While soccer is currently one of the most popular sports in the entire world, there still aren’t many young soccer players interested in taking a different path and becoming one of the officials. Of course, being a professional referee is not that easy of a task, and finding an expert takes not only resources but also time.
As much as the players are the focal point of every game, a single soccer match cannot be played without a referee. The huge pressure that builds before a title-decisive match or a final is something that not many people can handle. Many referees, arguably, have the nerves of steel. We’ve witnessed some exceptions to this rule, but we will mostly focus on the ones that deserve to claim the title of being top-tier officials.
If we take a brief look at the history of refereeing, we will notice that in the second half of the 19th century, soccer became quite competitive, especially in the UK. The first official soccer regulations were introduced roughly around that time. By 1891, the specific soccer regulations were restructured, improved, and are somewhat still similar to the set of rules we know today.
It’s also quite important to note the different roles of referees in modern soccer. The most recent example here would be the introduction of the two extra referees behind goal lines – a trend that didn’t last long. After the introduction of goal-line technology, having two extra officials behind goal lines became obsolete.
Although there are four different referees officiating each match, only one of them is the main official. Two of them are assistant referees, while the fourth one is a substitute referee. Even though the fourth official mostly serves as a substitute, they still have some duties on the sidelines. For example, they usually talk to the managers (or coaches) and deescalate a potentially tense situation. They also hold the boards that show the numbers of substituted players.
On the other hand, assistant referees are those who are mostly famous for waiving a flag and calling offsides. Even though they have the word “assistant” in their title description, it’s definitely not easy being one. The skill of calling an offside that was only a couple of inches behind the line is something that takes a lot of time and effort.
We have compiled a list of 10 professional officials who we believe are among the best ones of all time. While we still think that the list will most likely lack some more famous names, it’s still a bit easier to compile a list of best referees than, for example, players. This is because, as we’ve mentioned, being a referee is just not as appealing to younger generations as playing soccer is.
10. Oscar Ruiz
A now-retired lawyer by profession, Oscar Ruiz Acosta made his professional debut in 1995 in a match between Paraguay and Venezuela. Ruiz will go down in history as the best FIFA-affiliated Colombian referee.
Notorious for the Yoann Gourcuff red card in the final group stage game between France and South Africa in 2010. He was a part of three consecutive World Cups – 2002 (South Korea and Japan), 2006 (Germany), and 2010 (South Africa).
After retiring in 2011, Ruiz became a member of both the FIFA referee instructor team CONMEBOL’s referee assistance program.
9. Sandor Puhl
A four-time “World’s Best Referee” from 1994 to 1997, the Hungarian will be remembered as one of the best FIFA-affiliated referees of all time.
An often criticized match official, Puhl was a part of a controversial 1994 World Cup quarter-final match between Spain and Italy. Puhl made a questionable decision after an Italian player elbowed an opposing player inside the penalty box. The Spaniard got his nose broken, but Puhl didn’t send off the Italian player. Not only that, but he didn’t call a penalty either. He got criticized and eventually suspended after the match.
8. Pedro Proença
The Portuguese expert has been deemed as one of the best referees in the past 15 years.
Proença holds the title of being the first-ever soccer referee to officiate both the final game of the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Europan Championship in the same calendar year. The two games in question were both played in 2012 – Bayern Munich vs. Chelsea and Spain vs. Italy, respectively.
He was also named World’s Best Referee in 2012 before he retired in 2015 and became president of the Portuguese Professional Football League six months later.
7. Howard Webb
A policeman both on and off the pitch, Howard Webb, now retired match official, will be remembered as one of the best English referees ever.
Just like Pedro Proença, Webb also holds quite a unique title – he was the first referee ever to officiate the finals of both the UEFA Champions League and the FIFA World Cup in the same year.
One of the most important stats, if not the most important, regarding his career is the yellow and red card ratio per game. He was infamous for the number of red cards issued throughout his career – a total of 68 in 534 competitive games. His yellow card per game ratio was 3.17, while the red card per game ratio was 0.13.
Another notable fact is the number of yellow cards he issued in a World Cup Final. The game between Spain and the Netherlands in 2010 saw 14 yellow cards in total.
8. Milorad Mažić
A nine-time best Serbian referee winner has been a FIFA-affiliated referee since 2009. Mažić became a member of the UEFA elite board four years later, in 2013.
When it comes to major tournaments, he was a match official in the UEFA Champions League (where he was a part of the 2018 final) and the Europa League, as well as the 2016 UEFA Super Cup.
He refereed matches in major international tournaments as well – the 2014 FIFA World Cup, UEFA Euro 2016, and 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup, where he officiated the final match. It is also important to note his role in the 2018 World Cup, where Mažić and his team officiated three matches.
5. Bjorn Kuipers
The now-retired Dutch international became a FIFA-affiliated referee in 2006 after starting his career in 2002. Kuipers holds the record of officiating ten international finals. He is considered a top-tier referee in his homeland, as well, where he officiated eight finals.
Kuipers started his career in the Dutch second tier in 2002 and three years later became a standard match official in Eredivisie games. He was a part of the FIFA Club World Cup, UEFA Super Cup, the Euros, Europa League Finals, and UEFA Champions League Finals.
4. Nestor Pitana
Just like many referees worldwide (and on our list), Nestor Pitana has another profession alongside being a professional soccer referee. The Argentinian expert, a former actor, is probably one of the few referees outside of the UEFA governing body recognized as a world-class match official.
Pitana has two World Cups and a Copa America under his belt. He made his professional debut in Primera B Nacional in Argentina back in 2006 and his FIFA debut in 2010. Since then, he’s officiated 267 Conmebol games.
His most famous game is probably the World Cup Final in 2018 between France and Croatia. Pitana made a questionable decision by awarding a penalty to France. A call that, according to many, should not have been made.
3. Pierluigi Collina
Considered the best soccer referee ever by many, Collina was a FIFA-affiliated referee from 1995 to 2005. In that period, he managed to become FIFA’s “Best Referee of the Year” more than several times. The exact number being six. Not only that, but he managed to do so six times in a row.
Two of the most famous matches he officiated were the 2002 FIFA World Cup Final between Brazil and Germany in South Korea and Japan and the 1999 UEFA Champions League Final between Bayern Munich and Manchester United in Barcelona.
He is currently a member of the UEFA Referees Committee and has also been the Chief of the Ukrainian Soccer Federation starting in 2010.
2. Martin Atkinson
A match official famous for his stamina, endurance, critical decision-making, and long experience. Martin Atkinson is deservedly one of the top-tier referees on our list. Starting his Premier League career 17 years ago in 2005, Atkinson has yet to retire after officiating a little less than 400 games so far. After becoming a professional, Atkinson started officiating international and continental matches two years later, in 2007.
He made his refereeing debut at the age of 16 when he officiated a game between two local teams. By the age of 30, Atkinson became an assistant referee, which is quite a feat for anyone who pursues a career as a match official.
His yellow and red card per game ratio is quite similar to the one of Howard Webb – 3.20 for yellow and 0.14 red cards per game, respectively.
1. Cüneyt Çakır
The best contemporary Turkish referee known for his strictness started his professional career in 2001. After impressing in the domestic competitions, Cakir became a FIFA-affiliated referee in 2006 and became a UEFA elite referee in 2010.
The former insurance agent officiated both the UEFA Champions League 2012 semi-final between Barcelona and Chelsea and the UEFA Champions League 2015 final between Barcelona and Juventus.
Çakır has two World Cups under his belt, where he officiated six games in the past decade.
Since some match officials are remembered for their questionable decisions made in finals, it’s easy to notice how hard of a task being a soccer referee is. While many referees are considered top-tier and world-class by some, there are probably others who wouldn’t agree with that – mostly because some of their decision-making affected potential title-winning games. It’s quite hard to make a completely objective list that would work for every single soccer fan in the world, but we believe that this article should give you a solid insight into what the world of soccer refereeing looks like.