By Paul Gardner
A couple of quotes to start things off. Shakespeare, of course, comes first -- from "King Lear":
Oft striving to better, we mar what’s well.
I’ll update that -- this is not really a quote, merely a rather less poetic saying:
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Huge notices bearing -- in large type-size -- one, or better, both of those shafts of wisdom should festoon the corridors and offices of Major League Soccer.
Possibly someone would pay attention, possibly the league would step back from the abyss it is about to plunge into. To plunge happily into, it needs stressing.
This particular abyss concerns refereeing. The MLS biggies have got it into their heads that there is something seriously wrong with MLS refereeing. And that they therefore have to do something about it.
These same biggies are not good, not good at all, when it comes to detailing exactly what is wrong with MLS refereeing. They retreat behind generalities, ingenuously explaining that MLS is always seeking to improve all its activities, and what can be wrong with that?
It is of course, a pretty fatuous argument. One wonders how many potential alternative Commissioners they are interviewing, simply on the theory there must be a way of improving what Don Garber does.
As for refereeing, one learns that MLS is listening to all sorts of people who are critical of its refereeing. People like coaches, general managers, players -- and owners. Listening to them, being frightened by their criticisms and therefore being scared (possibly panicked) into seeking a solution to a problem that, in my opinion, does not exist.
Taking the group of complainers listed above -- why would MLS pay any particular attention to their bitching? All of them -- coaches, players, general managers, owners -- are deeply biased observers of referee activity. They’ll have plenty to moan about during a season -- every time a call goes against their team really, they’ll be heard from. When things go right, when the referee’s calls work in their favor, they’re much less likely to speak out.
I should also add another group of serial complainers, a comparatively new group that has risen to a flimsy sort of importance on modern technology: the busy cyber fans, who do seem to have it in for the referees.
A question for all these referee-baiters: this referee-perfection that you seem to be seeking ... where does it exist? Can any one of you name the country where the referees are perfect? A country where there are not constant complaints about the level of refereeing?
I’d be interested to hear about that place -- because I’ve been around the soccer world for a great many years now, watching games on all six continents, and I’ve never found this refereeing Eden. Never even got a whiff of it.
The very nature of what referees do -- a form of law enforcement -- so very obviously means they are not going to be the most popular people in the soccer world. Criticism and abuse is a natural part of their world -- it always has been, and as far as I can see it always will be. Some of it justified, most of it definitely not justified.
Much of the criticism is vitiated precisely because it comes from people who can’t stand the idea of calls going against their club or their players; occasionally they will have a case, but mostly they will not. In any case, when a similarly questionable call is made next week, but involves another team, will the original complainers be heard from? Of course not -- it is only what damages their team that interests them.
All their pleas for “fairness” and “consistency” in the application of the rules can be ignored. That is not what they are about. They are basically looking for a convenient excuse after they’ve lost a game. And it is equally likely that the game has been lost because the coach screwed up his tactics or the players proved hopelessly inept at putting the ball in the net.
Then there is the matter of the rules. How many of these critics actually know the rules of the game? I can tell you, from my own extensive experience -- not very many. I recently sat with a group of knowledgeable fans -- four of them. We had been having a lively, intelligent chat about the sport ... until we got on to the rules. I asked what must surely be the most basic question about the rulebook -- How many rules are there? None of the four got it right. The closest thought there were about 70. One of them said “Maybe 200 -- something like that.”
So I’m saying ... be very, very careful when listening to criticism of referees, because most of time it is based on nothing more than blind partisanship and/or ignorance of the rules.
Yet here we have MLS agonizing because its refs are being taken to task by people whose criticisms should be resisted, not caved in to.
I repeat: I do not believe there is anything disastrously wrong with MLS refereeing. Some of it’s good, some not so good, the refs have their good games and their bad games ... and I’m waiting to hear where that is not the case.
But MLS is determined to fix what ain’t broke, to mar what’s well. It is looking, apparently, for a referee czar, someone of authority, of experience, who will be able to deal with all these complainers -- especially, one suspects, with apoplectic owners -- and, presumably, lay down the law about what is what on the field.
That sounds reasonable, or at least not unreasonable. Until one learns that the help MLS is seeking, this unnecessary help, is to come from the Brits. When it becomes a sick joke. This czar job has already been offered to former English referee Keith Hackett. He turned it down at the last minute, leaving MLS with a problem -- as the season is only about a month away.
But contacts with the Brits continue, and it looks likely that a Brit will come here to teach American referees how to get their calls right.
This is not merely a sick joke, it is downright obscene. Anyone who watches the EPL games that flood our screens these days will have seen plenty of Brit refereeing. They will have noticed that the Brit game features a good deal of -- unpunished -- reckless tackling. They will understand why there is a school of thought that blames England’s lack of success at the international level on its uniquely lenient refereeing. They will understand why the EPL’s red-card count regularly comes in below that of the other top European leagues.
That is the way refereeing is done in the EPL. There is a sort of consensus in English soccer culture that the “game should flow” (i.e. small fouls should be ignored), that the referees should be “sensible” (i.e. avoid giving cards by indulging in jolly little chats with the players), should try to keep 22 players on the field and should, overall, uphold the red-blooded notion that soccer is a man’s game and that the players must be allowed to get “stuck in.”
Would MLS mind telling me exactly what it has to learn from that deplorable mess? Because, make no mistake, that is the sort of mentality that will accompany an experienced Brit -- because his experience will be narrow-mindedly British. How can it be otherwise? (And if he’s not experienced, then why would he be coming?)
It’s virtually impossible to work out what improvements MLS thinks are supposed to arrive with a Brit refereeing czar. Will there be a sudden, noticeable improvement in ... well, what? We’re still going to get referees making unpopular decisions, which means there will still be irate owners and coaches. Maybe American referees will be taught how to deliver inane little on-field chats, the ones that allow an offender to escape unpunished when he should have been carded. Maybe the assistant referees will improve their flag-waving techniques.
A plausible theory can be advanced that American referees simply cannot be as good as they should be, because their training cannot include a key element that is available to referees in all major soccer countries: the steady climb up from third to second to first division games and the growing experience that accompanies it.
I am not about to argue the point -- which is at least theoretically solid -- but I will point out that, despite that apparently vital gap in their training, American referees do remarkably well. I have mentioned before the unprecedented happenings last year at the under-20 World Cup in Colombia, when FIFA selected the American Mark Geiger to referee the final -- even though Mark Clattenburg, an English referee with seven years of EPL experience, was available. If our referee training is so inferior, that simply could not have happened.
It is of concern that MLS, by bringing in a foreign referee czar or adviser or consultant or director or whatever he may be called, is publicly belittling the work done by the American and Canadian refereeing communities. It is also worrying that the appointment may have come down to a Brit, not on any special suitability for the job, but simply because he speaks the language.
But the biggest problem with the appointment of a Brit -- I consider it an ineradicable problem -- is the primitive soccer cultural values that will arrive with him. An MLS decision to promote Brit influence in the training of American referees is an appalling mistake.