English refs get it wrong - yet again

The image of Graham Poll handing out three yellow cards to the same player at the 2006 World Cup sticks in the mind as emblematic of English referees. Totally confused.

By leaning over backward to keep 11 players on the field, they have created an atmosphere in the EPL in which the thugs flourish. Tolerance rules, to the point where it has slopped over into outright indulgence.

An insidiously dangerous attitude, and one which surely contributed to the heinous "tackle" with which Martin Taylor shattered poor Eduardo's leg recently. An attitude that allowed far too many people in England to dismiss that foul with "it wasn't malicious, it was just one of those things that happen."

Maybe -- but those "things" are much more likely to happen when the rules against careless and reckless play, and the use of excessive force, are systematically ignored by the referees.

Knowing they're likely to get away with careless, even deliberate, fouls, the players can be forgiven for feeling that they, not the referee, are running the show. Inevitably they have lost respect for the referees.

And now the referees have decided that is enough is enough. A clampdown has been declared, and woe to abusive players. A clampdown that is at least three years late in arriving. Poll is the key figure again. Remember his tangle with Wayne Rooney back in 2005, when he allowed Rooney to get away with a prolonged torrent of abuse? Poll just stood there. No card.

Something similar happened recently, when Chelsea's Ashley Cole, having violently fouled an opponent, then flagrantly trashed referee Mike Riley -- who, again, just stood there. So what happened to Cole? Just a yellow card. And the Chelsea players who surrounded Reilly? Nothing. It is Liverpool and Javier Mascherano who will pay for that episode.

They were the first victims of the new clampdown (and quite probably the last, given how short-lived these things usually are). Mascherano wanted to talk to referee Steve Bennett. Not abusively, not by screaming and swearing at him. But Bennett quickly yellow-carded him -- the second yellow for Mascherano, so off he went. At that point - after his ejection, be it noted -- Mascherano lost it, and his behavior became inexcusable.

So Bennett suddenly represented the new zero-tolerance of the English referee. Suddenly. A big problem, that. It is very obviously unfair to change the "rules" in the middle of a season. This was even worse -- the clampdown started in the middle of one of the season's most crucial games. So, at worst, Mascherano miscalculated.

Question for Mr Bennett: when was the last time you sent off, or simply first-yellowed, a player for talking? Not swearing, mind you, simply talking? Try as I might, I cannot recall a case, in the EPL, of any player being carded by any referee for merely chatting. Which means that what Bennett did was really a huge change in operating procedure. No wonder Mascherano claims he doesn't know why he was sent off!

It's ironic, because chatting is something English referees do a lot of. They use it as a way of avoiding having to give cards. Hence all those cosy little talks after a player has committed an egregious foul that would have got him banished in any other league.

But no mercy for Mascherano, no nice little chat ... out comes the card. It's worth repeating: Ashley Cole perpetrated a frighteningly vicious tackle and got only a yellow. He then blatantly mocked the referee, but that went unpunished.

Mascherano did nothing but yak -- but he was too persistent, or maybe Bennett didn't like his Argentine accent, who knows? And he got sent off.

Of course there's confusion in English refereeing, because the refs want it both ways. They want to be the players' best pal (all that sympathetic chatting) but at the same time they want respect from the players. They want to act out the referees' version of that English ideal for players: Hard but Fair. The refs want to be seen as Firm but Fair.

But they're not firm. They're feeble when it comes to dealing with rough play. And, in being feeble, they're anything but fair. Doing a sudden mid-season u-turn on the matter merely adds to the confusion and unfairness.

Ask Mascherano. He will be made a scapegoat, of course. But the trouble is with the refereeing. Only when the chatting stops and the cards start, will respect be shown. When English referees start brandishing cards with a dramatic, authoritarian flourish, instead of producing them apologetically with a limp gesture -- and when the new attitude is maintained -- then I'll begin to believe that something is actually changing in the English game.


5 comments about "English refs get it wrong - yet again".
  1. Heather Scott-molleda, March 27, 2008 at 8:13 a.m.

    Totally agree. I was appalled at how many commentators were willing to dismiss the Taylor foul without recognizing the culture that allowed it. The refs should crack down on this, and the first yellow on Mascherano should have been his warning, but he kept up a constant stream of chatter after that, and I have no doubt that's why the ref finally gave him the second yellow. It was have been a u-turn, but he had plenty of warning that the ref wasn't going to take any back talk. As for Mike Reilly, I cringe every time I see him because I know it is highly likely the game will get out of control. He thinks he can control a highly emotional game by being nice.

  2. Brent Crossland, March 27, 2008 at 10:14 a.m.

    I agree with you that enforcement needs to be consistent and policy driven -- not ad hoc; however, you cannot draw a 'bright line' to distinguish what is and isn't dissent. EPL referees have bent over backwards to tolerate the Rooney's of the league -- to the detriment of the game -- but you cannot define what constitutes dissent anymore than you can absolutely define "offensive, insulting, or abusive language".

    I also disagree that EPL referees should "brandish cards with a dramatic, authoritarian flourish" a la some of the South American leagues. The card is an indicator of the sanction that the referee is giving -- nothing more.

    BTW -- for my money Mascherano did not receive his second caution for an isolated incident of dissent. Watch the tape and you'll see that he never shuts his mouth from the time that he received the first caution. He clearly thought that he had carte blanche and that Bennett would not award a second caution for further dissent.

  3. Oscar Alonso, March 27, 2008 at 10:16 a.m.

    What makes Mascherano such an angel here? Just cause he got busted in a mid season change of rules, a clampdown? The others should've been carded or ejected, but the refs proved to be spineless and over their heads at the time and let Cole and Rooney run roughshod over them. I've seen a compilation of the match between Liverpool and ManU and Mascherano ran his mouth at the official many times before his 'questionable' ejection. He even ran from 15 yards away to question the call prior to his 2nd yellow. Clearly this referee had had enough of his constant niggling and apparent disrespect for his calls.
    Javier Mascherano's true colors came out when he realized he should've backed off, if only to stay in the game for other runs at the ref.
    If you were to ask me, the referee got it right, now they should all follow his lead otherwise the EPL will look more like the NHL.

  4. Keith Bantz, March 27, 2008 at 11:06 a.m.

    This problem has been brewing worldwide for many years. In our own country incidents like this one are fairly common at the professional level. It's what is killing the game. The players have little respect for the referee, the opposing players, and the game itself. They don't understand that the game is greater than they are. Long after they are gone the game will continue in all its glory but their attitudes and their behavior only serves to keep the game at the second tier where it is in the United States. While we're on it, why not touch on my second pet peeve: when I we going to address the problem of the less-than-ten-yard wall? I've had the solution for many years: the first time the wall is set at three yards the referee goes over and cautions the coach for unsporting behavior! The referee presumes that the players were "coached" to do this unsporting act and therefore the coach should receive the card in this situation. What do you think of the idea?

  5. Frank Cebul, March 29, 2008 at 8:54 a.m.

    I think that any discussion of referee decisions by sports writers,fans,players, or coaches needs to accept the following premise:that the referees in the EPL are among the most experienced,fair,consistent, and fit referees in soccer, just as the EPL contains among the best soccer players and coaches. Many vie for the opportunity to officiate in the EPL,only the best are chosen.

    So the question is why did that player get a second yellow at that time by that referee? None of the other players put themselves in that position. I suspect that Paul Gardner got it wrong. Mascherano crossed some line and pushed the referee's buttons to get an otherwise reasonable,fair person to eject him.

    I do agree with Gardner that I see harsh tackles in the EPL that I think should warrant cautions,but instead are "play on" with no consequence. This should end. But then again, when FIFA referees at the World Cup in Germany tried to call more fouls and issue more cards they were soundly criticized by the media and coaches. Just as there should be more consistency in officiating, there needs to be more consistency in the judgment of refereeing.

    Referees are in a peculiar spot. Where else in society is a profession so regularly criticized by people who have had less or no training or experience in that particular work?

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