How many of you have actually refereed a real football match? I mean an eleven a-side, league or cup match (friendlies don’t count) with linesmen, nets, cards in pocket, watch on wrist and whistle in hand. Being a recently retired player of many years, and something of a club stalwart (read ‘mug’), I’ve stepped into this particular breach on several occasions in the last few years. Each time I’ve done so with considerable reluctance because refereeing is an absolutely awful experience. I consider myself a competent referee and I’ll defend my impartiality to anyone, but the fact is that the moment you blow the whistle you become fair game for insults, abuse and, on one occasion verbal, and physical intimidation. And that was just from our team. I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone would want to subject themselves to this on a regular basis.
So it was with some interest that I viewed the introduction of the FA’s Respect campaign back in the summer. Perhaps the principal outcome of a massive FA consultation exercise, Respect is long overdue. Anyone who’s been involved in the game for a while knows the stories: referees who’ve been attacked on the pitch, damaged vehicles, anonymous phone calls, written threats, excrement posted through letter boxes. One that sticks in my mind was of a young female referee who was forced into a locked cupboard after the match, her changing room was ransacked and her possessions flushed down the toilet. It sticks because I noted that the people who told me thought the whole thing hilarious. In any other context they would’ve been appalled. But, see, she was a referee, right? Fair game. Serves her right.
When Respect was announced the media spent some time analysing how different sports treated their officials - the most common comparison being of course with rugby union. For all its social pretensions, rugby has, at its heart, a propensity for serious violence. Anyone who’s read Martin Johnson’s description of how his Leicester team would pass the hours on the bus by punching each other in the face, or Ben Kay’s description of skulduggery in the scrum during England’s 2007 World Cup semi final against France, can be under no illusions on this score. Yet, even at the highest levels, it’s not uncommon to see a six foot seven forward, hands behind his back, head meekly forward, saying, ‘Yes sir, I understand sir’ while a referee wags a finger gamely at his chest. Compare that with Rooney, Terry, Ashley Cole, Roy Keane et al obscenely disputing every throw-in and the difference couldn’t be more marked.
The most commonly advanced argument for this difference is class. In England and Scotland rugby players tend to come more from families in the middle and upper income brackets. This manifests itself in the choice of school and the games played therein. Football on the other hand is largely considered to be a working class game and as such its player inherently more unruly.
Arguments about social Darwinism aside, I’m not so sure about this. I grew up in South Wales in the 70s and 80s where there was no question that rugby not football was the workingman’s game of choice. Yet the difference between how the two sports treated their officials was just as marked. You didn’t argue with the referee in rugby, in football it was considered rude not to. Nor can this argument be transferred overseas. In The Italian Job, a comparative analysis of the football cultures of England and Italy, Gianluca Vialli notes that in Italy players tend to come from more wealthy backgrounds and are better educated. Yet the treatment of referees in Italy is, if anything, worse. Not only are referees routinely abused by staff, players and spectators but the consensus is that the majority are corrupt as well. In England it is simply not acceptable to question the integrity of a match official. Their competence or parentage however? Well, that’s a different matter.
I think a better explanation lies in how these sports - and I mean this in the widest sense to include the media that report them - view their officials and what they expect from them. I would argue that football referees are expected to be inhuman and are criticised if they are not. In rugby the opposite is true. A few examples - how often have you heard a criticism that a referee is being too fussy, or is not letting the game flow? How often is a referee criticised for not implementing the laws in exactly the same way from game to game or differently from how another referee interpreted the laws in a similar situation?
Personally, I don’t think any of these expectations are realistic and it is the failure of football as a game to understand this that leads to referees being so routinely criticised. No two instances are identical, often they happen very quickly and the referee must make an instant decision. Unsurprisingly the referee will sometimes get it wrong. Exactly the same criteria apply in rugby, but it is at this point that the difference in expectation becomes manifest. In rugby there is an acceptance that the referee is human and makes mistakes, in football there is not. This is grotesquely unfair because within the game this expectation is carried by referees and referees alone. Everyone accepts that Ronaldo can have an off day, that John Terry can miss an easy tackle or that Rafa can stuff up his selection. Mike Riley can’t miss an offside call however, because ‘there’s now so much money riding on these games.’ If he does, he’ll need a police escort to get off the pitch, and can expect to be hounded by the referees' nemesis Andy Gray and the rest of the media.
There are several consequences. The first and most debilitating is that an expectation of perfection from referees appears to absolve players and managers from accepting their own responsibilities. A referee who has carded players for dangerous play early in a match must continue to do so throughout the rest of the game or else be accused of inconsistency. If so there is a responsibility on players to understand this and adapt their play accordingly. Rarely does this logic seem to apply however. Perhaps the best example in recent years was the match between Holland and Portugal in the 2006 World Cup. Having carded several players for blatant fouls early in the match, the referee Vlentin Ivanov had little choice but to carry on when both sides continued to kick lumps out of each other. Costinha was sent off for a second yellow card when he virtually caught the ball on the half way line, Deco went, also for a second yellow, when he launched himself two footed at Heitinga from all of five feet away. In the end, both sides were lucky to finish with nine players still on the pitch. However whom did the media, the teams and FIFA President Sepp Blatter blame for ruining what was potentially a thrilling match? The players who had virtually assaulted each other? Nope. Perhaps it was the coaches who allowed them to do it? Don’t be silly. It was entirely the referee’s fault. He lost control. He was card happy. He was sent home in disgrace.
A second consequence is that this expectation puts off sensible people from becoming referees. Why would anyone give up his or her weekends to be verbally and physically abused trying to achieve perfection? You’d have to be nuts and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a significant proportion of football referees in this country tend to be, (how can I put this so not to offend or unnerve? Oh well, in for a penny…) – attention seeking geeks. Appropriate apologies for gross generalisations of course, and there are exceptions, Steve Bennett looks and sounds relatively sensible, but Mike Riley must know how camp he looks when he skips around in his tight schoolboy shorts. If not, someone tell him please. Graham Poll, the man who dedicated his autobiography to ‘The people of Tring for their unfailing support…’, was dropped by the BBC the moment it became apparent that he was an inarticulate buffoon. And do I have to mention Uriah Rennie? At the grassroots level, I can say with all candour that there aren’t too many company directors, policemen, fireman or natural leaders of the community wearing the black. Many of them play but very few go into refereeing afterwards. They're too sensible. On the other hand, I’m always struck by the fact that rugby referees at all levels seem to have more natural authority than their football counterparts. The reason? Rugby attracts and retains people more suited to the role.
It is here that the Respect campaign really has its work cut out. It is one thing to insist that communication with referees is limited to captains. It’s excellent that referees at all levels are now being supported against physical intimidation and verbal abuse. It is high time that the likes of Ferguson and Mourinho were prevented from attempting to influence the behaviour of referees with pre match comments and being given carte blanche to criticise their performance afterwards. However, if Respect is really to deliver there has to be a change in expectations which would relegate the importance of the referee’s performance to a point where it was regarded as having no more importance than other playing conditions like the length of the grass or the weather. Not least this would attract better people to the black. Referees are human too. Football needs to accept this and modify its expectations accordingly.