Time for referees to respect the game more?

Martin Atkinson

Recent events in the NFL would probably have me rethinking the direction behind all this. The biggest sports league in America was officiated by a group of referees who are normally extremely far removed from the pro game—and it told. But that aside for now, it shouldn’t be something that will ever crop up in England (because some of the things that happen in American sports would seem unbelievable to most who are unfamiliar). But regardless of how good or bad referees in the Premier League and even Europe are, isn’t it time they started to respect the game a little more?

I’m still a little stunned that the football governing bodies from Uefa down to the domestic leagues advocate this respect campaign between players and referees. I even remember a handful of times where referees would point to that “respect” badge on their sleeve indicating that they’re in charge and should be, well, respected. That’s all fine, and it’s right, but doesn’t it work both ways?

There’s been plenty of talk about players crowding around a referee to influence a decision. It’s a problem that needs to be worked on a little harder to remove from games. But I have a real problem with the way referees shoo players away, practically telling them to eff off should they walk with purpose towards him. Embarrassingly, for the referee in question, Clarence Seedorf was yellow carded not too long ago for asking the referee what a hold up in the game was for. It’s arrogance from the officials, and how disrespectful and cowardly do you have to be to yellow card one of the most highly respected ambassadors of the game for asking a question?

Captains should be able to talk to the referee whenever there’s a stoppage in the game. It works in other sports like the NHL, whereby a player who is not one of the captains is given a two-minute minor penalty. Enforce something similar in football and we’ll be better for it.

But referees—however not all of them—live in this bubble where they can’t and won’t allow anyone to prove them wrong. And here’s the real kicker: a lot of the time they know they’ve made a mistake. They’re so well protected through not having to give post-game interviews and having the governing bodies impose bans and fines for anyone who seriously threatens their integrity that they do in fact get away with murder.

You want strong referees in the game, especially for high-profile matches. I’m still not entirely sold on some of the referees in the Premier League and their ability to officiate at this level. But their arrogance is at times infuriating. A lot of the time they don’t seem to know the rules, or at least they don’t do much to keep any form of consistency. When is a dive in the box a bookable offence and when is it not? Are any senior referees putting their hands up to make a genuine case to smooth out these issues?

The incident at Old Trafford a number of seasons ago between Manchester United and Tottenham was a good example of the carefree attitude of referees. Mark Clattenburg’s casual fling of his arm to indicate a controversial goal was embarrassing. Is that the best we have? And don’t any of the two captains dare approach him to question the decision, they’ll promptly be booked for such an act.

Massimo Busacca’s decision to send off Robin van Persie for his shot on goal at the Nou Camp a second after the whistle blew for offside was beyond any realm of logic and smacked wholly of arrogance. It didn’t make any sense and it’s something that isn’t enforced by other referees around Europe. Busacca, coincidently, was one of Europe’s senior officials. If memory serves, Arsene Wenger was given a fine for questioning the referee following his ridiculous decision.

In a recent postseason match in the MLB between the St Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves, an incident occurred that brought up one of those rules that you hardly ever see in a game. It prompted many experts in the game and news outlets to point out the ruling and summarise what it meant and how it applied to that particular event. Needless to say it was extremely controversial. One of the pleasant things to see was the umpires explain their decision following the game in a press conference. Whether the call was right or not, at least we got to hear from them rather than have some retired official paraded around on TV giving his take.

I’m not buying this respect campaign from officials because it seems they’re immune to any form of confrontation or questioning. They don’t care what kind of effect their decision will have in the bigger picture and further down the line, and a lot of the time it seems they go into a game with a preconceived agenda.