Referees, you either loathe or hate them. Their very presence on the football pitch fills you with rage, safe in the knowledge that they’re just moments away from a complete lapse in judgement or inexplicably getting in the way of a sweeping counter-attack.
I will confess to having launched a few foul-mouthed tirades in their direction, remarking about how they should have gone to Specsavers or joining in when the crowd refer to them as Wayne Kerr (whoever he is). Perhaps we are too quick to criticise those men in black, especially when their job is made impossible by the playacting antics of a select few. It’s always been my belief that referees are hampered rather than helped by Fifa’s governing directive, constantly trying to justify their mistakes with the phrase, ‘the letter of the law states…’
If you analyse the beautiful game long enough you soon discover that it’s based predominantly on opinion. Was that challenge ‘reckless’? Did that centre-forward ‘intentionally’ thrust his forearm into the face of the onrushing defender? Hopefully the advent of goal-line technology will soon be upon us but this will only solve factual circumstances like whether the ball has crossed the line. Therefore, officials must rely solely on the undervalued skill of placing themselves in the best position to accurately interpret the events that rapidly unfold around them.
Even when referees are perfectly placed mistakes can be made, human error is part and parcel of the game but their lives could be made infinitely easier if they were allowed to apply common sense in their decision making. At present, the phrase “common sense” only materialises once in the most recent edition of Fifa’s Laws of the Game, in reference to goal celebrations.
“Referees are expected to act in a preventative manner and to exercise common sense in dealing with the celebration of a goal.” (Guardian)
Most officials tend to disregard this ruling and appear only too keen to dish out cards like it’s Christmas, but referee Darren Deadman earned nationwide praise when he chose not to book Billy Sharp when he revealed a tribute to his son, who had passed away just two days after he was born. This is the kind of behaviour we should be encouraging, it’s incredible how rarely we see logic and reason applied to scenarios when it contradicts rules and regulations. There seems to be very little consistency in the decisions we view across a typical weekend, so why not effectively leave the referees to their own devices?
The dismissal of Tom Huddlestone in the recent fixture against Norwich is the perfect case in point. Technically the player entertained the tackle with both feet, but contact was quite clearly made with the ball using only one outstretched leg, before colliding with Jonny Howson. It’s also quite clear that Mark Halsey’s decision was prompted by the Norwich midfielder’s exuberant reaction, who happened to execute the tackle in exactly the same fashion.
Huddlestone and his nearby team-mates seemed baffled by the decision, with Halsey almost too embarrassed to look him in the eye as he revealed the red card. The FA’s verdict to uphold his case for wrongful dismissal will provide a small crumb of comfort for Andre Villas-Boas, but he may feel the decision ruined any hope of a late winner. Halsey’s ‘opinion’ of the tackle remains unclear but he may have avoided making this mistake had he not felt compelled by the ‘letter of the law’.
Another area that could be significantly improved surrounds the issue of handballs. How often do we see players appealing for penalties when the ball cannons off a defender a mere two yards away? In most circumstances it would be impossible to avoid any contact – unless you were playing Neo from the Matrix at left-back – and yet the rules do not allow any room for manoeuvre. The mere essence of discretion would cast such infuriating decisions into the past and allow for a much more enjoyable spectacle.
During Udinese’s recent 4-1 hounding at the hands of Juventus, chairman Giampaolo Pozzo launched a scathing attack on referee Paolo Vareli after he dismissed their goalkeeper when the game was just 14 minutes old.
“Before making a decision so severe, that ruins a game, you should have a little common sense and balance.”
“It makes me angry, ruins the game and a Sunday of fun.” (Goal.com)
The last man rule has inspired plenty of debate with many echoing the view that awarding a penalty should be satisfactory punishment, unless of course the tackle would warrant a red card regardless. One mistake leads to one decision that leads to one dismissal, which abruptly changes the course of the match and perhaps could be avoided if referees would demonstrate an ounce of restraint.
I personally believe the game would benefit from placing the trust in referees to use their own knowledge and experience to make decisions. If the Fifa handbook allowed enough flexibility to be used as guidelines rather than strict commandments then perhaps officials could go one week without suffering ridicule from the stands or in the press. It’s certainly a better solution than having two wand carrying statues at each end of the pitch.