Whatever the purists may say, football is far from a perfect game. While allegations of match-fixing and FIFA corruption continue to bubble away beneath the surface; in plain view of all, the blatant abuse and expletives directed the way of match officials continues to go unpunished by the footballing authorities.
Picture the scene that plays out across the country each weekend when a referee awards a penalty kick.
More often than not, a baying mob surrounds the official in protest; arms spread wide and faces red with foul-mouthed indignation. It doesn’t take a great deal of proficiency in the art of lip-reading to deduce what’s being said – or screamed – to the man in the middle.
This attitude isn’t limited to penalty awards either. Frequently, a similar if less explosive chain of events takes place when a referee sends a player off, gives a free-kick or waves away claims for a foul.
Perhaps I am guilty of a touch of sensationalism, but you get the point.
Why do we continually allow players to get away with this practice? What sort of message does it send or standard does it set for those – impressionable youngsters in particular – looking on?
Though it’s a behaviour that seeps through the levels right down to the average Sunday League team, the high-profile professionals have a lot to answer for. They are supposed ambassadors for the game; like it or not, they are role models to thousands – a responsibility some must take more seriously.
I have taken charge of school and age-group fixtures, and found myself disappointed (though not at all surprised) at the language used by fifteen and sixteen-year-olds when a decision went the way of their opposition.
It’s important to stress that I am not, for a moment, suggesting referees deserve immunity from criticism and analysis. All will get decisions wrong – that’s human nature – but an official who blunders his or her way through a series of games, or consistently makes mistakes needs to be properly addressed.
They should be subject to proper review, scrutiny and assessment from governing bodies and football associations. They should be held accountable for their errors, and if needs be, “dropped” or stood down like any player who is under-performing.
To cite a recent SPFL Premiership example; referee Bobby Madden was lambasted in sections of the media for what was perceived to be a string of poor calls in the lead-up to Hogmanay. He was appointed the whistle for a huge New Year Edinburgh derby in spite of this. As it turned out, Madden controlled what is now the league’s flagship fixture very well, and called the major decisions correctly. Some argue that he should never have been given the chance.
Regardless of their failings, referees should not have to deal with the sort of disgraceful vitriol showered upon them in the wake of a decision. In this respect, football can and should learn from some of its more distant cousins.
Any suggestion or comparison to rugby is liable to draw exasperated groans and snorts of derision from football fanatics – but this is unquestionably one area where the oval ball game has things spot on, and football can take a leaf from its law book.
For starters, only the captain of a rugby team can speak to or question the referee (typically as “sir”) and may only do so at breaks in play; for example, when the ball is off the field. Those who flout that particular law are waved away.
Any player who backchats the official gets penalised, and the referee will often march a team back an additional ten metres should someone get lippy. From an early age in the sport, it’s established that the referee is a figure to be respected.
I must admit, I’d pay good money to watch one of rugby’s elite whistle-blowers – Nigel Owens, for instance – handle the attitudes and indiscipline of today’s top footballers. The only problem is that such a game would likely finish four-a-side.
This year, in English rugby’s flagship Aviva Premiership Final, referee Wayne Barnes sent off Northampton Saints skipper Dylan Hartley for allegedly calling him a “f***ing cheat”. Imagine Mike Dean or the like sending off Vincent Kompany in a title-deciding match or an FA Cup final at Wembley. It’s that sort of magnitude.
Several of football’s top suits have mooted the idea of a sin-bin system similar to that of rugby for such conduct, as well as the abhorrent and illegal practice of diving. That would offer in-game benefit to the non-offending team, and a tougher stance on those out-of-line loudmouths. I’m not about to hold my breath in anticipation, though. How long did it take for the implementation of goal-line technology?
Perhaps the need for change and a hard-line approach to this issue is dulled by the sport’s huge global popularity. But FIFA and the respective national bodies have a duty to ensure the game’s ethos and integrity is not tarnished, and the current attitude displayed towards match officials is doing exactly that. Clamping down on this behaviour would do football the world of good.