Tuning into the current Rugby World Cup (it still feels weird to be watching ITV on weeknights and not seeing Champions League action), I was struck once again by the enormous differences between the sports. Both for watching and playing in, football and rugby could not be further apart when it comes to certain key aspects of sport.
For one thing, the ultimate and non-arguable respect for the referee in rugby is something which I think football could learn a lot from. In rugby, players have respectful, polite discussions with refs during which they never swear, always address the master of proceedings as ‘sir’, and take a submissive tone.
All of this seems to have the effect of increasing the respect the players have for the man who is in charge of the game. This results, in my opinion, in there being much less necessity for harsh punishments and brutal suspensions. While football has attempted to introduce a policy recently where only the captain is entitled to go and speak to the ref if there is something he wishes to bring to the latter’s attention, it does not always work.
The way managers discuss, or maintain a bleak and pointedly moody silence about, the referee in post-match press conferences is also something that surely must be changed. It all adds up to an environment where the man who should legitimately be in control of the whole game, can end up feeling like he has only really very limited control.
The fact that TV viewers can hear the ref talking to his colleague as the TMO with rugby, which originally sounds as if it could seriously undermine the perception of the ref as an all-powerful, all-seeing eye by making him more real, actually has the very simple effect of making him appear human, trying to work out what the best decision is and what really happened, just like everyone else at the game.
While football has now jumped on leaps and bounds with the introduction of goal-line technology, I believe the next big step is for TV viewers (and obviously fans in the stadium if they can find the necessary technology), to be able to hear the ref while he’s making key decisions, perhaps when he is in consultation with the linesman over the potential award of a red card, or discussing whether a penalty should be given perhaps.
This would achieve the same effect as it has in rugby (cricket as well, where the ‘Hawk-Eye’ video technology has now been supplemented by viewers being able to hear the umpire and the third umpire conversing together), with the referee suddenly having a voice, and a way of speaking, and possibly mannerisms, and maybe appearing to the viewers as if he actually has a brain (and maybe some viewers need this reassurance as well; a soul).
While I appreciate that this would not solve all the issues of trust and respect (or lack of), that have built up over the years between the authorities, the FA and the clubs, I feel it would be a big step towards enabling the people who feel most frustrated by referees (the fans), to understanding the processes and methods which the men in black go through for each and every decision they take on the pitch.
Howard Webb has already tried to make a similar attempt, by appearing as a media pundit for some time whenever Sky Sports or whoever has wanted a ‘referees opinion’, however his hands are tied by a reasonable reluctance to criticise his former colleagues who are doing their best, meaning his comments and opinions (well – intentioned as they may be), tend to be somewhat bland.
This would not be bland – this would be a groundbreaking insight into the world the referee lives in, and potentially a way of letting referees, managers, players and fans maybe finding a common ground.
Just please don’t let the egg-chasers know they helped us find a solution.