Only Human

Who'd be a top level referee? Abuse from players, fans & managers, constantly in the spotlight & every decision subject to trial by television. Here's Jon Allison.

It happens in pretty much every game at the top level, the whistle blows, only to be greeted with howls of derision from one team. Abuse rains in from the stands and players surround the officials, arms outstretched and mouths shouting nothing but vitriol. Eventually calm is restored, play continues, and it appears to be the end of the matter. However, there is no such mercy for the people responsible for taking charge of games. The decisions are poured over endless times on TV and in the post-match press conferences.

In a sport containing Ashley Cole, El-Hadji Diouf and Joey Barton, being the most hated men in football is quite an achievement, but Messrs Clattenburg, Busacca and Webb somehow manage it with ease. These men have never shot a university student on placement, spat into a hostile crowd or extinguished a cigar in somebody’s eye. So what is their crime in all this? Essentially it’s that they’re human and make a mistake every now and then. It is nothing too heinous when you actually think about it.

Referees and other match officials are tasked with making hundreds of tight decisions in every game. Which way does that throw in go? Was that a foul? Was he offside? They have to make these choices in front of a baying partisan support of thousands, shrieking in horror if a close decision goes against their team, irrespective of its accuracy. These decisions are shown over and over again for the benefit of viewers at home, from several different angles and in slow motion, all of which are privileges not available to a referee.

Then there are the players themselves. Twenty-two men sent out with the expressed intention of doing absolutely anything to win. Not to play correctly, fairly or honestly, just to win. That extends to what is euphemistically called “gamesmanship”, a positively spun marketing-speak term for mild cheating. Diving, arguing every decision and even trying to intimidate the officials are all now commonplace. How often do we see a player know he had the last touch before the ball went out, then howl as though he had just been sentenced unjustly to death when the throw in goes to the other team? How often do we see defenders swarm around a referee when even the most obvious penalties are given? How often do we hear a manager say ‘I’m not normally one to criticise the referee, but…’ then proceed to slate the officials in the most blatant manner possible?

The thing is, deep down, everybody knows all of this already. We all know that our favourite targets for abuse are human, and trying their level best through frankly impossible circumstances. We also know that we are seeing these seemingly unforgiveable atrocities against mankind with the benefit of hindsight, and through lenses and angles unavailable to our bête noir. Yet when that late penalty shout is denied, we still question their parentage, we still swear retribution were we ever to meet this man in the street, and we still question their ability to do the job they are patently more qualified to do than us.

Referees are a convenient scapegoat for managers, players and fans unwilling to accept the superiority of the other team, or unable to accept a little bad luck. Suddenly gone are the memories of debateable decisions which went in favour of our team, and in their place come the inevitable conspiracy theories and false accusations of loyalty towards one team and the mock pictures on twitter. Why admit that your player made a mistake in one moment, or say that the opposition deserved the result, when you can blame the man not allowed to respond to your comments? If managers such as Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho genuinely believe that the officials are against them, it is because they have lied through their teeth about it so much, they’ve started believing it. Really though, it is a cheap diversionary and psychological trick, designed to deflect attention from their own team’s shortcomings, pressurise referees into coming down on their side for fear of rebuke and to create a ‘siege mentality’ in the squad.

It seems from the viewpoint of the ordinary fan that the referee is on an uneven playing field. Not only are they expected to be robotic in their accuracy, but they are sitting ducks for managers and players feeling the pressure of delivering results in a multi-million pound industry. The manager is virtually free to criticise the performance of the officials, safe in the knowledge that their actions will only get them one of: a rebuke, a modest fine, or at worst, a touchline ban. Even a ban, with the advent of mobile phones, is not much of an inconvenience now to a manager with a coaching staff. Just look to the Swedish documentary Rättskiparen (The Referee) about Martin Hansson’s route the World Cup 2010 qualifiers, leading to Thierry Henry’s handball against Ireland to see the effects of the constant media pressure and vitriol directed at referees.

As something to help referees out, I would advocate either banning all talk of a referee’s performance, or allow the officials to explain their decisions through the Professional Match Game Officials group. Stopping the practice of conducting post match interviews directly after the final whistle, and having them half an hour or so afterwards, to take players and managers away from the heat of the moment would also help. Another idea, one which would please our TV overlords, is RefCam. You can get cameras smaller than pens now, so I propose taping a camera to a referee’s head to record his view of the entire match. Not only do we have a recording of his perspective on incidents, we can also see just which four-lettered expletives Wayne Rooney shouts when something goes against him. Players would be a lot more careful about what they say and do if they know it’s all recorded from the ref’s perspective.

The other question to ask though, is whether we really want to do something about it? Are we quite happy having our own wicker men when it suits us? With the way referees have been under the spotlight recently, it’s a serious concern that a Premier League official might get attacked by fans. It already happens with disturbing regularity in amateur games, and with such high profile afforded to their errors, who’d be a top level referee?