in Red Whistle

So, as a professional referee (or assistant referee) you can basically have no involvement in football betting whatsoever. This may seem a little extreme initially, after all, why should a referee that is officiating some League Two matches in England be stopped from having a flutter on who he thinks will win the World Cup? This may seem like a perfectly harmless thing to do, and it would often be, but a referee’s freedom to bet is much less important than sporting integrity.

The last thing that FIFA, or any football organisation wants, is accusations that certain matches have been manipulated because of money placed on them. It could throw into question the entire integrity of the league and put the game into disarray. You merely have to look at what happened in Italy with their match-fixing scandal between 2004 and 2006 to show how damaging it is when refs are found to be not entirely impartial.

It is obviously wrong for a referee to bet on a match they are officiating as very few people would believe they would be fair and impartial arbiters. As for another match in the same league, well there are a few problems attached with this. The main issue is that the referee placing the bets will be able to directly contact the one refereeing the match. If news spread that such bets were placed, the question will be asked if the match referee had been asked to favour one team over another. Two referees could easily engage in some sort of agreement where one places the bets and the other helps ensure it ends up being a winning one.

This is one of the reasons why all betting is banned completely as you never know which referees have contacts in which countries. A League Two referee is unlikely to know anyone officiating in Germany but they might do, even if it is through an intermediatory. So, should a referee lump any sort of considerable money on a match, it raises questions if there have been some conversations going on in the background.

It does not even need to be any overt corruption of match-fixing either. If you imagine that two referees are talking about the upcoming weekend and one mentions that he’s going to be betting on the match the other is officiating. It is possible that the other referee, even subconsciously, behaves differently knowing this information. There are many things that can impact what a referee decides, things such as crowd noise and capacity, so another official saying they are backing the home team could well be a factor too.

Although this would not apply to the vast majority of bets, FIFA and other footballing organisations have no way of keeping tabs on the relationships between all referees in the world. Only a small number of matches would be at risk of being influenced by gambling activity but even one is too many given how much sporting integrity matters.

What Are the Punishments For Rule Breakers

Red Sanctions Stamp

There is no fixed punishment for a referee that is caught betting on football as all cases will be looked at on an individual basis. When a player commits a similar offence, several factors will be examined such as the frequency and value of the bets, the matches bet on and if and if this is a repeat offender. An English referee who bets £20 on the Copa America for example would face a lighter punishment than another who bet a cumulative £10,000 on Premier League fixtures.

A typical punishment will likely be the combination of a fine and a temporary ban from refereeing. FIFA state that the maximum punishment for breaking their Code of Ethics is a CHF 100,000 (£90,000) fine and “a ban on taking part in any football-related activity for a maximum of three years”.

How Are Referees Caught?

Silhouette of Man holding Phone at Table

As we will soon discover, very few referees have landed in hot water for gambling-related offences. This does not mean, necessarily, that none of them are gambling, as it is incredibly difficult to police. A referee, for example, could probably engage in some indirect betting without much of a risk of being caught. If they ask their friend to place a £5 accumulator on their behalf every week, with all transactions made in cash, this would be virtually impossible to trace.

So, while small-scale bets placed through a third party may well be an appealing option, many referees would simply prefer to take no risks whatsoever, however small. Unlike footballers, most referees are not paid huge sums of money and missing out on several weeks or months of pay due to a gambling breach could have severe consequences. A referee is likely to face a bigger hit to their reputation too, compared to a player, as they will no longer be seen as trustworthy by many fans, especially when decisions go against their team.

Have Any Referees Been Caught?

Hand of Man in Suit Pointing

You can find numerous examples of referees caught in blackmail scandals, where they have been paid to give certain decisions or favour certain teams. While this is very much linked to gambling, it does not typically involve the referee placing a bet themselves. Indeed, this is probably the last thing they would do as it would only increase their odds of being caught for what is an extremely serious offence.

In terms of pure, relatively innocent, breaches of betting rules, these are very rare. It seems referees are not only well aware of the rules but are happy to abide by them. It is much less of an issue than it is with players although you do have to factor in that players outnumber referees by a huge amount, so this is always likely to be the case.

Still, there are odd examples you can dig up. In 2019, Scottish referee Nikki Fraser was charged by the Scottish FA for breaking gambling rules over a five-year period. The Scottish FA handbook explicitly states that

“A referee…under the jurisdiction of the Scottish FA shall not gamble in any way on a football match.”

Although Fraser only reffed at amateur and junior level, they were matches that were affiliated with the Scottish FA.

Given how low-level the matches Fraser was involved with were, this was very far from being a major scandal and it received very little attention from the media. In the end, the punishment proved a light one too with the referee merely fined £200 despite breaking the rules over a number of years.

There is also the older story of Mike Dean who, early in his career, ended up being suspended after it was found he was directly involved in a betting website. In his defence though, this was not a football betting website, rather is focused solely on horse racing, a place where punters could get advice on upcoming races. In this instance it was not so much because it was a gambling site that was the problem, because it did not relate to football, but rather that he did not gain approval from the PGMO (PGMOL) beforehand for this ‘other activity’, breaching his employment contract.

In the end, Dean ended up suspended until the very end of the season for breaching his contract. Given the decision was made in early April though, the punishment was not especially severe. Also, he escaped any charge from the FA/FIFA because he had not been involved in anything related to football betting. For them, because the website was purely about horse racing, they saw no reason to intervene.