The explanation behind a football referee being referred to as “the man in black” is as simple as it sounds: from the very early days of the game, they were distinguishable on the pitch by their all-black dress code.
Up until the Second World War, their ‘kit’ largely consisted of a blazer and tie, attire which seems more suitable for a vigorous weekend ramble than it does for a match of football, but makes understandable why, when officials did transition to an actual kit, black was the colour used.
Black is so ingrained in football tradition as the ‘referee’s colour’ that in England, for example, you won’t find a single club team that has historically used it as the main colour of their home kit.
As far as international football and the FIFA World Cup is concerned, the 1994 tournament in the United States is cited by the FIFA Museum as the first in which colours other than black were permitted by FIFA. This no doubt has much to do with this particular edition of the World Cup being the first where increased efforts were made to appeal to a broadcast audience, with players for the first time having names on the back of their shirts as well as numbers on the front.
Hungarian referee Sandor Puhl wore the red kit in the final, in the process becoming the first referee to wear a colour other than black in a FIFA World Cup Final.
However, while match officials in 1994 are officially recognized as the first to wear non-black kits, a trip down memory lane reveals that this actually happened about 20 years earlier.
But first, let’s take a brief dive into World Cup history, pre-colour TV.
Before the days of technicolour, black and white were the two most distinguishable colours on the TV screen, with anything in between a series of shades of grey. As such, even during games where teams may have had two “grey” shirts, there was almost invariably at least one team with white shorts or socks that allowed viewers to tell them apart.
For their part, referees were pretty much always distinguishable due to their all-black ensemble, complete with floppy white collar.
This shot from the final match at the 1950 World Cup shows that referees had moved out of blazers and into proper sporting attire. Incidentally, this also appears to be the first incarnation of the FIFA referees’ badge.
1954 didn’t see much change – apart from a greater portion of the socks being turned over to reveal white.
Referee kits stayed pretty consistent for a good chunk of time after that – so let’s skip a few years ahead, shall we?
I bring up this shot of the 1966 FIFA World Cup Final for a few reasons. First, the linesman on the right is wearing a shirt without a white collar, leading me to think that there was still no ‘uniform’ recommendation or guideline (see what I did there?) imposed by FIFA regarding the type of kit referees had to wear.
Also, is the linesman on the left wearing a belt??
Once again in 1970 we see referees with slightly different-looking shirts, as well as, count ’em, three different sock designs. Also, despite the sweltering Mexican heat, referees were still stuck with long-sleeved kits.
While the sleeve length didn’t change for a while yet, 1974 saw its first big referee kit milestone – and it was all down to one country’s participation.
1974-1990: the Scotland era
While Scotland had qualified for both the 1954 and 1958 World Cups, the lack of technicolour at that time meant that evidently it wasn’t considered an issue to have their navy blue shirts and the referees’ black take to the same pitch (nor was there any reasonable alternative, to be fair).
They next qualified in 1974: their first group stage match, against Zaïre, made a little bit of World Cup history.
Yes, that is the referee. Red shirt, RED SHORTS, and what appear to be all-white socks. This man was flipping the referee dress code on its head 20 years before FIFA even claims non-black kits were made available.
But we’re not done with Scotland in 1974.
This is a screenshot from the Scots’ next match against Brazil. The red shirt and shorts remain, but now the referee has switched the white socks for normal black ones.
Shall I zoom out a little bit?
Yes, this is a FIFA World Cup match and yes, the referee and his linesman are wearing different coloured shirts. And shorts, for that matter. Now, personally, I wouldn’t be caught dead in a different coloured shirt from my AR at the local park, let alone on the world’s biggest stage, but I digress.
Unfortunately, Scotland wore white against Yugoslavia’s royal blue in their final match of the 1974 tournament, which meant the referees all returned to the traditional black.
The excitement, however, resumed four years later in Argentina.
Scotland’s opening match against Peru saw the referees wear a tasteful red-black-black combo. You’d think FIFA finally came to their senses and decided on an alternate outfit that was both functional and aesthetically tasteful.
Well, that idea lasted one match. What followed against Iran and the Netherlands was nothing short of utterly spectacular.
God DAMN! These fine gentlemen mean BUSINESS!
I think it’s safe to say these referee kits are irrefutably, categorically, the best that the sport of football has ever seen. Nothing else even comes close. I mean, just look at the guy holding the red flag. He’ll take on anybody who dares to comment about the Bayern Munich kit he’s wearing.
Kidding aside, I really do question why in the hell these red shorts and socks were necessary, particularly in the Holland game. The Dutch wore their white shirts so they wouldn’t contrast with the referees, but still wore orange shorts and socks.
Some football governing bodies nowadays (cough, UEFA, cough) get so bent out of shape about referee socks being the same colour as player socks, which results in utterly pointless kit combinations such as this and this). It’s almost refreshing to see how little of a shit FIFA gave back in 1978. Scotland wore red socks, so too did the referees, and Holland were in dark orange for good measure. It’s almost as if they’re sticking their middle finger up to modern-day UEFA. Well done, FIFA.
Don’t get me wrong, I think the all-red created more of a colour clash than even all-black would have. But boy am I ever glad we got to see this ensemble in all its glory.
As it turned out, as far as I’m aware, that was the last time a referee wore red socks in a World Cup match. Scotland took on Brazil again in 1982 and FIFA had evidently abandoned the all-red experiment.
1986 saw a slight change in that, FINALLY, short-sleeved shirts were made available.
Also, it became pretty clear there weren’t any alternative options beyond black and red, as Scotland’s opponents on the day, Denmark, changed out of their red strips presumably just to accommodate the officials.
The 1990 tournament saw no further change in referee kits, before all hell broke loose in America four years later.