By Paul Gardner
The English Premier League's chief executive (that's the sort of title we have in soccer these days), Richard Scudamore, has been giving some thought to the matter of referee abuse in his league.
He is evidently not happy with what’s going on -- so it seems likely that some sort of clampdown on player behavior may be in the offing.
Soccer fans may well wonder what difference that will make. We have, after all, lived through all sorts of clampdowns on all sorts of things in soccer over the past, say, two decades. And, frankly, I don’t think one of these campaigns has been worth a bag of beans.
FIFA is the usual source of clampdowns. The tackle from behind was going to be banned. It is still very much around. There was the war on players not tucking their shirts into their shorts -- remember that one? -- and that had little or no effect. Players are not supposed to rip their shirt off after scoring, they get yellow-carded for it, but they still do it (and I wonder why -- it’s hardly a natural reaction, and players got by without shirt removal for more than 100 years of this sport), there was supposed to be a clampdown on the use of elbows but if there is, no one’s noticed it, and of course the campaign to abolish diving that manages to trap more innocent victims than it does true culprits.
Those are the more substantial clampdowns. I could add in the more ephemeral efforts to counter encroachment, shirt-pulling, and tactical fouls. The fact that all of those infractions are still going strong tells the story. Clampdowns now come over as PR campaigns, short-lived tremors of indignant grandstanding that quickly die off as a new source of discontent is discovered.
Scudamore is trying to do what MLS Commissioner Don Garber has set out to do this season in MLS: to change player and referee attitudes. Scudamore wants less referee abuse, Garber wants more adventurous play. Not easy -- and particularly problematic when both Scudamore and Garber pay scant attention to the role of coaches in these transgressions.
The most disturbing case of referee abuse so far this season in the EPL has involved a top coach -- ManU’s Alex Ferguson, who is sitting out a 5-game touchline ban. Alongside Ferguson’s misbehavior it is worth considering the case of Rafael, ManU’s young Brazilian fullback, found guilty and fined for swearing at a referee. Is it to be expected that players will behave better than their coaches? Their older, more-experienced and presumably wiser coaches?
The sort of behavior that Scudamore is deploring -- showing dissent at referee decisions, and the mobbing of referees by groups of players -- would simply not happen if coaches make it clear that any player guilty of such conduct will be fined, heavily, or even suspended -- not by the league, but by his club.
If clubs -- not just EPL clubs, but all clubs, everywhere -- do impose such punishments, then they are keeping very quiet about it. The discipline required in these cases, to be effective, must start at home -- with the club and with the club coach. If Ferguson can go after referees in the tunnel, if he can publicly accuse them of bias, why should his players feel obliged to show referees any respect?
Scudamore focuses on the behavior of players, pointing out that they “enjoy a privileged life” and that “extra responsibility comes with the territory.” He then feels obliged to almost apologize for his criticisms, insisting that he is not “demonizing” players.
Yet, without a similar -- or even harsher -- criticism aimed at the coaches, that is exactly what his campaign is going to look like.
If Scudamore, for whatever reason, does not wish, or is afraid, to nail the coaches, he has a perfectly acceptable way of accomplishing that end without seeming to do so. Simply by punishing the clubs. No individual need be named -- it is just the overall disciplinary record of the club that is under fire.
That can be measured by a club’s foul count and by the number of yellow and red cards it accumulates. This is an indirect way of assessing the coach’s behavior, even though he does not commit any fouls, and cannot be carded (cards are issued only to players). But the sort of anti-referee post-game comments that got Ferguson into trouble should also be taken into account. So, too, should any behavior -- such as referee-mobbing -- that might lead to a charge of “bringing the game into disrepute.”
As for punishment -- the club can be fined, though to be effective the fines would probably have to be so high that they would simply be unacceptable to everyone. A much more threatening move would be to combine a fine with a deduction from the team’s points total.
Maybe Scudamore’s move will result in that sort of action. But I seriously doubt whether anything will come of his words. Why is the clampdown (if that’s what it is) being introduced when the season is almost over? Most likely because of Ferguson’s high-profile case -- even though Scudamore has trained his sights on the players, not the coaches.
But what makes any firm, decisive action most unlikely, is the news that Scudamore and the EPL will be discussing the matter with “the English Football Association as well as the bodies that represent players, managers and referees.” With that many points of view to be considered, you can be sure nothing decisive will emerge. Merely an agreement by everyone to behave themselves in the future ... an agreement which will rather quickly be forgotten as things get back to normal.
We have taken this route before. Very recently. At the beginning of its 2008-09 season, the EPL introduced a campaign “inviting” players to show respect to the referees. You can tell that initiative never got off the ground -- or why would Scudamore now feel obliged to revisit the referee-abuse topic?