I’d like to start an informal poll on the subject of referee abuse, because—after a week that’s seen a major FA initiative devoted to the problem and huge controversies over Ashley Cole’s and Javier Mascherano’s behavior toward match officials—I really have no idea how most fans feel about the subject.
Is referee abuse a problem for you? Is it an issue in the games you play in, in the leagues you follow, or for the teams you support? When you see seven Chelsea players throng around Mike Dean like a school of aggrieved piranhas, do you think “Serves him right for getting the call wrong” or “Someone toss them a poisoned cow”?
Part of the problem, I suspect, is that that there’s a wide gap between the way the English media have covered the uproar and the way most fans perceive it. For the media, it’s largely been about the conflict between standards of decency and human passion. On one side are commentators who are appalled by the crude insubordination of players berating officials, on the other are commentators who argue that if we want players to play the game with passion, we have to expect them to lose their heads from time to time when a referee gets something wrong.
For fans, I think the heart of the problem has more to do with the conflict between justice and human error. We want the game to be a realm of perfect fairness, but we know that referees will always make mistakes. The question is how to demand that the game be fundamentally fair while still reconciling ourselves to the presence of error within it. This is not an easy accommodation to make, and we tend to make it partially at best, turning a blind eye to errors that benefit our own teams, reserving most of our anger for errors that benefit our opponents.
The problem with referee abuse in this framework is that it alienates us from both justice and reconciliation, pretending to demand absolute fairness from the referee but really demanding only what benefits our side (Ashley Cole certainly wasn’t making a stand for transcendent justice when he turned his back on Mike Riley on Wednesday night). Some of this is only natural, but it can make the game edgy and uncomfortable, and means we’re more concerned with our own causes for outrage than with what happens on the pitch.
I’m not suggesting that any of this is what fans are discussing when we talk about referee abuse, but I think it’s a problem we feel shifting around uneasily beneath the more general media discussion of emotion and respect. The football media, many of whose members are former players, have naturally tended to focus on the experience of the players (should they be required to control themselves? but aren’t they really angry?), while the FA has focused on problems plaguing the infrastructure of the game (7,000 referees dropping out every year, many due to abuse). The way the issue affects fans has largely remained at the level of implication.
So that’s why I’m asking what you think. Do you tend to side with players or officials during these controversies? Do you see referees as beleaguered altruists or as petty dictators? Does the abuse of referees by fans bother you as much as the abuse of referees by players? Does this seem like an essentially English problem to you (Fabio Capello has said that English referees are more lenient than referees in Europe) or does it have a wider scope (Eduardo Galeano has said that hatred of the referee is “the only universal sentiment in soccer”)? Given the FA’s emphasis on the youth game in their recent National Game Strategy document, do you think professional players have an obligation to act as role models for their younger counterparts?
Brian Phillips is writing Mark Clattenburg an agonizingly personal thank-you note at The Run of Play.