Tomasz Kwiatkowski is one of the most liked referees by Polish footballers. In an extensive conversation with Meczyki
, the leading Polish VAR talks about the series "Referees", mobbing by players, experiences from lower leagues and hopes for the World Cup.
Meczyki: Hello, TV star. From your perspective, what is the reception of the series "Referees"?
Kwiatkowski: Positive. I watched all episodes. I think people really enjoy watching it. Each episode is a bit different; it shows different personalities and that's great because it proves that as a referee you must be yourself; you don't have to follow anyone. And even if a beginning referee would like to find someone to follow, you have a full range of people - some are calmer, others more expressive, some communicate this way, others another. There is a whole spectrum of personalities, and in the end, each of these people does well on the pitch. This shows that there are different methods of managing competitions.
- Such series do a lot of good in terms of understanding how you communicate, how you make decisions and what pressure you have from the players. Maybe referees should be recorded permanently?
- We just returned with Szymon Marciniak from the FIFA seminar in Abu Dhabi, the first one before the World Cup, where Pierluigi Collina said he wanted to protect the referees from what you would call transparency and he called it "the secret of the pitch". It seems reasonable to me, because the final decision consists of a lot of details, details that will be incomprehensible to the general public. Sometimes we just do not want people to know who made the mistake in a given situation or who influenced the final decision. Sometimes one hint, one detail is crucial for the referee or the VAR. Just as the football locker room has its secrets, the referee team conducts talks under stress, sometimes someone cannot cope with this stress, a colleague has to help him - we talk about normal, human weaknesses. So, I would rather be careful.
- It may be a different idea: the referee gives an interview after the match to the broadcaster in which he explains the decisions made. What do you say?
- It is enough for you to ask Adam Lyczmanski or Slawek Stempniewski whether they were always satisfied with their "hot" statements about certain decisions, for which they could not prepare before to analyze them in detail. After all, these were not decisions that they had an emotional relationship to because they did not make them. Once I was the main referee at the derby of Krakow, Pawel Raczkowski called me to the VAR monitor and I did not change my decision. Today, three years after this situation, I can say that I made a mistake. But, if someone had asked me then, 10 minutes after the game, I would have stubbornly defended that assessment. In your match, you always subconsciously defend your decisions. Everyone would like to be infallible. But sometimes it turns out that the third, fourth, fifth colleague has different insights, considers different criteria, and if you get together, he might convince you that you are wrong. It is not without reason that after the match we make a number of phone calls to our colleagues asking whether someone has watched the situation and what he thinks about it. Football is not tennis where the ball has either entered the field or missed. Refereeing in football is interpretative. Sometimes, after watching a given situation many times, we still do not know. I have no problem with going in front of the camera and explaining why I made such a decision, but I cannot guarantee that my assessment will be reliable then.
- Does the invitation to go along with Szymon Marciniak to the above-mentioned FIFA seminar in Abu Dhabi mean that you are preparing to work at the World Cup in Qatar?
- This was only the second step; we took the first one during the Arab Cup a month ago, although I think Szymon is already on the right track to be there. And, if his chances are good, mine will be too. However, if his chances are slim, mine will be zero. We are a team, that's how I treat it, so there's a chance we'll go there together, but it's still a long way to go. For now, we have to focus on good games in the domestic league and in Europe, where we will be tested all the time.
- The Arab Cup was your first trial. Did anyone evaluate your work in the semi-final Qatar - Algeria, where you added a total of 18 minutes?
- Of course, at such a tournament, after each match day, there is a meeting of the referees and discussion of the situations on a given day. The reception of our work at this match was very good. During the tournament, such debriefing clearly emphasized how much time the players "steal". It was a specific event. Players from that culture lie down for three minutes after each contact, scream, cry, it seems that their leg has been torn off, that they need to call the stretcher, that they have no chance to continue the match, and suddenly after three minutes they get up and it turns out that they don't need help, no problem. In Europe, if you see this behavior, you would be convinced that the player had torn ligaments. Someone has calculated that the effective playing time for the Arab Cup is between 57 and 60 minutes on average. Already during the group stage, we were given examples of referees who did not add enough time. Honestly, if we wanted to follow the recommendations 100%, we would have had to add even more time. First, we counted nine minutes, then there were two injury breaks and a goalkeeper game on time, four minutes to call the goal, so a total of another six minutes. We should have finished in the 105th minute, but in the 104th minute there was a penalty kick that took another minute. The evaluation was good; let me say more: we were given as an example of adding time.
- Let's go back to Abu Dhabi. What news did you get from this seminar? Any changes coming up?
- We must remember one thing. The World Cup is organized by FIFA, and we work every day in matches under the auspices of UEFA. And between them there is a difference in the VAR approach with respect to the definition of "clear and obvious error". FIFA expects correct decisions, regardless of how often you need to approach the monitor. In Europe, on the other hand, the bar of intervention is much higher, it is the concept of "clear and obvious error" and only in that case the referee should use video. We saw it at the last Euro. How many decisions have not been changed, although the fans thought differently, because one or two arguments were found to support the referee’s decision? We sit together, watch the clip, it's a penalty for you, it's a penalty for me, and the referee didn't whistle. But we both say the penalty is "soft". In UEFA this decision will be upheld, while in FIFA, as a VAR, if you feel that if you were the referee on the pitch and you would make a different decision, you call the referee to the monitor to watch the situation and if his original arguments convince him, there is no problem that he should stick to his decision. The situation is also different in Poland, where the "clear and obvious error" is treated as 80 percent, with some margin to follow the UEFA approach.
- You can get lost...
- First, at the Arab Cup, I spent a month as a VAR working to shift my thinking and solidify a new definition of "clear and obvious error". It is not that after two lectures you already know everything. It was a long process; I had to sort it all out in my head. Then there was the seminar in Abu Dhabi. It was easier for me, because it was after the Arab Cup, where I met the best "VARs" in Europe, much more experienced than me, but many of them grabbed their heads, they were also met with a completely different approach there than UEFA . And now we have to return to our previous thinking again, because we are facing the Champions League and the Europa League matches with Szymon.
- Maybe the FIFA approach is better? The rule with "clear and obvious error” is often, paradoxically, unclear. Both for footballers and fans.
- I think it is reasonably centered in Poland. We are a little in between. We have opened up to a slight modification of the obvious error in relation to UEFA's line, but we are not exaggerating with it either. We do not call a referee to watch 50/50 or even 60/40 situations. It is putting the referee in a very awkward position. Sometimes it is just like tossing a coin - there are arguments for the penalty and there are arguments against the penalty. You have to be healthy in all this. I can say that before that I was a fan of the "UEFA" line; I liked the consistency the most. However, all this has evolved over time, and it seems to me that now in Poland we are in the most optimal, common sense point.
- Coming back to the rules - is something changing for the second part of the season?
- The emphasis on the interpretation of certain situations may change, but not the rules, because they change before the season, not during the season. For the Ekstraklasa referees camp in Turkey, together with Krzys Jakubik and Bartek Frankowski, we prepared a presentation on tackles with the legs. What happens when a player has fired the shot and then, after the fact, a late defender or goalkeeper who tried to block the shot tackles him? Until now, we have recognized that if this contact was at least reckless, i.e. on a yellow card, it was only then a foul. Now we have softened it - it does not have to be a reckless contact, some less late, slightly softer tackles will also be considered a foul. Until now, it was maybe a bit easier from the referee's point of view, because there was a clear line, but the fans did not fully understand it - why is it not a foul, since I can see that the late defender caused the striker to fall? It is hard to explain without specific clips, but this is the first of the minor changes.
- And the second?
- It is a question of the so-called random "stamps" that were never offences, and now they will be. This is a change based on UEFA guidelines. There was once a match between Barcelona and PSG, in which the referee, after video review, awarded a penalty kick when two players were running towards the goal and the forward was stepped on by a defender. Coincidentally, but quite clearly. We want to be in line with UEFA as much as possible, so we will also slightly modify this approach, but also under certain circumstances. These are details mainly for referees, because the fans did not even notice these situations. And if they did, they started discussions and discussions will remain. Refereeing is not black and white.
- We can see that you have been doing well on the pitch for years, but on the other hand, the introduction of the VAR opened an international career for you. I wonder what would you prefer today?
- I definitely feel better as a referee. I chose this profession and it always fulfilled me. VAR turned out to be an accessory that allowed me to develop a lot and I liked it very much. When I go to a game as VAR, I am very happy, I have greater peace internally, because working on the pitch is, after all, a greater psychological challenge. However, the consequences of a potential VAR error could be greater. I sleep worse after a mistake on the Video room than on the pitch. On the pitch, someone can correct me. In addition, if I did not help my teammate while being VAR, and I could, then this matter may drag on and there may be a scandal. Also, I feel uncomfortable if my mistakes affect someone else's evaluation. The communication in the video room also needs to be changed. You need to be calmer; you should choose your words more precisely. FIFA is working on this nicely. There, specific messages are to be the same, word for word. A sentence begins with a specific word and ends with a specific word. If you call the referee to see a situation in the penalty area, you should not say "I recommend you to watch the penalty kick", but "I recommend you to see a potential penalty kick". The instructors are working on making the VARs very precise. Besides, this is partly due to language restrictions, as everyone speaks the same language.
- So, you, as VAR, communicate with Szymon Marciniak in English?
- Generally, yes, but we use Polish for details. At the Arab Cup, they expected us to communicate only in English. It is logical, because the Assistant VAR is often a foreigner; I had a Spaniard and a Dutch next to me and they also spoke English. In the Champions League, the AVAR is more and more often not Polish. The operator also speaks only English; in the Champions League for a few matches I had the same operator, a Bulgarian. In Qatar, they have been working very hard to make sure everyone understands what we are talking about, because there was a man in the back who was sending signals to the stadium and to the TV broadcaster about what was being checked.
- Why did you finally not make it to the training camp of Polish referees in Turkey?
- There was a bad epidemic in Abu Dhabi and we wanted to minimize the risk; we did not want to bring something to the other Polish referees.
- Pawel Raczkowski spoke on camera about striving to increase respect for referees; for the players' behavior to be "at least acceptable".
- Certainly, compared to other disciplines, there are many of these discussions in football. However, comparing Poland to other leagues - not necessarily. I think that in Spain, for example, the mobbing is sometimes twice as high as in our country. Pawel has led matches internationally and knows that the mentality is different in every league. The pressure is also different when, for example, Bayern plays against a lower-level team and it is known that the result will probably be high, and different when two teams meet at the highest level. How are Atletico Madrid players behaving in all games under Diego Simeone? After all, the highest level of mobbing is there. I watch their matches to see how the referee is doing. This is the highest level of management, including talking to players. Of course, it would be nice to have more respect for the referee, to make it look like in American football. But the European football involves some other emotions... I can say about myself. I listened to the materials "wiretapped" and I can see that I give myself over to this "expression". Sometimes I was surprised by myself; I can only apologize to the audience. I laugh when someone in an interview says that he does not swear at home. Well, I do not swear either! Neither do most footballers. Yet, on the pitch somewhere, emotions come out... One will cry, the other will get angry, the third will throw blasphemy.
- How do you remember refereeing in lower leagues? Is it really that bad?
- Yes, there were different situations. It was hard to leave the stadium several times. After some matches, I had four tires punctured in my car, we were pelted with eggs, locked in the locker room, we had to wait for the police. More than once I was afraid that I would not leave, and once a car followed us for a long time. Once upon a time, I was refereeing a Division B game on Holy Saturday. I thought I would spend a nice spring morning in nice weather, but in the 10th minute I gave one red card, in the 12th minute another and then I just prayed to make it through to the end. I remember that match until today. I know the boys were having a hard time. These are not easy matches. Sometimes these teams have players from the criminal community. Everyone knows they are playing there, and everyone pretends it's no problem. On the other hand, this is a test of character. Division B was a real school of life. After you went there once, twice or five times, it turned out that your resistance to difficult situations increases. You shaped the character. I think it makes it easier for me today. But I'm not surprised that sometimes 80 percent of referees drop out because it turns out that they did not like it. Or they would leverage, but they ask for what? Why are they supposed to puncture my tires, destroy my car, call me, my wife and mother the worst? I am not surprised at all. We were lucky to break through and let's agree that the situations we face today in Ekstraklasa are by no means difficult or extreme. You know no one around the corner will beat you in the mouth after the game.
- The best advice on how to manage players?
- Be yourself. Don't pretend to be anybody else. If you have your own ways to get along with your girlfriend and friends, then follow this path. You can have a referee as role model, but Kwiatkowski will never be Cuneyt Cakir, because this is a different mentality, a different way of communication. Likewise, a calm person will never be Kwiatkowski if he does not have such a temperament.
- If you could change or abolish one football rule, what would it be?
- There is a rule that players often don't understand. Why did you sometimes give an advantage after trying to stop a promising situation and don't go back to card the offender, while sometimes you do go back. So, you come back when the foul was at least reckless, which is cautionable. But if it was just a trip or a quick shirt pull, then we do not go back to this situation, because this action was not stopped because there was an advantage, and the referee allowed the game to continue. However, it does not change the player's fault in any way, he was just lucky that the action could go on. And I would change that. Since the intention of the foul was to interrupt a favorable action, why should he not be punished for it?
- Let me understand correctly: the point is to go back and punish not only sharp, reckless fouls, but also the so-called tactical fouls which would normally be penalized without an advantage?
- Yes, I think it would be simpler, fairer, and expected.