Respect and Refereeing in Italy

Refereeing has been at the heart of much media debate recently. In the Premier League this has focused on respect, after Ashley Cole’s sterling efforts to make sure that his innate loathsomeness on the pitch be as universally acknowledged as his abhorrent behaviour off the pitch. In Italy, the focus has been on the issue of quality. As I’ve mentioned before the Italian media relentlessly assess the performance of Serie A referees, and in the last two months there has been a severe crisis – whether perceived or real – of refereeing standards.

In particular, the public were scandalised in February by the publication of an “adjusted” league table. Based on the conclusions of the six main national papers on refs’ decisions on penalties given or denied, offside goals wrongly allowed to stand or onside goals incorrectly ruled out, a new league table was drawn up based on what results “should have been”. Leaving aside the many inherent problems with this approach – since when, in any sport, has unchallengeable perfection ruled? And how can we know what other effects a different decision might have had on a game? – the results were surprising, to say the least. In the first 24 games of the season, 171 points had been wrongly won or lost across the league. The Serie A team most penalised by referees this season? Juventus.

I don’t think this is an effort to compensate for past corruption. I don’t even think it’s a conscious attitude. I think, rather, that since calciopoli referees have been anxious not to permit any hint of favouritism towards Juve appear, and in an effort to show that they are not corrupt, they have ended up being unfair. This is similar to the theories that used to abound about pro-Juventus decisions, before we knew about Luciano Moggi and his amazing phone habit. It used to be held that refs were unconsciously influenced by the power, the tradition, the aura of invincibility that surrounded Juventus. Some feel that this deferential tendency has now been transferred to the new pre-eminent power in Italian football, Inter. One way or another, Pierluigi Collina’s job improving standards has got a lot harder since these revelations.

I’ve been musing recently on the connections between the current debate in Italy and that in England. What is the relationship between the quality of refereeing decisions and respect for the referee? If referees are put under pressure by players, fans and the media how far does this (consciously or otherwise) affect their judgement? Brian’s recent post on the issue, and the discussion that followed, highlighted some of the tensions around it: we, as fans of the sport, need to believe that the game is fair but when at the same time, as fans of a team, we become invested in one side or another, we also want our side to win.

Respect the referee

Here’s the crunch question: how happy are you for team to win unfairly? Obviously this depends on how unfairly: I don’t think that when the calciopoli scandal broke that any Juventus fans were happy to learn what their club had been up to. But how about winning from a dodgy penalty: does it take the gloss off the game? What about if an opposing player is sent off in dubious circumstances – can you honestly say you’re not even a teeny bit relieved, in your heart of hearts? Maybe it’s the Arsenal fan in me – or maybe the cynical Italian – but there’s a part of me that thinks “Well, a win’s a win, right?” And if you beat your local rivals 1-0 through a wrongly given penalty in the 92nd minute: come on, you’d laugh and laugh, wouldn’t you?

So my feeling is that as fans we don’t always whole-heartedly support the referee at all times. For players the issue is a little different – it should, in theory, be more clearly in their interests that refereeing be universally, consistently impartial. But the desire to win often gets in the way. How often do players protest if they are awarded a penalty they know they don’t deserve? Not exactly often. Does this matter? I think it does: lack of respect for the referee can’t help but put added pressure onto already fraught decisions. But of course the problem is circular: the more frequently referees make bad decisions – and the more these errors are highlighted – the more likely it is that players will feel free to argue with the ref, to question his judgement, to challenge his authority.

Last night’s commentators on the Liverpool-Arsenal match on RAI, the Italian state TV, took this analysis one step further. Highlighting the lack of protests by Arsenal players against the penalty denied them at the Emirates, and the similar acceptance of the (equally wrong) penalty decision against Arsenal at Anfield, pundits speculated as to the cause and consequences of this failure to argue with the ref. The cause, it was widely agreed, was English sportingness and fair play. (Try not to laugh). The consequence is a more interesting question: pundits hypothesised that the referee’s job is easier and that his decisions are of a better quality where he is accorded respect, or at least unquestioning obedience. The better the referee is able to direct the game, it was argued, without challenges to his authority, the more likely he is to run the game fairly, effectively and with balanced and accurate decisions.

I think this is an interesting argument, if not wholly unproblematic. It emphasises the psychological dimension of refereeing at the expense of simple human error, which is after all universal. Nor does this approach solve some other issues arising. If referees are fair, impartial, skilful and respected, then players and managers might have to take a bit more responsibility for their own successes or failures.

In the run up to the World Cup in 2006, hard on the heels of calciopoli, a satirical song, in a southern dialect, became an unexpected smash hit across Italy. Like the best satire, it cuts so close to the bone that it is perhaps the best expression of the very ideas it satirises:

“Cornuti, siamo vittimi dell’albitrarità /a noi contraria / ecco che noi cerchiamo / di difenderci da queste inequità / così palese / grande Luciano moggi / dacci tanti orologi agli albitri internazionali / si no co’ cazz’ che vinciamo i mondiali.”

“We are the unlucky victims of refereeing biased against us. That’s why we try to defend ourselves against this manifest inequality. Great Luciano Moggi, give plenty of watches to the international referees, or else how the fuck will we win the world cup?”

This song became the anthem of the Azzuri’s World Cup victory. Respect for the referee? Confidence in refereeing standards? Support for impartiality? Give it time.

Photo credit: Melhus Fotball on Flickr

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