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Can the FA teach young footballers “Respect” for Referees?

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The British media’s coverage, or lack thereof, of Brian Barwick’s “Respect” programme, gives me great cause for complaint. This oversight is all too typical of a nation that likes nothing better than to kvetch, to stick the needle into its institutions: in this case, the FA, whose each and every error is delighted in, dissected and subjected to play-by-play analyses, whilst any initiative that is not soaked in negativity seems to slip irrevocably under the radar.

“Respect” is Barwick’s brainchild: a programme designed to eradicate the heckling of referees by players and fans alike, in both the professional and amateur game. Barracking of referees is an exceptionally common crime in our “Beautiful Game”, and represents a disease that is bewilderingly not just accepted or overlooked by all and sundry, but is also directly and actively transmitted by parents to their children.

On the professional plane, it is by no means uncommon to see fingers offensively pointed — in a manner of speaking — at referees who are adjudged to have made erroneous decisions, whilst choruses of “the referee’s a wanker” resonate disgustingly around particularly perky stadia. This comes just months after complaints by the likes of Sol Campbell about — to put it lightly — over-boisterous abuse of professional players on the part of (opposing) fans.

Barwick’s concern has been echoed by former England manager Steve McClaren, who once resigned from a local football club due to the menacing behaviour of the parents.

McClaren said:

“If you do not have discipline you are not in control, if you are not in control it can cost you the game. In my opinion, this thing has to start at the bottom.

In my experience, over many years of coaching, the players coming through are less disciplined every year and instilling the discipline required into them is getting harder and harder.”

At amateur level, a multitude of alarming incidents involving violence against officials are perpetrated every week, although they are not always reported. Two particular incidences of this stick out in my memory. On one of them, no official referee could be located (a problem I will come back to later), and so a replacement had to be drafted in from one of the club hierarchies. Following an admittedly dodgy offside call, the referee in question was hounded off the pitched and chased down the road, his car pelted with stones as he attempted to make a get away. On another occasion, one of my team-mate’s parents, incensed after a penalty shout was waved away by the referee (this time an official official), ran onto the playing field and knocked the ref’s lights out, causing the match to be abandoned. The sorest point came when the parent in question ignored his son’s pleas to stop, even though the boy himself had confessed to having dived in the box. On neither of these occasions were charges brought against the parents or clubs involved.

If Redknapp, Campbell, Ferguson and Co. are right (and I think they are) to complain about the abuse to which footballers are subjected on a matchly basis, the vituperation of referees is in fact a more hideous monster, since such behaviour demonstrates a total lack of respect for the one figure of authority on the pitch. The referee is also the one person who, unlike those players and managers mentioned above, does not earn astronomic sums of money and in a sense offers himself up as a sacrifice on the altar of football. The old maxim that “All ‘keepers are crazy” deserves an update: all referees must be bonkers to put up with such a calvary on a regular basis.

DrogbaWhat’s more, this mandate for respect must address not only fans and parents, but players and managers too. Wayne Rooney, for example, regularly rages at trembling linesmen for questionable calls, and rarely receives any sort of admonishment for his behaviour. In an even more extreme case, and one that will be fresh in the memory for English football fans, in 2005 the Swedish referee Anders Frisk was forced to retire after receiving death threats for his performance as chief official of the Champions League tie between Chelsea and Barcelona, in which the Swede sent off former Chelsea defender Asier Del Horno. The “Special One”, José Mourinho, then manager of Chelsea, did little to defuse the situation, remissly refusing to apologise to the referee and never publicly asking the fans in question to desist.

The vast majority of other sports do not suffer from these problems. In rugby, the referee is still customarily referred to as “sir”; equally, players are immediately sanctioned for arguing with the men in black, whilst swearing in the stands is infrequent and often accompanied by an apology on the part of the offender a few moments later. The umpire in cricket is generally a revered figure, and is hardly ever crowded in the same way as Messrs Ferdinand and Terry routinely hunt out and bully football referees. Indeed, the ongoing inquests into the use of foul language in cricket stands in stark contrast to the permissiveness that has been a mark of our attitude to verbal and physical abuse of referees and fellow players on the part of footballers.

The FA hope to achieve their goal of stamping out ref-bullying through three basic measures, as The Times reports:

  1. Only the team captain will be allowed to speak with the referee. (this is habitual in rugby)
  2. Roped-off areas will be introduced at junior matches so ‘over-indulgent or abusive’ parents cannot direct their bile at the referee.
  3. All players and club officials will be forced to sign a ‘memorandum of understanding’ noting the standards of behaviour that will be expected.

The ideas contained in the programme are not particularly innovative; it is rather the force with which the FA is seeking to pursue them that we can consider novel and groundbreaking.

The notion that only the captain should be permitted to speak to the referee has long been championed by fans and commentators, although the regulation will have to be implemented both sensibly and sensitively: it would make little logistical sense to have players running fully fifty yards to fetch their captains, whilst there is also the comical (and yet real) danger of mini-conferences emerging amongst players in the middle of pitch. What’s more, I would argue that cases must be analyzed on their individual merits, since a crackdown on ref-bating must not turn into a policing of all passion in what is an increasingly roboticised game, and some slack must be given to professionals who, like all of us, on occasion feel the need to vent frustrations without being criminalised. Barwick seems fully aware of such concerns when he says that:

“We are not looking to take the passion out the game. However, it is not acceptable for referees to be subject to abusive and confrontational behaviour. Player and managers have a responsibility towards the game to conduct themselves properly. It’s about getting the balance right”

The definition of “speak with the referee” could also do with some re-working, since the banter between players and official has always been a charming part of our beloved game, and is one that I, personally, would not like to see disappear.

The latter two measures could certainly do with some clarification and revision, although I believe that the sentiment behind them remains a laudable one. There is no reason for parents to interject too frequently into their children’s game, and a physical distancing of the two could help to do away not only with abuse of referees, but also of the “back-seat coaching” that is so typical of youth Sunday league matches, in which frustrated parents project their aggravation onto their children and may, in some ways, spoil these last’s experience.

Practical teething problems will have to be resolved, however, in particular to avoid the “memorandum of understanding” becoming just another piece of empty legislatorial flummery. Can parents really be held back by a roped-off area? Who is going to enforce such rules? Will the passion be sapped out of junior football? Will clubs, having signed the memorandum of understanding, be making a greater effort to divulge such messages through their academies? Will these same clubs be more severely reprimanded when their players do put a foot out of line? With the current climate of club irresponsibility and “club over country” conflicts, I wouldn’t be too surprised to hear that a club, or G14/the European Club Association/whatever they are calling themselves these days, instead of backing the referee who makes their participation in the sport possible, had decided to sue the official in question or demand compensation from FIFA for a trophy lost due to a suspect call.

A recent case in tennis offers a perfect panorama of how not to deal with such issues. The popular but outspoken American Andy Roddick screamed at French chair-umpire Emmanuel Joseph during January’s Australian open, suggesting that the arbiter was stupid and had dropped out of school at 14, condescendingly asking him if he “had ears”, before eventually rounding off by shouting to the crowd, “Stay in school kids, or you’ll end up being an umpire”. Unbelievably, Roddick was fined a measly $500 for his outburst, and this after a long case history of uttering stentorian profanities on court.

My own opinion is that each and every young player at an academy should have respect for referees hammered into his brain as part of his footballing and formal education, and also that a “rota” system should ensure that each young player gains some experience in practice games of what it is like to be a referee, so that they may better appreciate the match-day ref’s travails.

As with problems regarding stunted youth development, Barwick has announced that “Respect” will be trialled first at grassroots level: a decision that makes sense for various reasons. Firstly, the trials, like those of goal-line technology, will be conducted outside of the glare of the aforementioned mass-media, who are liable to throw their toys out of the pram at the first sign of a mix-up or a grey area. Such a “trial by TV” would seriously hinder a process that needs to be firmly but delicately implanted and tweaked until any rough edges have been smoothed out. Furthermore, whilst it may be too late to curb the excesses of today’s professionals, there is still time to make a sizeable impact on grassroots — and especially, youth — football, which is the breeding ground for the next generation of stars, and the generation after that.

The importance of the grassroots scene becomes even greater in the case of referees. No budding referee will wish to qualify to officiate at Premiership level if he is regularly subjected to abuse by the bunch of ten year olds with whom he must work in order to gain experience at officiating. This paucity of referees — the FA estimates that in some parts of the UK, as many as 20& of matches are run without qualified match officials — creates a vicious cycle, since, as in the case I narrated above, unqualified substitutes are forced to step in, and the rough time these volunteers are given only further serves to emphasize the hell that is refereeing, further discouraging up-and-comers from getting their qualifications, especially since these substitutes are often unprepared for what they are about to experience, and are unable to count upon the support received by qualified refs from mentors and the FA helpline.

A possible drawback lies in the fact that the pressure exerted on referees and players at grassroots level will be understandably minimal, and it will remain to be seen whether such a delicate programme will be capable of withstanding the tensions of the high-profile occasion, in stadia packed full of tens of thousands of passionate and impatient fans, and in games in which league championships and domestic cups are on the line. However, such a drawback is hardly an argument against the “Respect” programme itself; it merely suggests that the initiative should be just one of the steps taken to fight the vitriolic harassment of match officials.

The “Respect” initiative, although demonstrably flawed, should be commended for its attempt to get to grips with one of the great evils of the modern game, and utilised as a springboard for future efforts. It is my hope that this programme, coupled with the FA’s continued efforts to develop training and coaching methods for young players — an especially poignant point came up in the discussion of the National Football Centre regarding the premature introduction of competitive football to children who should, at the tender age of ten or eleven, be enjoying themselves and focussing more on technique than grit — can help to remove the stains from what, with each marauding run from Messi, through each Ronaldo free-kick or Kaka screamer, continues to be the “Beautiful Game”.

As Barwick states,

“The long-term health of football at all levels relies on recruiting and retaining referees. Without a referee, there is no game.”

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