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The leniency of English referees
by Paul Gardner, August 16th, 2009 8:49PM
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By Paul Gardner

LONDON -- The first games of the new EPL season have been played. The scorelines are in, implacable and unarguable; along with them come dozens of coaches' statements, which are anything but unarguable.

Last week, before the first ball was kicked, the coaches -- all of them -- suffered something of a setback when one of their number admitted that he had lied in the past when he claimed not to have seen fouls committed by his own players.

That was Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal coach, speaking. That admission made the headlines in virtually every newspaper. The news, of course, was not that Wenger had lied -- but that he had admitted it. In doing so he merely confirmed what everyone has known all the time, that coaches rarely tell the truth about competitive incidents in their own games.

We don't really expect them to, any more than we expect players to give honest accounts of their doings. Not even David Beckham who, this same weekend, in MLS, earned himself a red card that, he has told everyone, should not have been a red card.

Of course not, David. But the point is an important one as far as referees are concerned. Beckham spent most of his playing career in England, and his attitude tells us a lot about the way that English referees call games.

And it is not good. I got a close up view of it on Saturday when, shunning the glamour EPL games, I went along to the League One (i.e. third division) game between Brentford and Brighton, the Bees vs the Seagulls.

The game ended 0-0 and was utterly dreadful -- the less said about it the better. But the refereeing merits a comment or two. By my reckoning, this game should have had a penalty kick and at least three yellow cards. All it got was one yellow, and that came in the 91st minute.

The officiating, in other words was permissive. The referee let a number of pretty blatant fouls go unpunished. When he did whistle for a bad foul he usually engaged in the typically English rigmarole of a brief chat with the offender, accompanied as always by a series of emphatic gestures, presumably meant to indicate that a hard line was being taken. What those chats could possibly be about I cannot imagine. What is there to discuss?

But there in League One the basics of English soccer, and of English attitudes to the sport, are exposed. The game is vigorous, crude, and rough. It is not about skill, it is almost devoid of trickery, nuances and subtlety. It is more than anything, a fight, a battle in which physical commitment and bravery are valued. Soccer cannot be played that way without the complicity of the referee. So the heavy tackling and the gratuitous contact is condoned.

I am not about to deny that these sort of games can be exciting -- their sheer pace and energy can sometimes ensure that. But most of them are rather desolate affairs, like the Bees vs. Seagulls game that I watched, a rustic activity barely recognizable as the same sport that Arsenal or Barcelona plays.

But those basic attitudes run deep. Listen to this extraordinary comment made by the Blackburn Rovers' midfielder David Dunn as his team was preparing for its opening game against Manchester City -- the newly rich team that is busy loading up on star players. Well, said Dunn, "the main thing is to be really aggressive against them and knock them about a bit. It's important that we do our best and kick lumps out of them, fairly of course." To which the Blackburn coach Sam Allardyce added "I want to mess them up."

Dunn, surely, was joking, wasn't he? He couldn't be advocating kicking people, could he? But if he didn't really mean what he said, then what did he mean?

I think that all he was doing was giving voice to those deep truths of the English game, rather overstating the case for "getting stuck in." Though it would be interesting to hear his explanation of how one "fairly" kicks lumps out of players.

But if there is one soccer-playing nation where one might be able to accomplish that, it would be England. Because of the leniency of English referees. There are statistics that, in my opinion, make an incontestable case. Last season, in Italy's Serie A, 116 red cards were shown. In Spain's La Liga, the total was 148. In the EPL there were only 63 red cards. Of course, you could argue that those stats merely prove what a dirty bunch the Italians and the Spaniards are. But I think you'd be getting it wildly wrong.


  1. Mark Edge
    commented on: August 17, 2009 at 8:23 a.m.
    Shocking. Gardner shuns the opportunity to welcome back the beautiful game with the return of the Premiership (generally agreed upon as the best league in the world) with it's international and domestic players on display. Instead he delves to the third tier in search of an avenue to throw stones at the British Game. This time the refereeing. I'm a Tottenham fan and a Dagenham fan. I believe we should support the grass roots game as well as celebrate the incredible talent at the highest level. Looking forward to the third negative article about the English game. Maybe he can find a Boy scout game to lament the absence of quality refereeing and technical competence.
  1. Lucinda Hampson
    commented on: August 17, 2009 at 1:55 p.m.
    Since the referee sets the tone of the game, part of what you're saying is that the referee expects coarse, clumsy play and that that type of play is acceptable. Now you see why the English football reputation is falling. No longer are they number one, but they could be; just expect more and everyone will rise to the occasion. England's overall football performance will improve and she will be an international success once more.
  1. William White
    commented on: August 17, 2009 at 9:47 p.m.
    I don't always agree with Gardner. In fact he often strikes me as peevish. However, I would be interested in hearing his thoughts on something I, as an American soccer fan, have been mulling over recently. That is, what I see as undue leniency among MLS referees. To me MLS allows a much more physical game than it should. I believe this stunts the progress of good technical skills among the American players in the league - a development which, in turns, hurts the USMNT. The physical play in the MLS also robs us MLS fans from being able to witness more enjoyable soccer. As a related observation, I am an avid Red Bulls fan. (Ok, ok. I'll wait a minute for the laughter to die down....) The Red Bulls, of course, have Jorge Rojas, the captain of the Venezualan national team on the squad. I am told that if you watch a Red Bulls practice the player who stands head and shoulders above all others in terms of technical skill is Rojas. A player of his stature SHOULD have made a much bigger impact on the team and on the league. However, he hasn't. IMHO that is because Rojas simply gets mauled during games - and MLS refs allow it. I don't blame MLS refs themselves for the nature of play in the league. I blame the league itself. Any referee is emminently capable of calling a tighter game. That won't happen, though, until the league explicitly instructs their referees to clean up the game. Thoughts, anyone???
  1. Hal Conen
    commented on: August 18, 2009 at 9:57 a.m.
    I saw a lot of variance in recent tournaments between national teams this summer even within the same tournament. One might praise a refereee for "letting the boys play" if he overlooks many of the fouls but in watching I felt sometimes that aloowing for a more physical game gave the team with bigger players an unfair advantage (not dismissing but adding to Gardners points about quelching skill and trickery). Panama for example was often allowed to bully their way on the field was able to stay with Mexico who had much more talent and skill.

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