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Referees and the Reputation Problem
by Paul Gardner, February 9th, 2009 7AM

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It's a puzzling thing to me that what I see as a major problem for referees is one that they always tell me is no problem at all. Call it the reputation problem. When a referee knows -- as he must know, he is after all intensely involved in the sport -- of the reputation of certain players as dirty or as divers, does that knowledge affect his calls? Would he, for instance, be more likely to card a known violent player than he would a player without such a reputation?

The answer I've had from all sorts of referees, in different countries, over the years has always been immediate -- a straightforward "No." Followed by the reasoning -- all players are treated the same, what matters is only that particular foul at that particular moment. It doesn't matter who commits it. A player must not be prejudged.

In other words, this is a version of the unarguable legal reasoning: Everyone is innocent until proven guilty. Obviously, I accept that, but nonetheless I find the referees answer troubling. Surely -- I protest -- if you have a player whom you know to be a serial fouler, and another whom everyone agrees is a thorough gentleman who rarely fouls -- surely you must come down more harshly on the thug?

Again, a confident "No" is the answer. The job of the referee is to see, and to respond to, only what happens in the game he is officiating. Any differentiation in punishment must come later from a disciplinary committee, who will take a wider look at a player's overall record. In other words, as in the law courts, a culprit's criminal record can only be considered at the sentencing stage, not while his guilt or otherwise is being assessed.

But should that be the case in soccer, or in any contact sport for that matter? Would it be such a bad thing if referees applied a little "preventive justice"? I think not. Indeed, the only objection I can see to it is that such actions are open to abuse -- by the referees. By which I mean that an individual referee might conceive a mighty dislike for a certain player and treat him unfairly. But that's not much of an objection, as that's a potential situation that exists anyway, and if it is a temptation, it's one that referees are good at resisting.

The wider objection to preventive refereeing is that unless it became a generally accepted practice, with guidelines on how to apply it and who to apply it to -- it would introduce another element of inconsistency into refereeing -- and whenever coaches complain about what they see as poor refereeing, they inevitably make accusations of inconsistency. And yes, I'm well aware that "inconsistency" in coach-talk usually means nothing more than "too many rotten calls against my team."

The referees' stand is a strong one, from the points of view of both justice and practicality. I happen to find it unsatisfactory -- and anyway I question whether it is always adhered to. Here we encounter a referee attitude that definitely, in my opinion, does show bias. Not toward individual players, but to a class of players. I see plenty of evidence that referees, worldwide, favor defenders rather than attackers.

Consider what happened yesterday in the EPL game between West Ham and Manchester United. In the 88th minute, West Ham's Australian defender Lucas Neill (no shrinking violet he) tripped ManU's Cristiano Ronaldo. A clear, blatantly obvious penalty kick. You didn't need the replays to spot this one. Referee Phil Dowd was well positioned to see it -- but he ignored the foul and raced off upfield, giving elaborate "no foul" signs.

It makes me wonder. Last week, when Chelsea's Frank Lampard got red-carded for a violent foul, referee Mike Riley humbled himself with a public apology and Lampard's card was canceled. So, for "consistency," I'd say an apology was required from Dowd. Because his wrong decision, and the arrogant way he dismissed Ronaldo's protests, will add fuel to the accusations that Ronaldo is a diver.

On this occasion he wasn't. But here we have a referee evidently influenced by a player's reputation, refusing to make a glaringly obvious call. Why the difference between this incident, involving Ronaldo, and the general attitude to serial foulers that allows their history of offenses to be ignored?

The difference is that bias in favor of defenders. Ronaldo is an attacking player so referee Phil Dowd feels quite comfortable, maybe even justified, in punishing him, rather than the defender Neill (who, already on a yellow, would presumably have been ejected had the penalty been given).

Earlier this year, in another incident involving Ronaldo, a penalty was given. A day later, we got a public apology from referee Rob Styles bemoaning that he shouldn't have called the penalty because the defender played the ball. No mention of Ronaldo, he was -- for once -- guiltless.

There you have it. Referees apologize for giving penalties, they apologize for giving red cards -- but do they apologize for not giving a penalty kick? Even though referee Dowd can take a look at the replays, should he so wish, even though his error should be drawn to his attention by the referees committee, I'd rate Ronaldo's chances of getting an apology as zero. Apologies are offered to defenders only.

 



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