English refs too lenient? Stats say so

By Paul Gardner

So no sooner do I tell you that coaches never say anything nasty about their own players -- just 10 days ago -- then up pops Bert van Marwijk, the coach of the Dutch national team, to seriously berate one of his players.

The tackle that Nigel de Jong put on the American Stuart Holden -- it sent Holden to the hospital with a broken leg -- was too much for van Marwijk, who ranted “As soon as the game was over, I got hold of him [de Jong] and I told him ... he really must get this out of his system.” Looking ahead to South Africa, he added, “A foul like the one Nigel committed on Holden can cost us the World Cup.”

Well, it would have been nice had van Marwijk expressed some sympathy for Holden, who will be sitting on the sidelines for some two months now, and may well miss out on the World Cup altogether.

Van Marwijk’s criticism of de Jong is welcome, whatever his reasons for voicing it. There was more, because van Marwijk jumped in with both feet, studs up, to lash out at English referees. De Jong plays in England, for Manchester City, and van Marwijk sees England as the land of lenient referees who regularly permit the sort of reckless tackles that he is complaining about: “Nigel plays in England and that is the league where referees allow players to do so much more.”

Well, he’s certainly got that right. His criticism, of course, came right after Ryan Shawcross’ deplorable “tackle” that broke the leg of Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey. It is really quite extraordinary to read the opinions of far too many British commentators bending themselves into all sorts of shapes to convince us that Shawcross did nothing wrong. These included calls that Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger should apologize to Shawcross for criticizing him.

This choice passage is from former Man U and Scotland player Lou Macari: “What got my goat about events at Stoke on Saturday was not the tackle, but Arsene Wenger’s ridiculous reaction to it ... I’ve got to say I felt sorry for Shawcross.”

Yes, there is a sadistic mentality at work in the English game. I don’t think the referees are responsible for it, but they do, inevitably, reflect it.

We’ve had plenty of examples of foreign players arriving in England and being literally shocked at what referees allow. Just two recent examples: Fernando Torres: “the referees only give you a foul once you are bleeding,” and Carlos Tevez’s criticism of the referees is implicit in his comment on English defenders: “You don't see much dribbling here, you only get one touch otherwise they eat your legs.”

There is also some statistical proof, should you trust soccer stats. These are the per-game figures for red and yellow cards given in major European leagues:

LEAGUE: Yellows Reds
Spain La Liga: 5.04 0.37
Italy Serie A: 4.24 0.31
Germany Bundesliga 1: 3.85 0.20
France Ligue 1: 3.60 0.22
England Premier League: 3.05 0.17

There’s no need to analyze those figures in detail. You have two possible explanations -- either the English Premier League is the cleanest league in the world, or the EPL referees allow a much rougher game. I doubt whether there’ll be many takers for the first explanation.

But, while I praise van Marwijk for speaking out, while I fully agree with him on the dangerous deficiencies of English referees, there is a problem here. The same old problem about coaches not seeing the faults of their own players. For on the Dutch national team there is one Mark van Bommel -- who happens to be van Marwijk’s son-in-law.

But that is not the attribute of van Bommel that I’m drawing attention to. I’m talking about the fact that van Bommel is a much rougher player than de Jong, and has a record of confrontations with opposing players. Indeed, within the past year I have seen two occasions when van Bommel, playing for Bayern Munich, could easily have been, and in my opinion should have been, red-carded for thuggish fouls (both in Champions League games – vs. Barcelona, and vs. Fiorentina).

It’s probably worth mentioning that van Bommel’s foul in the game against Barcelona -- a brutal elbow to the face of Lionel Messi -- went unpunished. It was committed slap-bang in front of the referee ... an Englishman, Howard Webb, whose work we shall be able to admire, or maybe not, during the upcoming World Cup. It would be intriguing to know what van Marwijk thinks of Webb’s refereeing.

13 comments about "English refs too lenient? Stats say so".
  1. Matthew Wilk, March 10, 2010 at 8:24 a.m.

    Hey Paul, Football's a man's game (primarily) and a contact sport. Tackling is part of the game but FIFA are trying to turn the whole thing into ballet. The fact that the British refs have a *bit* more idea than the continentals is something but in England it's widely accepted that they're in the process of ruining the game but following FIFA's pedantic directives. I suppose you think the rolling prima donnas, strutting refs, and ruined games are preferable to understanding, common sense and a 'proper', competitive match? Your complete lack of understanding is amazing. Tevez has to learn to adapt to facing the best, proper defenders. Just as if Rooney went to Spain he'd have to play their game and dive, bleat and 'play the ref'. Refs used to be able to help a game flow using common sense, these days they're ruining the game because FIFA are desperately trying to wield their power so their teams benefit and they can sell their vision of prancing prima donnas - they'd ban defending completely if they could, more goals the better, etc. they have no idea about or care less about the actual game - just their own interests. Your articles are so trite I can't believe they see the light of day. You have no perspective at all on what it's really about.

  2. Kerry Ogden, March 10, 2010 at 8:45 a.m.

    Hey Matt, Are you confusing Rugby with soccer. There needs to be a limit to the extent of a tackle. I do enjoy seeing a good clean, hard tackle that doesn't involve broken bones though it does happen even with clean tackles at times or other injuries. The point your missing is the cost to the Team for losing a valuable player to a bad tackle is what the beef is about. There are bad calls made world wide by Refs and I'm glad that FIFA is addressing these issues!

  3. Mark Zylker, March 10, 2010 at 9:07 a.m.

    Amen - been saying that for years and especially for the MLS. There is no other sport that exhibits more skill than soccer. Thuggery takes away our opportunity to see this.

    Newcomers to MLS need to see the sport and all its glory to learn to appreciate it more.

    btw - we not only need to discourage hard fouls but we also need to get rid of the constant bad sportsmanship. This is a real underlying evil to the sport. The whining, playacting, stalling etc is doing more damage than anything else.

  4. Ron R, March 10, 2010 at 9:10 a.m.

    What we have in world football is two extremes of the game that encourage the wrong behavior. In England, you have a wonderful physical game and incredible speed but because the players know they won't be called, they take it too far and are lazy with timing and use power to overcome skill. Then you look at Spain or Italy and the huge problem that diving has become. Sure they play a prettier game but they have become manipulators of the game and are destroying it. What we are seeing is the worst of Michael Jordan in both leagues, in one, he never gets called for a foul because he's Michael Jordan.. In the other, he always goes to the line because someone had the audacity to touch Michael Jordan. The penalties need to be avoided by the referee going into the game with prior knowledge of the thugs on one extreme and the divas on the other. The first mistimed tackle goes yellow and the first questionable dive gets the same. Players play differently under caution.

  5. Scott Olson, March 10, 2010 at 9:56 a.m.

    I have to agree with the soft calls on the count of English referees. By the way, protecting the brutish and outlandish fouls that cause players to be out for entire seasons and cause teams to lose players for an entire season and to not even receive a card, is not the game of football. The referee is there to control the safety of the game and even flow, not watch the brawling.

  6. Jim Romanski, March 10, 2010 at 11:27 a.m.

    I agree with Paul completely. I've been playing the sport for the past 40 years. The English League has done a lot to make this game too rough. Take long high balls in the air. If a player establishes position on the field he is entitled to jump up unimpeded to get the ball. But in England they routinely allow the opponent to jump into the player’s space. I'm all for challenging but if you jump into another player’s space it's a foul plain and simple...not in England. The Dutch clobbered the US in the air because they play air balls the way they allow it in England. Sure, they also outplayed the US on high balls and have lots of height. But they also jump into other players. If calling more fouls turns the game into a ballet than a contact sport that's fine with me. It should be tough for defenders to win the ball from tricky forwards. That's far more entertaining to watch and more fun to play. That's what they mean by the beautiful game.

  7. Joe Hosack, March 10, 2010 at 12:20 p.m.

    The nature of soccer makes the feet ,ankles and legs a target. The ball is played at the feet (DAaaa). This does not happen in any other sport I can think of. Concussions are a problem in American football because of the way the ball is carried, up and with hands. American foorball has made rules to protect players and concussions still happen. We would be really lax and unwise to not recognized the "spelled out problem" (Great job Paul) here in this article. "Machoism" has made fools of many of us to usually not much gain in the long run. English Machoism puts English players at more risk. Does this seem to be working for England in the long run? Lets check the World Cup records...........

  8. Austin Gomez, March 10, 2010 at 12:24 p.m.

    REFEREES must 'ENFORCE' the LAWS of the Game, in which the Main/Principal PURPOSE in each of the LAWS deals with the 'SAFETY' Element!

    SAFETY of the Players (wherein the Spectators only come in order to watch, focus upon, admire them) is Referee's Number ONE Responsibiility, Duty, and Obligation!

    Referee's Main MISSION & Job NUMBER 1: The 'SAFETY' of the Players, wherein these Players may then perform-create-display their Skills / Techniques / Artistry / Ability for all Spectators to marvel at, cherish, remember, and exult in!

    ! "Carthago" (that is: Violence, Serious Foul Play, Thuggery, Reckless, Brutal, Excessive Force) must be destroyed!...per, "Carthago delenda est"


  9. Austin Gomez, March 10, 2010 at 12:53 p.m.

    Finally, "PROTECT" the Players from one another is the KEY to this "Beautiful Game".......Yes, CONTACT in Soccer is a given/inevitable, but only if prompted and perceived as 'Sporting Behavior.'

    Lastly, in conclusion, if a Stuart Holden is damaged brutally by the "recklessness" of a Nigel de Jong OR an Aaron Ramsey is sacrificed by the unethical tackle of a Ryan Shawcross, then the Ultimate Decision must be issued: 'The CRIME must fit the PUNISHMENT,' in the Soccer Courts of Justice!

    In ther words, the exact same time period of Recovery for the Victim must also be issued to the return of the Player causing this Red-Card injury ---
    only being allowed to return to the Field-of-Play, whenever the Victim returns.

    Believe me this would then STOP this utter 'nonsense' of Violence/"I don't care what the Results-of-my-Excessive Aciton/Behavior" type Attitude is...AmG

  10. Matthew Wilk, March 10, 2010 at 12:56 p.m.

    You're all a bunch on Nancys that have no idea what football is all about. It's about competing for the ball, space and with each other and the ref has to judge if you do that fairly or not. It's not a Gentleman's Excuse Me or something. It's a sport. The idea of Americans explaining what the game is about to Europeans, South Americans, etc. is bonkers. You have no idea - next you'll suggest players dress up like team mascots or American footballers for protection!
    There's no problem in England - we have the best leagues in the World and depth, the MLS is nowhere. Accrington Stanley would be a top team in the MLS. The players know this, that's why the best players want to play there and test themselves in the hardest league there is in EVERY way - skill, pace and physical power. If you're a Nancy that doesn't like being tackled, the cold, having to run fast, etc. then go and play in Spain or Italy and relax, if you're basically retired you can play for another 5 years in the MLS - take your sofa, nice and safe. Actually the MLS is rough and that's all it is. Ask anyone who knows anything...
    There's a BIG difference between being hard but fair and just cheating - you can't figure that out? You have no hope. You get a 50/50 and you have to go in hard but fair, people can get hurt but it's no different from a striker being brave and heading the ball into an empty net and injuring himself by smashing into a post or something. 100% commitment and fairness but injuries are inevitable in any sport. It's not an entertainment, firstly it's a sport - this is what you're missing.
    PS PG's opinions won't be noticed by anyone in England, it's completely irrelevant. Week after week of ignorant, almost racist posts make you wonder whether he has another agenda rather than just being an Olympic Gold Idiot.

  11. Kerry Ogden, March 10, 2010 at 1:14 p.m.

    Hey Matt, so what your suggesting is that it alright to injure every English National team player and that alright by you. Get a life, get a clue!!!!!!!!!!

  12. Joe Hosack, March 10, 2010 at 2:15 p.m.

    Matt, you are missing the significance of the numbers Paul has repored in his article. I'm sure the Italian & German players are just as tough as their English counterparts. We just want the same mindset change that occurred in American football after the penalties were put in place for "a punch the opponents head" and "one player throwing another to the ground".
    Unnecessary roughness in both cases. It is the mindset change that we all really want, yes it will happen again but the thought of trying to avoid it must be brought to bear.

  13. Brian Herbert, March 11, 2010 at 11:02 p.m.

    I wonder if those arguing against doing more to curb injury-causing fouls just have a chip on their shoulder due to their own lack of 1v1 ball skills? Refs have similar biases, and are a product of their playing experiences and culture. Referee biases may end up being the most difficult thing to change.

Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications