By Paul Gardner
It is generally agreed that the sight of players complaining about the referee's decisions is not one we want to see on the soccer field. Even worse, is the spectacle of a crowd of players hounding the referee, chasing him and yelling furiously at him.
It shouldn’t happen -- not least because there’s a rule saying it's a yellow-card offense. That’s in Rule 12, which states that a player is to be cautioned for “dissent by word or action” -- we are left to assume that the rule is talking about dissent directed at the referee’s decisions. But it is a rule that is rarely enforced.
Yesterday, during the Arsenal vs. Barcelona game, we didn’t have to wait long for a blatant example of dissent -- that went unpunished. Arsenal’s Alex Song was booked for a foul, and immediately waved his arm, showing emphatic and obvious disgust with the call (which was a good call). But what referee, only 7 minutes into the game, is going to send a player off by giving two yellow cards, one right after the other, the second for dissent? Of course, it doesn’t happen very often.
The problem is that we have become totally habituated to seeing players complain -- to the point where, when the players don’t kick up a rumpus, we feel we can safely assume that the referee got it right.
Just how wrong that assumption can be was proved during that Arsenal vs. Barcelona game. Half an hour after Song’s violently expressed dissent went unpunished, Lionel Messi headed the ball into the Arsenal net for a goal that would have made it 2-0 to Barcelona. The goal was immediately annulled by the assistant referee’s flag, indicating offside against Messi.
We got a good camera shot of Messi looking baffled, and another of coach Pep Guardiola calmly accepting the decision on the sideline. Neither Messi nor any other Barcelona player ran over the remonstrate with the AR -- that is something that we see quite frequently -- and the game quickly resumed. But, something that I missed when I wrote earlier today (I’ve been helped out here by an eagle-eyed referee), there was absolutely nothing wrong with Messi’s goal. The replay reveals that at no time during the play that led up to his header was Messi in front of the ball. Hence he could not have been offside.
I’m not suggesting that a wild bout of protesting from Messi and Co., would have changed the referee’s decision (it was the assistant referee who got it wrong, of course). But the lack of any complaint undoubtedly meant that the incident was not reviewed properly on television -- nor by me, for that matter.
So -- what price fair play and sportsmanship? Messi is not known as a serial whiner to referees -- though, as one of the most-fouled players in the game he has plenty of justification for bitching about his treatment. Should he have complained yesterday? Vigorous protests to the referee may well be counterproductive, of course -- but, equally, they may sow doubt in the referee’s mind, possibly leading to a more favorable decision later on.
As far as yesterday’s incident goes, the more one looks at it, the more obvious it becomes that this was a pretty lousy call. Yet, it was accepted by Barcelona without demur -- most probably because they too, at the time, considered it to be a valid, or at least reasonable, call.
A sequence that invites the question: if referees are unlikely to punish dissent, and if even the most apparently correct calls can be wrong . . . then why not show dissent?
What’s to be lost by letting the referee, and the fans, and the TV commentators and the journalists know that it's quite possible that the ref or his assistant has just screwed up?
The old baseball adage about getting in the umpire's face surely also applies to soccer: the yelling and screaming is not about this call -- it's about the next one.