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The ‘Big Kick-Off’ has brought with it a big kick-off for the FA’s new respect for referees campaign. Branded ‘Respect’, the campaign has been prominent during the opening weekend of the Football League season, and equally so at the Premier League’s curtain-raiser, the Community Shield.
The new initiative has been promoted heavily; Manchester United and Portsmouth players were seen sporting t-shirts with the word ‘respect’ on them during their warm-ups at Wembley yesterday, match officials also donned the t-shirts over the course of weekend as they took part in their pre-match rituals, full-page advertisements were placed in national newspapers, and the FA also launched a ‘viral’ video campaign featuring, among others, Fabio Capello, Howard Webb, Les Ferdinand, and ‘Barry from Eastenders’.
The campaign itself is a direct response to a growing number of referees quitting the game at amateur level in response to the abuse they receive from players, coaches and fans alike. As highlighted by Durham FA company secretary John Topping: “Many referees leave the game because of the comments and the behaviour they have to tolerate from outside of the pitch, from parents and coaches.”
The FA is hoping that cutting out the abuse officials receive at the highest level will encourage similar effects at amateur and youth levels.
Last season, the issue of respect, or lack of, towards officials in the Premier League was heavily scrutinised. Ashley Cole and Javier Mascherano were the perpetrators in high-profile incidents.
The issue of disrespect towards match officials has existed for many years, and this isn’t the FA’s first attempt at trying to eradicate this major problem from the sport; the 2001/02 season saw the introduction of the 10-yard rule, which punished dissent by moving free-kicks ten yards closer to the offender’s goal. To begin with the rule was effective, but over the course of the season it disappeared, before finally being scrapped altogether by FIFA in June 2005 due to “a four-year trial period in England proving unsuccessful.”
Ian Blanchard, head of national referee development, has tried to ease any suggestion that this will be yet another FA campaign which fades away into obscurity, “We are not expecting anything to change overnight, and this is not a campaign or a recruitment drive that will run for a couple of months then fade away. We are in this for the long run, though hopefully people should start to see a difference right away.”
The effect the new campaign has depends largely upon how it is enforced during the opening few weeks of the season. Referees need to set a precedent and show that disrespect will not be tolerated at all. Less of Mike Riley’s leniency towards Ashley Cole and more of Steve Bennett’s intolerance of Mascherano’s behaviour is undoubtedly the order of the day.
Its effectiveness on the opening weekend has set a good marker, but this stance needs to continue throughout the coming weeks. Arguably, the greatest test for the campaign will be when the Premier League kicks off next weekend. Greater attention will be paid to the refereeing decisions in these more high-profile matches.
If the ‘Respect’ campaign is to have any chance of succeeding, it needs to start at the very top. In recent seasons, Ferguson, Wenger and Mourinho have all been guilty of unacceptable behaviour towards officials. The managers and coaches need to set the examples that are to be followed on the pitch. Only then will respect towards referees and assistants filter down to the lower levels.
Perhaps the key to having respect shown to match officials is that players, coaches and fans have to acknowledge that mistakes are going to be made throughout the course of game, and the course of a season. The referees are, after all, only human.
Yes, it is extremely frustrating when a decision goes against your team, but referees don’t make bad decisions on purpose, it is just part and parcel of the game we love, and without these moments of decision controversy football would become less enthralling. I’m not condoning bad decisions, merely suggesting that in their absence football wouldn’t quite stir the passions that it does. It’s just that these passions need to be released in alternative forms to disrespect and abuse.
Critics will suggest that this campaign doesn’t go far enough, that it is a laissez-faire measure. Maybe a more revolutionary step needs to be taken in order for dissent and disrespect to be completely eradicated. Many suggest that adopting the system used in rugby is needed. Attaching microphones to rugby officials enables everyone in attendance and watching on television to hear entire conversations between players and referees. The system has eradicated virtually all instances of dissent and foul language in professional rugby, and in the process naming and shaming those who show a lack of respect, ensuring that the evidence exists for which they can be held accountable.
One reason why the FA would be slow to adopt such a system lies in the fundamentals of the FA’s decision-making. Their belief is that changes made to the laws of the game need to be applicable at all levels, which is also a reason for the reluctance of the FA to introduce video replays into the game.
‘Respect’ has followed the example set by rugby in one sense though, as it has placed more emphasis on the role of captains in ensuring that order is kept within their ranks. Referees will attempt to communicate primarily with team captains about on-pitch events, so it is up to the captains to respond appropriately to the greater behavioural expectancy placed upon them.
The overall aim for the FA’s campaign is to increase the number of qualified referees in the country from its current figure of 26,000 to the 34,000 mark, which would ensure that every organised game will have its own match official. The main obstacle in achieving this figure is not the recruitment of officials, but the retaining of them. If successful, the ‘Respect’ campaign should go a long way towards reducing the number of referees giving up due to the disrespect they suffer.
Surely the time has come to once and for all eradicate the disrespect evident at the highest level of the game, and in so doing, hope that it will benefit the game as a whole, not just in England, but in every location around the world that the Premier League and Football League reaches.