On the ball: improving referees’ communication through hearing aid technology


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On the pitch communication is vital. A well-remembered example of this was the 2006 World Cup final in Berlin between France and Italy. In the 110th minute, Zinedine Zidane headbutted Marco Materazzi. It was later revealed through interviews that Marco Materazzi had insulted Zidane's sister, which led to Zidane's heightened anger and reaction. The referee did not see the incident. Hardly anyone saw it, Materazzi was on the ground, and the match commentators were confused. Their eyes, and the eyes of hundreds of millions of people around the world, were on the other end of the pitch. The incident however was directly observed (without the use of a monitor) by fourth official Luis Medina Cantalejo from his position at the pitchside. He informed the referee and his assistants through the communications system. Zidane was sent off and consequently he did not participate in the penalty shootout which Italy won 5–3.

Referees have a difficult job to do under the toughest of circumstances. If they make no mistake they are invisible. If they get a major decision wrong that affects the course of the game it is remembered forever. But referees cannot see everything and then communication helps them.

Phonak developed ComCom in close cooperation with some iconic referees over the course of several years. Long series of testing resulted in the ultimate design that gives reliable communication in the toughest of circumstances. But referees were skeptical at first. They did not believe it could work, it would stay in the ear while they were running over the field. They could not believe that in high noise levels or pouring rain communication was even possible. Surprisingly they were also concerned about the visibility. It was like the stigma of hearing aids spilled over to headsets.

"I’ve been a referee in the English Premier League for 20 years. I’m also certified to referee international matches, and in 2011 I had the chance to officiate four UEFA soccer matches. In the past we used cheap white headset systems, but these simply didn’t perform. They needed taping to the face, and then re-taping due to sweating, otherwise they would fall out of the ear. Then I tried the ComCom headset after my referee gear supplier suggested it. Unlike generic earpieces, ComCom’s ear shell is molded to the shape of my ear, so it sits perfectly in there. I don’t even feel it after a few minutes. It always stays in position and its audio quality is fantastic. It never causes itching, or ear pressure, or hurts in any way.”

Over the last years more than 25,000 referees in soccer, ice hockey, American football, lacrosse, handball, water polo, basketball, polo, field hockey, roller in-line and rugby have started to use ComCom.

From Zinedine Zidane’s legendary head-butt in the 2006 World Cup final to contested national championship matches: ComCom is used in the major international tournaments in football and in most national leagues. Since 2008 word of mouth is one of the major marketing communication avenues in this ‘old boys network’. When the official sports regulations allow for it, Phonak’s headset is the preferred choice. Price or marketing are not a deciding factor. The product has to deliver and only if it delivers performance and value, a referee will use it. The face of arbitration in sports has changed.

Facts and figures: the role of the referees at the World Cup

  • On average 25 referees and 58 assistant referees
  • For 64 games
  • They will whistle about 2000 fouls
  • They will hand out about 240 yellow cards and 20 red cards
  • Number of referees worldwide who use ComCom: 25,000

From the article written by: Hans Mülder, Director Marketing, Phonak Communications AG / Maarten Barmentlo, Group Vice President Marketing, Phonak AG