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It’s time to red card this call for ‘respect’

We don’t need new rules to deal with player dissent on the pitch. Refs should decide when a footballer is letting off steam or losing the plot.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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Why has respect for referees suddenly become a national crusade? The antics of Ashley Cole and Javier Mascherano have provoked a feverish state-of-the-nation debate about the perceived epidemic of dissent in football. The Football Association (FA) is looking at new measures to stamp out abuse while its chairman, Lord Triesman, plans to persuade club managers of the need to ‘show proper regard for officials’. There is also speculation that Fabio Capello overlooked John Terry for the recent England captaincy against France because of his penchant for arguing with referees.

The tackle on Spurs’ Alan Hutton wasn’t the only thing Ashley Cole badly mistimed last week. The nation’s least popular footballer couldn’t have chosen a worse week to throw a televised tantrum at referee Mike Riley. Cole’s hissy fit coincided with the launch of the FA’s ‘Respect’ campaign aimed at tackling dissent in youth football. Cole’s petulance and Javier Mascherano’s red card for ‘persistent dissent’ at Old Trafford on Sunday have come to symbolise the wider problem – or perceived problem – of referee abuse.

There’s always been an assumption in this kind of debate that ‘things ain’t what they used to be’; that, in that innocent, pre-lapsarian Golden Age before Sky TV, you could leave your front door unlocked and footballers didn’t swear at officials. ‘I want to go back to the Bobby Charltons, the Bobby Moores, the Billy Wrights’, Sir Bobby Robson told Radio 5 Live. ‘These were very wonderful footballers but they also knew how to behave on the pitch.’ Admittedly, Robson is properly ancient but his sepia-tinted, jumpers-for-goalpost view of the past is questionable. Dissent has been a part of football for a very long time. Don Revie’s Leeds United team perfected the art of crowding around the referee to dispute unfavourable decisions in the early 1970s. George Graham’s Arsenal team of the 1980s were also adept at collectively pressurising referees.

What is new is that footballer’s conduct, on and off the pitch, is under far greater public scrutiny than in the past. ‘In 1972, I was aware of Spurs players passing a naked girl down a hotel corridor, from room to room. It didn’t make the papers’, recalled writer Hunter Davies. ‘What’s new today is the coverage.’ (1) As football has filled the void in public life vacated by politics, the absurd notion that footballers are somehow responsible for declining moral standards has taken root. As the former sports minister Richard Caborn once put it, ‘what happens on the park on the Saturday happens in the playground on the Monday.’

Invariably, footballers have started to believe their own publicity. David Beckham this week urged players to act as role models for the sake of the ‘kids’. ‘Professional footballers have a huge responsibility because there are so many kids around the world who are watching their every move and wanting to emulate them’, Beckham told the London Evening Standard. (Note to Becks: quit worrying about our kids. It’s our responsibility to teach them how to behave. You just stick to practising your free kicks.)

No self-respecting moral furore is complete without shrill demands for the authorities to take tough action. And, sure enough, there have been no shortage of proposals to curb dissent. Some argue that that teams should be docked points. ‘Fines just don’t cut it anymore’, wrote Jon Carter on the Soccernet website. ‘A £30,000 fine isn’t even a week’s salary for one of their bench-warmers and a points penalty would hit teams where it hurts, in their league position.’ (2) Carter also suggests reviving the discarded 10-yard rule, borrowed from rugby, which enabled referees to move a free kick forward for dissent. That rule didn’t work when it was first trialled because territorial advantage is far less important in football than it is in rugby.

The FA is currently looking at restricting player access to referees. In the FA’s Respect pilots, currently running in youth football, only team captains are allowed to speak to the referee. Players’ union chief Gordon Taylor has given his support to the idea of restricting communication with referees. ‘As a general rule we should treat referees as no-go areas and learn from other sports’, said Taylor. The problem with creating an exclusion zone around the referee is that you are restricting the very thing – communication with players – which good referees rely on to keep control of a game.

Is dissent getting out of control? No, I don’t think so. If players lose their discipline and get sent off then that’s a problem for their team, not the game in general. Sure, players can get mouthy and abusive but that doesn’t mean we need new rules and regulations to deal with it. Referees currently have the power to issue a caution for dissent or dismiss a player who ‘uses offensive, insulting or abusive language and/or gestures.’ So why not apply the rules we already have? Fines might not hit clubs where it hurts but a red card in a crucial fixture does. Javier Mascherano’s dismissal on Sunday effectively gifted the game, and possibly the Premiership title itself, to Manchester United.

Mark Clattenburg used the threat of sanctions to control the potentially fiery clash between Chelsea and Arsenal on Sunday. ‘Before the game he spoke to me and William Gallas and just said that he wouldn’t put up with any players coming towards him’, explained Chelsea skipper John Terry after the match. ‘He told us to go and tell the rest of the players that if they did he would book them… It set the tempo from the start of the game and he got the respect he deserved.’

Whenever the refereeing debate resurfaces there is a chorus of demands for greater consistency. Sky Sports pundit Jamie Redknapp, for example, says he cannot understand why Ashley Cole wasn’t shown a red card but Javier Mascherano was. ‘There is no comparison between Cole’s petulance and Mascherano’s moaning, yet the Liverpool midfielder received a red’, wrote Redknapp in the Daily Mail. Let’s have consistency, please.’ (3) Personally, I think consistency is a red herring. Referees, first and foremost, have to control a game. In order to do that I think they need a fair degree of discretion over when to have a quiet word, when to read the riot act, and when to issue a card. Clattenburg’s zero tolerance approach worked in the Chelsea v Arsenal fixture, given the previous bad blood between the two teams but wouldn’t have been appropriate in a less incendiary fixture. The danger of enforcing a one-size-fits-all set of sanctions for dissent is that it fetters the judgement of the referee. Of course, that means some officials will get things wrong, but football without human error or pantomime villains would be a very dull place.

In short, the way to deal with dissent is to do nothing. No new laws or directives. Nothing. Let the ref decide whether a player is letting off steam or losing the plot. Referees don’t need respect imposed by diktat, they just need the freedom to officiate a game as they see fit.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked‘s sports columnist.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) The fan – Hunter Davies recalls footballers and naked girls in hotel corridors, New Statesman, 20 October 2003

(2) Players must learn respect for officials, Soccernet, 25 March 2008

(3) The Redknapp Report: Abusing the ref has to stop, but players need to be treated all in the same way, Daily Mail, 24 March

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Topics Politics

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