As jury and judge, should refs consider reputation?

By Paul Gardner

The Axel Witsel affair raises a thorny problem, one that that soccer does not handle well. Witsel, a 21-year-old Belgian player from Standard Liege, is facing a two-game suspension for getting himself red-carded during the weekend's derby against local rivals Anderlecht.

But there are considerable complications involved. Witsel's offense was a sliding tackle on Roland Juhasz -- a nasty, studs-up challenge that inevitably set off a furious spate of protests from the Anderlecht players. No doubt, they felt more than justified for their actions, because barely five months ago Witsel had been guilty of a similar offense against them.

On that occasion he had seriously injured another Anderlecht defender, Marcin Wasilewski, leaving him with a compound fracture of his leg after a vicious tackle. The Belgian authorities slapped Witsel with a 10-game ban, which quickly got reduced to eight games.

At that point, Witsel could consider himself a trifle fortunate, because he had already been in trouble earlier in 2009, when he was hit with a four-game international ban by FIFA after a dangerous foul committed during a Belgium vs. Bosnia World Cup qualifier.

Witsel, then, had already done enough to earn a reputation as a lethal serial fouler before this weekend's episode. Which makes it difficult to understand why he has received only a two-match ban for his latest crime.

The most likely reason for the leniency would seem to be that the Belgian authorities are siding with the Standard president Pierre Francois who claimed that the referee got it wrong, that Witsel's foul was not that bad, and that the red card was "undeserved."

I'd say the foul - as seen on YouTube - is bad enough, certainly reckless, and borderline red. So the referee then comes under suspicion of punishing Witsel severely because of his reputation. That is not generally approved of -- it is usually maintained that a referee's decision should be made solely on what he sees in front of him, and that a player's character or previous behavior should not enter into the matter.

Certainly, a strong argument can be made for that approach. In legal terms, it conforms to the accepted practice that if an accused has a record of previous crimes, they should not be revealed to the jury during his trial. If a guilty verdict is reached, then the judge can consider those previous crimes when deciding on the punishment.

The difference -- a vital one -- is that a referee is both jury and judge, and he has to act in both capacities in just a few seconds.

In the Witsel case it is inconceivable that the referee was ignorant of Witsel's record (his brutal foul on Wasilewski had made banner headlines in Belgium). So why shouldn't the referee take that record into account?

After all, referees have the power to punish for previous crimes within one game -- the "persistent infringement" clause clearly allows them to do that. It is also difficult to accept that similar fouls should always get the same punishment -- whether committed by a known thug or by a player with a reputation for clean play.

The statement from Standard's president is obviously special pleading, even though he may have a point over the issuing of the red card. Club officials -- particularly coaches -- always feel obliged to defend their players, however atrocious the fouls. One recalls then Manchester City coach Stuart Pearce extravagantly lauding Joey Barton's character in February 2007 after the player had committed a particularly brutal assault on teammate Ousmane Dabo.

There seems always to be unbounded sympathy for the violent players. The reduction of Witsel's 10-game ban should not surprise. That, too, raises memories, from 1983 -- of Diego Maradona in hospital with a shattered ankle, while the player who caused the injury, Andoni Goikoetxea, was having his ban successively reduced from 18 games to 10, and then to seven.

The question for soccer to answer is this: how much violence from one player should be considered enough to warrant a lengthy ban? Witsel's behavior suggests he has learned little from his previous punishments.

Whether or not his latest foul warranted a red card is debatable. But a lack of responsibility runs through this case. It is surely undeniable that for a player with two lengthy, and recent, suspensions for violent play to commit another reckless challenge is almost criminally irresponsible. Equally irresponsible is the decision to hand down only a two-game suspension.




3 comments about "As jury and judge, should refs consider reputation? ".
  1. Kent James, January 20, 2010 at 6:25 p.m.

    There are three separate issues in this case. First, should a player's history impact a referee? It clearly should; people's past behavior a clue to future behavior. Referees are taught to know the history of the players (and the match) so that they know what to watch for. That doesn't mean that referees should judge a player only on past behavior, just that in the grey area (was it a foul/card or not), players who have built records of fair play should get the benefit of the doubt, players who have built records of unfair play should not. There should be some reward for playing cleanly.
    Second, for the punishment (in terms of multiple game suspensions), past behavior should play an even larger role. Second or third time offenders, especially for the same offense, should get harsher penalties than first time offenders since they have clearly not learned from previous penalties.
    Finally, in this case, I think the foul is reckless not malicious. Witsel goes in studs up, but his studs are directed at the ball (and make contact firmly with the ball first), and the opponent is not directly behind the tackle (which would be even more dangerous), though the opponent's momentum carries him into the path of the tackle where contact is made. This clearly could be a red card, and given Witsel's reputation/history, a red card is warranted (for game control, if nothing else). That being said, given that it was stupid rather than malicious, it doesn't seem to be in the same category as his previous fouls, so I think two games is enough. But somebody should teach the man how to tackle; had he toe-poked the ball away rather than used the bottom of his foot, he wouldn't be in the mess he's in.

  2. Austin Gomez, January 20, 2010 at 11:42 p.m.

    Very well delineated (as usual) by this erstwhile English chemist & present noted, successful author!

    THREE issues arise quickly to my mind: Firstly, Effective REFEREES should do their "homework" on the various thugs/prima donnas/divers/star players, that they may encounter in their next Game. Always, competent Referees come with an OPEN Mind to every Match that they will officiate, but past history is a "crutch" that may aid the Referee in "gray-area" situations, that may occur throughout a Match!

    Secondly, the "Big Picture" also may/should come into focus. Was this Belgian 'derby' affair rather peaceful/pleasant with "fair play" throughout this Contest until this unfortunate Scenario happened? Or was this contest nasty, unpleasant with flagrant "challenges" throughout?

    Then, of course, the Referee must quickly - accurately - firmly - positively CLASSIFY this "challenge" as either a Careless foul (Foul without Misconduct observed, hence a DFK-Restart only needed) - a Reckless foul, escalating to Misconduct (hence, a Caution mandated: YC) - or was this "challenge" committed with Excessive Force (hence, a Send-Off mandated: RC).

    Once, the Referee sorts this "challenge" out, (mentally) & thus gets his correct 'terminolgy' properly suited concerning this particular "challenge" --then, this Referee must prudently ACT as the both the Judge and Jury towards this 'due process' of Law........via his instant Judgmental opinion, based upon the evidence/facts that were observed (FACTS: the Speed of the Tackle, Studs up, Physical Contact and its Location with regard to the Ball/Player, & the Manner/Results of this Action, etcetera).
    Hence, many factual Elements will comprise the Referee's Verdict & Punishment!

    Thirdly, if it is an obvious 100% RC Misconduct, (as was seemingly the case here), the proper, correct Verdict must be an instant Player 'dismissal' from the Game, keeping always the SAFETY safeguards of the 22 'potential criminals' preseved in this Game --- always!

    And then, of course, the Referee's REPORT must be written/submitted with clarity, wisdom, fairness to what actually was the Offense - the Punishment, in the opinion of the Referee to the proper Authorities.

    Therefore, many Factors will play a ROLE in this Scenario, via the THREE issues: a Red-Card is perfectly justifiable Punishment by this very competent/courageous Belgian Center Official, in my opinion!

  3. Mark Levinstein, January 21, 2010 at 9:23 a.m.

    It is completely improper for a referee to make a decision based on the referee's view of prior conduct. The referee is responsible for officiating a game and when that game starts all players on the field should be treated equally based on what they do during that game. A play should be judged by the referee based on what he saw on that field, not his views about the players or teams before he comes to the game. If an oversight body - a league or a national governing body or the international federation wants to review a course of conduct by a particular player and make a decision about penalties based on conduct in multiple games, that is certainly understandable, but it is outrageous to suggest that a referee can make a decision and say, "Well, I know that it may not have looked that bad and if the foul had been committed by another player the penalty would have been less, but my decision was based on a game I saw a few weeks ago and what I have read, and player A has a reputation for being a dirty player, so his team was penalized in this game for his reputation . . . " that is completely contrary to all concepts of the role of a referee who is officiating one game.

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