Offside, 16 September

Referees may be 'bastards in black', but they're useful bastards.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

Referees, eh? Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.

At the weekend, we had a whole bunch of controversial decisions. First, Mark Halsey awarded a penalty to Fulham against Arsenal, only to change his mind after having a word with the linesman, to the disgust of Fulham manager Chris Coleman.

Then Chelsea’s Didier Drogba was upended in the box by Villa’s Ulises de la Cruz, only to be booked for diving rather than awarded the penalty. And Everton’s Tim Cahill received a yellow card for lifting (but not removing) his shirt after scoring. Since it was his second caution, he was off.

Halsey’s defence was that he thought he’d got it wrong almost immediately, given the reaction of the players, and the linesman’s opinion simply reinforced that. Drogba was just unlucky, and the yellow card has since been rescinded (though it almost certainly cost Chelsea the game).

The real stinker was the decision against Cahill, not because it was wrong but because it was absolutely correct. Steve Bennett had little choice but to send Cahill off given the ludicrous rules that the world governing body FIFA has imposed on goal celebrations. It was therefore a bit rich for the FIFA president Sepp ‘The Creep’ Blatter to criticise the decision.

It’s a tough job, being a referee. Not that they don’t deserve stick from time to time, as I have been only too happy to apply in the case of Urs Meier for his disallowing of a perfectly good England goal (see Offside, 25 June).

What other profession would have to tolerate the fact that ‘Who’s the bastard in the black?’ is as essential a part of the football canon as ‘Land of hope and glory’ is to the Last Night of the Proms?

Incidentally, The Times (London) reports that they’re enjoying the Last Night of the Proms, the last acceptable bastion of British nationalism, in Berlin these days (1). I suppose it represents envy at the fact that the Germans feel far too guilty to celebrate their own nationalism. A Scottish friend of mine does a perfectly serviceable rendition of the ‘Panzer Song’ while drunk – but he supports Rangers and they don’t call them the Hun for nothing.

It’s not just verbal abuse that refs endure. When I read that the Roma-Kiev game was abandoned last night because referee Anders Frisk was struck by a missile, I was at first concerned that perhaps North Korea was up to no good after all. But why test it on the fake-tanned and floppy-haired Swede? It turned out he’d just sent off Roma’s Phillip Mexes, and a member of the hometown crowd had clearly taken offence.

And what Scottish fan can forget the coin that clobbered whistler Hugh Dallas during an Old Firm game a few years back? Not just an affront to any civilised football supporter but a damn good shot, too. Try hitting a target that small with a coin from 20 yards and the act will soon earn your grudging respect.

There is only one referee anyone actually likes and that’s Pierluigi Collina, Italy’s balding Mekon lookalike who is so popular over here that he does adverts for the electrical chain Comet. While I can accept that everyone respects Collina’s firm-but-fair style, I think it also reflects a deep-seated desire among ordinary folk for a benign dictator to rule the world. ‘Okay, so he’s sent a few people off, but at least the matches run on time.’

While Collina does his benign dictator routine, most referees are just Little Hitlers. The personality disorder required combines utter confidence in the correctness of one’s opinions and a desire to wield power over people who are in fact more worthy you – that is, they can play football. This was even more pronounced when referees were basically amateurs. You really need to be a complete jobsworth or have a massive superiority complex to take that much stick for nothing. Special constables, handing out fines for every minor indiscretion, and public schoolmasters, whacking the boys for their own good, seem to be the natural role models for referees.

As football has taken off as televisual entertainment, the cult of celebrity has swelled heads still further. Frisk’s decision to abandon the Roma-Kiev game was an act of utter self-aggrandisement. In no state to carry on himself, he decided that the fourth official was too inexperienced to take his place – even though that’s what he’s there for. Or maybe it’s because the last time Frisk refereed a Roma game there was a riot afterwards.

Flawed as they are, referees serve a critical function, and the amateur game would be impossible without foolhardy souls prepared to do the job. In the professional game, referees getting the odd decision wrong are still better than the alternative, having everything double-checked by a bloke looking at a TV monitor in the stand. If you think this makes sense, look at the ludicrous situation in rugby league where everyone has to stand around like dummies while the man in the stand decides whether the ball crossed the line or not. Like prophylactics, there’s a serious risk of losing the moment. Far better to just go with the flow, even if it is wrong.

Oh dear, I’m wandering off into Analogy Hell. How long can I resist the temptation to talk about ‘scoring’?

But video refs are wrong for a far more important reason. ‘Who’s the bastard in the stand looking at a TV monitor’ just doesn’t scan. So we’ll just have to stick with the men in black, green, purple, yellow or whatever colour they’re asked to wear this season.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

Berliners live by Britannia rules, The Times (London), 13 September 2004

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Topics Politics


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