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Ref respect remains elusive
by Paul Gardner, September 29th, 2008 7AM

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There is a campaign going on in the English Premier League this season inviting its players to show respect toward referees. Inviting -- not commanding -- it would be difficult to enforce anything as vague as showing respect.

The idea is a good one -- over the past few years we've seen some pretty appalling examples of anti-referee behavior from EPL players -- from, I should add, extremely well-paid EPL players.

It is not a pretty sight to watch players from a top team -- Chelsea has been a major offender here -- encircling a referee and yelling in his face because they found one of his decisions not to their liking.

It should be possible to stamp that sort of thing out completely. A matter of team discipline, therefore a matter for the coach. And a matter for the team captain, who is to be given some sort of priority as the liaison between players and referee.

Referee-mobbing is the most obvious and most visible aspect of players behaving badly. But it is certainly not the most frequent. Take a look at Rule 12, and the list of offenses for which a player is to be "cautioned and shown the yellow card." No. 2 on the list is: [showing] dissent by word or action

A joke. Really, either FIFA should insist that this rule be applied -- after all, it calls for a compulsory yellow, it is not up to the referee to use his judgment -- or IFAB should delete it.

Individual players ignore it repeatedly in every game. More frequently than not, a player called for a foul will yell something at the referee or make some dismissive (or worse) gesture in the referee's direction. And the referees complete the farce by ignoring the offenses.

The day we see players simply accepting a referee's decision without any sort of protest, then I'll know that real respect has arrived.

But the referee/player discourse is a two-way affair. Inevitably the respect campaign puts pressure on the referees as well -- possibly it is more taxing for the referees. Because it entails the reasonable requirement that the referees should be deserving of respect, that they must earn it.

That is always going to be tricky. And the problem with a "respect campaign" is that it tends to produce a demand -- on the part of players and coaches -- for a level of officiating which is well nigh perfect. The feeling being that one cannot be asked to respect people who make mistakes. Suddenly a more stringent standard of criticism seems justifiable. So a rather different attitude arises, one that is less forgiving than the generally, if grudgingly, accepted view that referees are human and they will make mistakes, and we just have to put up with them -- it's all part of the game.

This is exactly the opinion expressed on numerous occasions by FIFA boss Sepp Blatter, particularly when the question of using technical aids -- such as video replays -- comes up. Blatter's position has always been anti-technology, his reasoning has always been that we don't want a game refereed by robots.

On the whole, I agree (though I make an exception for the use of goal line cameras). We have to accept referee errors -- just as we accept players and coaching errors -- and there are a lot more of those.

But the plea for respect will harden hearts. During Saturday's ManU vs. Bolton game, ManU was awarded a penalty kick by referee Rob Styles. Cristiano Ronaldo was tackled, but this time -- for a change -- Ronaldo was not accused of diving. It was referee Styles who came under attack. Bolton coach Gary Megson told the BBC that the PK (from which Ronaldo scored) was an "absolute howler," and a nonsense call, and had changed the course of the game, which Bolton lost 2-0.

OK, pretty standard stuff for a losing coach -- but Megson went on to bring up the question of the respect campaign: "It just strikes me as really strange that we have all summer to discuss what we can do about diving and goalmouth technology and what do we come up with? Respect." Then, referring to Styles' officiating, he asked "How can you have respect for that kind of performance?"

I am much in favor of referees being shown respect. Whether a highly publicized campaign is the way to set about getting it -- that I'm not so sure about. Sadly, I'm not even sure that an appeal to the players' and coaches' sense of fairness will bring the required result. In the money-soaked arena of pro soccer, it seems likely that some sort of punishment will be necessary.

The fact that all referees, in all games, worldwide, regularly refuse to impose yellow-card punishment on dissenting players is not a good start. Maybe offending players -- and/or their teams -- could be fined, but to have any effect on millionaire players and billionaire clubs, the fines would have to be heavy -- something that isn't going to happen.

Which leaves the possibility of docking points from clubs with poor disciplinary records. A scheme that would have to include all of the team's transgressions, not just referee disrespect. That might work -- but I'd be pretty certain that the first response would be that teams would put referees under more pressure by lodging an appeal against every yellow and red card!

Given the craven decision only a couple of weeks back by an English football association panel to annul a red card given to the England captain John Terry, one is not left in too hopeful a state of mind.



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