One of the most mocked aspects of the Premier League season so far has been the FA’s much vaunted Respect The Ref campaign. This initiative, as we all know, is designed to encourage players to behave better towards the referee – no dissent, no abuse, no crowding, just a polite dialogue, preferably channeled through the captain.
From day one, it has been under attack from all sides. Former players have lined up to use their feather-bedded media roles to whinge about how “it wasn’t a problem in my day”. Newspapers drop ironic references to it into reports, often alongside a picture of a player being anything but respectful. Fans scream blue murder when their own players are punished, and then scream louder when others get away with similar crimes. And the players largely ignore it.
In this article, I’m going to:
1) give an alternative perspective on why the Respect campaign deserves everyone’s support
2) highlight two fatal flaws with the current approach, and
3) outline how I think it should work.
However, before I do that, I want to make one thing absolutely clear. I am not a politically correct, grey-suited bore. I think political correctness is one of the banes of modern life; if everything was sanitised, it would be so tedious as to make previously rational people want to stick blunt objects into their eyes. If you’re going to disagree with me (and I expect a lot of you might), don’t be so cheap as to do so on these grounds. With that in mind, read on…
Why we should support Respect
Most people look at a proposed new rule, work out how it’s going to affect the team they support, then decide whether or not it’s a good thing. I maintain that the current Respect rules are pretty much neutral for most high level teams – sometimes you’ll be on the receiving end (as United were against Chelsea), others you’ll benefit. The main way it will currently influence the games you or I watch on TV will be an additional level of regulation and therefore controversy once in a while. But look deeper.
Football goes beyond the game we see on our TV screens. Football is an international pastime, played by millions of ordinary people every day of the week. They often play to a pretty bad standard, but the weekly game with the lads (or gals, nowadays) can be the focal point of someone’s weekend, social calendar, and sometimes community. Football has a vital role in all sorts of communities all across the world.
A few years ago, I played in a Saturday league team. We played at a low-ish standard, but there was a squad of 20 or so, and we in turn were part of a bigger club that fielded 5 teams and had nearly 150 members. The one thing that struck me again and again during those games was the appalling way referees were treated. They were screamed at, verbally abused for no reason, called every name under the sun, and occasionally physically intimidated.
Both sides were guilty – indeed our captain, who fancied himself as a Roy Keane figure, spent far more of the game whinging at the ref than he did chasing the ball. There was one memorable game where the home team literally rugby-tackled and two-footed our guys all game, but the ref did nothing for fear of being beaten up. And that was the games which had referees. You try playing a game where two competitive teams have to self-referee, and then try to criticise any referee.
People talk on about the pros being role models, but they really are. An amateur player will often work out which pro he is closest too or wants to be, and then copy him religiously – so a Keane wannabe will not rule out leg-breaking tackles against a guy who has annoyed him; a Rooney wannabe will charge after the ref hurling streams of expletives whenever he doesn’t get a decision; and so on.
The result is that the vast majority of refs at lower levels are quitting. Twenty quid and a half-time orange isn’t a good enough incentive to spend the afternoon of a freezing cold pitch being a verbal punchbag. And where do the top level refs (who we all complain aren’t good enough) come from? Oh, that’s right, the pool of lower league refs. Not to mention that without refs, the games which so many people look forward to will simply stop taking place.
Anything that can be done to make life easier for refs everywhere, at every level, in any game, should be done. Ultimately, everyone, from the armchair fan to the superstar pro to the amateur in the park will be all the better for it.
Flaws with the current approach
The first, and most obvious, is that the Respect campaign is the baby of the English FA only. In the world of global competition (and notwithstanding my thoughts on local football above), if players in the Premier League were disciplined into never talking to refs, they would be at a real disadvantage in European and international competition. Working the ref is a dark art, but one which is not restricted to Chelsea – in Spain and Italy, it is viewed as “cleverness”, for example. A campaign like this will only have teeth if it is a global campaign, backed to the hilt by FIFA. And Sepp Blatter. Oh…
Second, the existing approach allows too much inconsistency. Different refs on different days in different conditions will pay the new rules different amounts of attention. The United v Chelsea game where United’s players were rigorously punished for dissent was a fairly clean game, which it could be argued allowed Mike Riley to focus on these finer points. And when on one day a team receives 7 yellows, and the next a team can surround the ref to protest a sending-off and receive no sanction at all, people will get pissed off and the important underlying message will get lost in a mire of controversy.
It’s simple, really.
Next season, before the pre-season games, make it clear to every club in Europe that any dissent or abuse of any sort will receive a yellow card. A muttered “fuck off, ref” will be on a par with a Rooney-esque tirade. Yellow, yellow, yellow. The captain will be permitted to approach the referee calmly, and politely ask for the reason for the referee’s decision, but will not be permitted to debate it. No discretion for the referee, no room for inconsistency.
For the first few pre-season games (there should be no suspensions in this pre-season), most teams will end the game with seven players on the pitch. But once you’ve been sent off in the twelfth minute for disputing a throw-in on the halfway line and a tackle in the centre circle, you’ll probably bite your tongue next time. It won’t take long for everyone to get the idea.
The game will look a bit different, and those who view a football match as an excuse for a fight and a shouting match will be disappointed. Butdifferent isn’t necessarily worse, and I contend that the sport as a whole would be the better for it now and in the future.
What do you make of the Respect campaign, and how do you think it should be changed?
This article is a submission for the Soccerlens 2008 Writing Competition; to participate, please read the details here. The competition is sponsored by Subside Sports (premier online store for football shirts) and Icons (official signed football jerseys).