"we have to worry": DFB referee talent Jonah Besong on dealing with referees

DFB referee talent Jonah Besong during a friendly match last summer.

DFB referee talent Jonah Besong during a friendly match last summer.Image: www.imago-images.de / Aalto-Foto

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05/14/2022, 13:0105/14/2022, 13:04

Luke Grybowski

Being mobbed, insulted and sometimes yelled at at the weekend is part of everyday life for referees in professional football. Insults in the stadium are almost accepted as normal. If there are also disputed whistles, wrong decisions despite video assistants and mistakes during substitutions, the performance is discussed for days and the referees are denied any competence by experts – especially former players.

Jonah Besong also knows this and has experienced such situations before. The 24-year-old is a referee in the youth and amateur divisions and officiates games in the U-19 Bundesliga, the Regionalliga West and sometimes in the Landesliga Niederrhein.

“We have to think about how we say something and analyze it and how the football world deals with mistakes.”

DFB junior referee Jonah Besong on dealing with referees

No matter how much technology we have, mistakes will always happen. People always say that there is so much money at stake, but people are attached to this money and they make mistakes,” says Besong.

The fact that not everyone accepts this is made particularly clear again and again by blatant cases: There are death threats, such as Felix Zwayer experienced after the Dortmund vs Bayern game in December, or flying beer mugs that hit referees in the back of the head – such as line judges Christian Gittelmann in March in Bochum.

“We have to think about how we say something and analyze it and how the football world deals with mistakes. If the way it wasn’t always so hurtful, maybe there would be more people who would enjoy refereeing“, he explains.

The number of referees continues to decrease

Besong also notes a worrying development in the way referees are treated. “It’s gotten worse and worse,” he describes succinctly. Born in Duisburg, he has been an referee since he was 14 and notes that it has now “become socially acceptable to rabble on the pitch.”

However, that doesn’t change Besong’s intention to pursue the job of refereeing. After all, football wouldn’t work without them. “Ultimately, it’s up to the people, football society and clubs to find better ways to work together.”

Referee Jonah Besong at the A youth derby between Schalke 04 and Borussia Dortmund

Referee Jonah Besong at the A youth derby between Schalke 04 and Borussia DortmundImage: www.imago-images.de / Maik Hölter/TEAM2sportphoto

Because the behavior of the spectators also has an impact on the fact that the number of referees in Germany has been falling continuously for years. According to the data portal extra in the 2016/17 season there were still 59,022 referees active in Germany, in 2020/21 only 44,821.

Young people quickly deterred from the referee job

In football it is more the rule than the exception that a referee is not given a friendly welcomewhen he comes to the sports field,” said Thaya Vester at the end of last year ZDF. The criminologist from the University of Tübingen published a study on violent phenomena in (amateur) football in 2019.

In interviews about the study, Vester identified experiences of violence as the main reason for the lack of junior staff. However, it is not only about attacks on the referee, but also about aggressive interactions between the players.

In addition: “The commitment to voluntary work is no longer as strong as it used to be. Younger people are more likely to think in terms of projects and move elsewhere if they lack appreciation“She told ZDF.

Bundesliga referee Deniz
Aytekin as a role model

Jonah Besong has also experienced situations similar to the flying beer mug in Bochum in his games in the regional league and A youth Bundesliga. Especially on the way to the catacombs, you often think about what could happen now, he says.

“But it’s difficult to prepare or train for scenes, because it always depends on the external circumstances. In addition, everyone deals with such situations differently.”

Despite such incidents, he feels well supported by the association as part of the DFB support team. And so Besong was already in contact with the Bundesliga referees Deniz Aytekin, Patrick Ittrich and Sören Storks and got tips.

The 24-year-old was particularly happy about the news from Aytekin, as he counts him among his role models. The calm with which the 43-year-old leads the games is impressive.

Besong himself is very open when dealing with the players on the pitch and doesn’t shy away from one or the other saying when it comes to grumbling on the field.

Besong thinks the age limit for referees makes sense

He doesn’t believe that the experienced Bundesliga referees paid any particular attention to him because he could contest their place in the future. “They don’t think like that. Of course you are aware that there are talented referees, but there are talented referees in every national association.

Ex-Bundesliga referee Manuel Gräfe, who had to end his career in 2021 due to the age limit, criticized the promotion culture in the DFB in a guest article in the “Bild” newspaper two weeks ago: “Here we are again with the performance principle, which has been around for a long time is unfortunately at the back of the DFB referee management.”

“There has to be a limit.”

DFB referee talent Jonah Besong on the age limit for professional referees

Jonah Besong sees it differently. “You can’t win a game, get three points and end up at the top. The assessment of the observer is always individual. Sometimes there’s a bit of luck involved and in the end it’s nuances that decide whether you move up a league.”

The fact that there is also an age limit for referees in addition to the sports aptitude test makes sense for him. If there were no limit, the Bundesliga would be overstaffed. “Then nobody would be able to move up from the 2nd division to the Bundesliga. Because why should I dismount a referee who performs well. There has to be a limit.” However, he considers it debatable whether this limit has to be 48 years old.

It will be a while before Jonah Besong has reached this limit. And that’s how long he’s dreamed of whistling in professional football. “But until then I still have to take many small steps.”

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