Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Errol Sweeney: The most notorious referee in South African sporting history.

Posted on 28 October 2019 by Inam Yaphi

Dr Errol Sweeney is undoubtedly one of the most notorious referees in South African sporting history. And the philosophy he lives by explains why – “If you look for sh*t, you’ll get it and if you take it you deserve it”. The Sports Gazette spoke to the Hanging Judge about his days back in Apartheid South Africa and how referees get treated in modern football.

Sweeney started his refereeing career in the 1970/71 season. Born and raised in Bettystown, Ireland, he emigrated to South Africa with his wife in 1985. He is one of the only referees to officiate two semi-finals in one day when he was called upon when the originally appointed referee’s flight was delayed.

”I wasn’t the calmest person” recalls Sweeney.  “I would shout at the players; I would make my point in a very unambiguous way and I would never ever tolerate nonsense with players”. This type of mindset allowed him to do his job to the best of his ability. Referees have to be strong and assertive, which is something he thinks today’s game lacks. “This is a big problem I have with referees today; they are being hoodwinked, they are being deceived and they are made to look like fools”.

Match officials have a lot of pressure from players, managers and fans and many of them might be afraid to make big decisions due to a possible fear of being criticised and are often victims of abuse. In a country like South Africa, which is regarded as one of the most dangerous countries in the world, fans can often go to the extreme to try and intimidate referees.

Errol Sweeny sending off former Manchester United player Bryan Robson (Photo courtesy of Errol Sweeney)

Sweeny was once sent to Bloemfontein to officiate a relegation game and he recalls finding a bullet left in his hotel room. “I told my hotel manager not to tell anyone what room I was in, what floor I was on, in fact I even told him not to confirm that I was in that hotel to anybody.”

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only time Sweeny was the victim of abuse as he recalled a near death experience.

“I was taken out of Tembisa (Johannesburg) in a police armoured vehicle, because the guys wanted to kill me(Orlando Pirates fans). It was an Orlando Pirates against a team from Pretoria called Arcadia Shepherds. But I would’ve been killed that day only for those guys”.

Many referees face this problem, and it’s a grass-root problem embedded in us from a young age. Growing up you can all remember the angry dad who took the game a little bit too seriously and spewed insults to the referee, and every Saturday when a decision didn’t go his side’s way. He made sure he let the referee know what he thought of him

Referees are always criticized but never praised and the only time we hear about a referee is when he has got something wrong (or that we think is wrong). Football fans struggle to realise that they are human and make mistakes. This is why VAR’s introduction was important, even with its flaws. “It works in cricket, it works in rugby, it works in tennis, why can’t it work in soccer? If a decision is correct, they still question it, why? Because they want to win, why? Because there is big money involved, big bonuses for them to win and for their team to win,” says Sweeney.

Errol Sweeney and his linesman getting escorted out of the old FNB Stadium (Photo courtesy of Errol Sweeney)

Truth is the more gadgets you give people the more they are going to depend on them, and Sweeney believes this will lead to poorer refereeing standards as VAR will serve as a cop out when they get things wrong.

Sweeney was coerced into retiring in 1995 when he took a new role in the appointment of referees and he still gets many messages on his social media platforms asking him to come back to South Africa football. He claims that the South Africa Football Association (SAFA) still have a lot of work to do as week in, week out referees can give dodgy calls which sadly can put their lives at risk.

Encouragingly Sweeney did not rule out a return to South Africa as SAFA have called him a couple of times for the role of Directors of Referees

“I’ve offered my services to SAFA because I hear complaints all the time. But the only people that could bringme back are SAFA. They control everything. Danny Jourdan (SAFA president), he is the only one – he has my mobile number and I am a man of action”.

Sweeney is now back in Ireland and occasionally writes a column for the City Press.