LONDON • Mark Clattenburg, English football's leading referee, has stunned the Premier League by quitting for a hugely lucrative position in Saudi Arabia.
The 41-year-old, who took charge of the finals of the FA Cup, Champions League and European Championship last year, is understood to have been offered more than £500,000 (S$878,000) a year as the Saudi Arabian Football Federation's (SAFF) head of refereeing.
It is an enormous increase on his earnings in English football, where he is the highest paid referee with a total remuneration of approximately £140,000 a year, which includes match fees for European, international and domestic fixtures.
Although widely recognised as one of the world's leading officials, having won the Globe Soccer award for best referee of 2016, Clattenburg has had a strained relationship with Premier Game Match Officials Ltd (PGMO), the body that takes charge of elite-level refereeing in England.
Clattenburg had long felt he was appreciated more by Uefa and Fifa, the European and world football governing bodies respectively, than by his employers at the PGMO.
Despite his ongoing tensions with the PGMO, his departure comes as an enormous blow to the Premier League at a time when refereeing standards have been under intense scrutiny.
Graham Poll, another of England's former Fifa officials, said that it left English refereeing "in crisis", with "an ever-weakening select group of referees and a dearth of talent to replace them."
Some of Clattenburg's fellow referees believe that he is already "finished" with the Premier League and that he will look to leave for Saudi Arabia at the earliest opportunity.
Clattenburg is due to meet Mike Riley, the general manager of the PGMO, next week to finalise the terms of his departure and to discuss whether he will take charge of any more matches between now and the end of the season.
The move looks almost certain to cost Clattenburg the chance to referee at the 2018 World Cup, but he said on Thursday that it was an "important move forward" for him.
His decision comes just weeks after he suggested that he would be open to refereeing in other leagues like the Chinese Super League, if the opportunity arose.
Clattenburg's appointment comes days after Howard Webb, who preceded him as English football's elite referee, departed the same position to take up a new role overseeing the introduction of video assistant referees in US' Major League Soccer.
THE TIMES, LONDON