That Call Was BS!
- • Just over half of online discussions about soccer referee decisions in European leagues were negative.
- • Among the big five European soccer leagues, the Serie A online community had the largest ratio of negative posts and comments regarding referees – over 78% of all posts and comments had a negative sentiment.
- • Among the largest soccer teams in Europe, Manchester City’s online community had the most critical view of referees and their in-game decisions – 60.9% of posts and comments carried a negative sentiment.
Fans’ Take on Referees
Soccer fandom stretches far and wide across all of Europe, from England and the Premier League to Italy and Serie A. No matter the competition, these fans support their teams from game to game, hoping for a fair, competitive matchup and, most importantly, a victorious outcome. The last thing fans want is for the result of a game to be affected by a third party, specifically referees. No matter how unreasonable, fans are therefore often critical of referees and their decisions, especially those decisions that go against their team.
Due to the subjective nature of the calls referees make during the game, many soccer leagues have adopted Video Assistant Referee (VAR) technology to help back up contestable decisions. While the accuracy of decisions has increased from 92% to 98% due to VAR, fans still find ways to attack referees. This begs the question: Do certain teams’ or leagues’ fans react more negatively toward in-game decisions by referees than others?
To understand how critical fans are of in-game decisions overall by football league and team, we analyzed 56,315 posts that mention referee decisions on the subreddits of European soccer’s five biggest leagues and 16 most popular teams. All stemmed from the 2020/21 season. Read on to see what we found!
Leagues With the Harshest Critics
Which leagues are the most critical toward referee decisions? We began by analyzing the online communities of various European soccer leagues to understand the rate and ratio of negative sentiment posts with regards to in-game calls.
In terms of online communities, the English Premier League and Germany’s Bundesliga are way ahead of the pack when it comes to numbers of followers (612.8K and 317.3K, respectively). However, when comparing the five largest (and strongest) football leagues, France’s Ligue 1 shows the highest rate of negative sentiment posts toward referee decisions at 9.1 negative sentiment posts per 1,000 followers. Italy’s Serie A comes in at No. 2 with 4.2, followed by the aforementioned English Premier League with 3.6.
Overall, across the five leagues’ online communities, the average ratio of negative sentiment posts to positive sentiment posts is 50.8% to 49.2%. The only two leagues with a lower negative sentiment post percentage happen to be the two most-followed league communities: the English Premier League (50.3%) and the Bundesliga (44.2%). On the other hand, Italy’s Serie A had a 78.3% negative sentiment post percentage. In practice, this means that out of every four posts on the Serie A subreddit regarding in-game decisions by referees, more than three posts are negative.
Negativity Throughout the Season
Does negativity peak at the beginning, middle, or end of the season? This section analyzes the negative sentiment post percentage for each league from August 2020 to May 2021.
In each league, we see considerable variation in negative sentiment post percentages throughout the 2020/21 season. The top three months with the highest negative sentiment post percentages for each league are as follows:
- Serie A: October 2020 (100%), April 2021 (97.5%), May 2021 (89%)
- Ligue 1: April 2021 (100%), October 2020 (92.9%), February 2021 (87.4%)
- La Liga: December 2020 (100%), February 2021 (100%), April 2021 (80%)
- Premier League: October 2020 (55.3%), February 2021 (54.4%), May 2021 (51.2%)
- Bundesliga: February 2021 (71.2%), April 2021 (49.9%), January 2021 (48.7%)
The two most common months within the top three negative months per league include February 2021 and April 2021, both appearing within the top three for 4 out of the 5 leagues. October 2020 makes an appearance within the top three negative months for 3 out of the 5 leagues. Based on this information, there doesn’t seem to be a correlation between time and negative sentiment, as we see months in the beginning, middle, and end of the season showing the highest levels of negative sentiment across leagues.
Dates up in the Air
What days caused the most commotion among fans? We analyzed 21 different subreddits (five league subreddits and 16 team subreddits) to take a look at which dates sparked the most conversations, both positive and negative. Which fixtures led to the criticism? We explored deeper.
Of all days during the 2020/21 European football season, October 17, 2020, stood out the most in terms of interaction, with over 1,100 posts and comments alone. With 990 posts and comments, May 15, 2021, came next, followed by May 18, 2021 (881); April 3, 2021 (825); and October 24, 2020 (727). But what elicited this engagement, particularly the negative type? After diving deeper into the posts and comments from the top five dates, we found the main sources of negativity:
October 17, 2020: Barcelona fans were outraged by fouls called, more specifically the lack of calls that went in their favor.
May 15, 2021: Chelsea fans felt referees utilized VAR more rigorously for their team than for Leicester City.
May 18, 2021: Manchester City fans felt VAR cost them the game against Brighton, a relatively inferior team. Moreover, they felt these VAR “mistakes” should be expected.
April 3, 2021: While Chelsea fans did feel their team underperformed, they were still outraged with how the referees were calling the game and handing out cards unevenly.
October 24, 2020: Barcelona fans felt that VAR was ineffective in the game, often giving Real Madrid unfair advantages not only in this match but in general.
It is no surprise that all of this negativity stems from defeat, but many fans claimed that the use or lack of use of VAR was a major issue.
After exploring levels of sentiment over time and among different leagues, focusing on team-specific negativity and sentiment can give more insight into how fan bases think.
After analyzing the online communities of 16 of the largest soccer teams in Europe (six from the English Premier League, four from Italy’s Serie A, three from Spain’s La Liga, two from Germany’s Bundesliga, and one from France’s Ligue 1), we found that AC Milan fans have the highest post rate, at 171.8 posts per 1,000 followers. Inter Milan (122.9), Barcelona (81.9), Juventus (78.2), and Borussia Dortmund (67.1) round out the top five. Unsurprisingly, three of the top four teams by overall activity are from Serie A. Lining this up with our earlier analysis of the negativity of the Serie A community relative to the other leagues suggests that not only is the Serie A the most negative, it is also the most active online.
The top five teams in terms of negative sentiment post percentage are as follows:
- Manchester City (60.9%)
- Juventus (60.3%)
- Real Madrid (60%)
- Barcelona (59.7%)
- AC Milan (59.3%)
Most Flagrant Fan Bases
Fans say a lot of things when they are mad, but which English Premier League fan bases choose to do so in the most profane manner?
Overall, the Everton online community had the most vulgar choice of words, with over 14 profane words used for every 100 subscribers during the 2020-21 English Premier League season. On the flip side, Burnley fans remained the most PG, with less than one profane word used for every 100 subscribers.
Among the six English Premier League giants (Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, and Tottenham Hotspur), the Arsenal online community had the greatest density of profanity used (10.4 profane words for every 100 subscribers), followed by Tottenham Hotspur (9.3 profane words for every 100 subscribers) and Manchester United (6.3 profane words for every 100 subscribers). The least profane of this group was Manchester City at 3 explicit words for every 100 subscribers.
Preferred Profane Online Verbiage
Having an overall vulgar online community is one thing. More specifically, however, what forms of profanity were each fan base’s go-to during the 2020-21 season?
In general, the most popular vulgar word among English Premier League fans was “s–te,” making up 29% of all vulgar words used. “S–t” immediately followed at 27.3%, and “f–k” rounded out the top three at 12.6%.
When assessing fan base profanity in terms of its use based on the percentage change from the overall league average, some standouts included the following:
- Cardiff City was most associated with “s–te”(87.9% above the league average)
- Tottenham Hotspur was most associated with “s–t” (24.6% above the league average)
- Watford was most associated with “wank” (114.8% above the league average)
- Manchester United was most associated with “tw-t” (8.6% above the league average)
- Wolverhampton Wanderers was most associated with “willy” (569.4% above the league average)
- Burnley was most associated with “t-ts” (1,112.7% above the league average)
- Leicester City was most associated with “c–t” (75.6% above the league average)
After observing online soccer communities, it is apparent that there is often a negative sentiment toward referees and the decisions they make in-game. And while fans of the Premier League and Bundesliga are generally split between negative and positive sentiments, fans of Serie A, Ligue 1, and La Liga are especially prone to negative posts. This sentiment isn’t limited to specific times of the year, suggesting that fans’ voices are routinely not being heard.
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Methodology and Limitations
For this study, we scraped posts and comments from various soccer-related subreddits (five league subreddits and 16 team subreddits) from August 1, 2020, to May 31, 2021. Specifically, our scrape included posts and comments containing the terms “referee,” “ref,” “VAR,” “yellow card,” and/or “red card.” All scraped data was analyzed using VADER (Valence Aware Dictionary and sEntiment Reasoner) sentiment analysis in conjunction with the Natural Language Toolkit (NLTK) library in Python. This provides a sentence-level analysis of long-form text and computes aggregate scores per article for positive, negative, and neutral sentiment. We conducted this process on 56,315 subreddit posts and comments.
We only examined the positive and negative sentiments of each subreddit post or article. To determine the percentage of positive and negative posts and articles, we rated each post based on whether its positive or negative score was higher. For all other analyses, we used positive and negative sentiment (either as individual scores or as “net sentiment,” which is the negative score subtracted from the positive score).
Additionally, we scraped posts and comments from every English Premier League team subreddit from September 1, 2020, to September 30, 2021. Using a profanity check library in Python, we only included posts containing offensive language. We identified the specific profane words used in each entry along with the specific subreddit where they appeared. In total, this included 66,665 posts and comments.
No statistical testing was performed, so the claims listed above for this study are based on means alone. As such, this content is exploratory and is presented for informational purposes only. The first scrape took place between July 26, 2021, and July 30, 2021, and the second scrape took place between October 11 and October 13, 2021.
Fair Use Statement
What are your thoughts on referee decisions in European soccer? Perhaps your opinions would be made stronger with this data. Feel free to share the findings from this article; just be sure your purposes are noncommercial and that you link back to this page.