It's not really rocket science (or controversial) to suggest that in most industries, if you attract the best and brightest, regardless of race, religion, gender or country of origin, standards will rise. The Premier League is, by virtually any metric, the most successful football league in the world, and also the most diverse and cosmopolitan. Part of the league's success story lies in attracting not just top players and coaches from around the world, but also some of the best executives, sports scientists and, yes, ownership groups from every corner of the globe.
It's Economics 101: As markets open and globalize, competition for places increases and the available talent pool expands. This doesn't just apply to football, which is why in most developed nations there are very few jobs reserved exclusively for "natural-born" citizens, whether by rule or by practice: president, some law enforcement jobs, some intelligence jobs and, well, that's basically it.
Oh wait, one more: top-flight referee.
The Premier League has embraced "outsiders" (for lack of a better word) more than any other league, perhaps in any sport, and that practice has been a runaway success both on the pitch and commercially. It's not the only reason behind its success of course, but it's a major reason.
And yet, in three decades of existence, the league has featured only two referees from outside the United Kingdom. One was Dermot Gallagher, who emigrated from Ireland to England aged 16 (and would hide his Irish accent) and the other is Jarred Gillett, who is Australian and took charge of his first Premier League game this season. (More on Gillett later, because his is very much a special case.)
It's one area where, progressive as the Premier League may be elsewhere, it remains staunchly conservative and protectionist -- much like Europe's other big leagues. In practical terms, if you want to referee in the Premier League, you basically need to be English or English-raised (just as you need to be Italian in Serie A or German in the Bundesliga).
The reason behind this is structural and has to do with how referees are formed and trained. Most countries have a national referees' association or equivalent, as well as local offshoots. Kids start officiating in their teens, usually at the youth level, and the ones who enjoy it and are good at it move up the ranks, eventually entering semi-pro and professional football. In that sense, they're no different from players; in fact, the vast majority of referees are folks who realized in their teens that they were better as officials than as footballers.
The refereeing pyramid, of course, narrows as you get closer to the top, and while you get paid modest amounts of money throughout, it's really only once you reach the highest domestic level that you can call it a full-time job (and, even then, only in the bigger, wealthier leagues). If you're good enough to become one of the top officials in your country and get called to UEFA and FIFA competitions, you'll make a very good living for a decade or so. And if you're one of the best in the world, then you might even reach seven figures, if only for a year or two.
With some exceptions, it doesn't really become a career until you're in your 30s and even then, only if you're lucky and talented enough to move to the top echelon and go full-time. You spend your 20s giving up weekends -- and many midweeks -- for basically pocket change. It gets in the way of your social life and, probably, your day job too. It's not a coincidence that before referees became professional, many were self-employed or had jobs as lawyers or doctors or financial advisers, gigs where they could be flexible with their time.
And that's one of the reasons why referees enjoy protected status. The pathway to becoming a professional referee is already tortuous and difficult, involving huge sacrifices. If, on top of that, after going through the system and knocking of the door of the top flight you find that suddenly the league is importing referees from abroad ... well, you're not going to be happy. And the entities that fund the PGMO (the organization that supplies referees in England) -- the Football League, Football Association and Premier League -- likely won't be happy either. They're going to ask themselves why they spend so much on referee training and development only for foreign refs to take their jobs.
The other reason is pride. Referees' associations take great pride in developing and training officials. They want to see them excel and take charge of the biggest international games. Bringing in foreign officials theoretically limits their own guys' opportunities to grow.
Which brings us to Gillett. His story is emblematic because it shows the lengths somebody who is not from the U.K. has to go to officiate in the Premier League.
Gillett is a 35-year-old Australian referee who is a bit of a prodigy in officiating circles. At 24, he was officiating in the A-League. At 27, he became a FIFA referee, taking charge of games throughout Asia. By the time he was 32, he had been named the A-League Referee of the Year five times. If he were a footballer, he'd be Erling Haaland.
Like Haaland, he wanted to further his career. Unlike Haaland, he couldn't just sign a contract with the Bundesliga or Premier League. Gillett got a post-doctoral research job to study cerebral palsy in children at John Moores University in Liverpool, got a visa and moved to England. It's the sort of thing you can do when you have Ph.D. in biomechanics like he has.
The PGMO were aware of this and, in fact, their head, Mike Riley, had been to see him in Australia. They were excited that one of the most promising referees in the world was moving to England, but they couldn't simply give him a job. Gillett had to go through the system, starting in League 2 in 2019 and working his way up through League 1 and the Championship to the Premier League this year. It's working out for him, but quite obviously, most referees don't have the advantages Gillett enjoyed to make this happen: native English speaker, officiating prodigy in his homeland, a Ph.D. that enabled him to move halfway around the world and the support of Riley and the PGMO.
Even then, Gillett did make sacrifices: His time in the lower divisions probably meant a pay cut relative to what he earned in the A-League. And because of the way World Cup officials are chosen, he likely will miss out on Qatar 2022, which for a referee could be the pinnacle of one's career.
Why does all this matter? Well, aside from the fact that where you grow up shouldn't determine your right to attempt to make a living if you've shown that you're talented enough, there are plenty more reasons. If you accept the fact that top-level refereeing is a skill and that, while it can be learned, some folks are just going to be better at it than others, it makes no sense to de facto exclude people on the basis of where they developed as match officials. Especially when you don't do it for players, coaches, owners, executives and, yes, fans.
It's true for all top leagues and their refereeing corps and it's especially true right now in England, where in the words of former ref Peter Walton, "The talent pool isn't particularly deep." And he's right. It isn't, though some of that no doubt is cyclical. Just as footballing talents are born (and then developed), so too are refereeing talents. And ensuring the world's best league also has the best referees is, frankly, a no-brainer.
Gillett's presence in the Premier League is the classic exception that confirms the rule: We'll take the best from all over the world, unless they're referees, in which case we'll protect our own. It happened because he was considered a prodigy, because he had another career and because he was able to make considerable economic and professional sacrifices in the short term. You shouldn't have to be Jarred Gillett to referee in a different country to the one in which you were born and raised.