Campaign against ref abuse should target coaches

By Paul Gardner

The English Premier League's chief executive (that's the sort of title we have in soccer these days), Richard Scudamore, has been giving some thought to the matter of referee abuse in his league.

He is evidently not happy with what’s going on -- so it seems likely that some sort of clampdown on player behavior may be in the offing.

Soccer fans may well wonder what difference that will make. We have, after all, lived through all sorts of clampdowns on all sorts of things in soccer over the past, say, two decades. And, frankly, I don’t think one of these campaigns has been worth a bag of beans.

FIFA is the usual source of clampdowns. The tackle from behind was going to be banned. It is still very much around. There was the war on players not tucking their shirts into their shorts -- remember that one? -- and that had little or no effect. Players are not supposed to rip their shirt off after scoring, they get yellow-carded for it, but they still do it (and I wonder why -- it’s hardly a natural reaction, and players got by without shirt removal for more than 100 years of this sport), there was supposed to be a clampdown on the use of elbows but if there is, no one’s noticed it, and of course the campaign to abolish diving that manages to trap more innocent victims than it does true culprits.

Those are the more substantial clampdowns. I could add in the more ephemeral efforts to counter encroachment, shirt-pulling, and tactical fouls. The fact that all of those infractions are still going strong tells the story. Clampdowns now come over as PR campaigns, short-lived tremors of indignant grandstanding that quickly die off as a new source of discontent is discovered.

Scudamore is trying to do what MLS Commissioner Don Garber has set out to do this season in MLS: to change player and referee attitudes. Scudamore wants less referee abuse, Garber wants more adventurous play. Not easy -- and particularly problematic when both Scudamore and Garber pay scant attention to the role of coaches in these transgressions.

The most disturbing case of referee abuse so far this season in the EPL has involved a top coach -- ManU’s Alex Ferguson, who is sitting out a 5-game touchline ban. Alongside Ferguson’s misbehavior it is worth considering the case of Rafael, ManU’s young Brazilian fullback, found guilty and fined for swearing at a referee. Is it to be expected that players will behave better than their coaches? Their older, more-experienced and presumably wiser coaches?

The sort of behavior that Scudamore is deploring -- showing dissent at referee decisions, and the mobbing of referees by groups of players -- would simply not happen if coaches make it clear that any player guilty of such conduct will be fined, heavily, or even suspended -- not by the league, but by his club.

If clubs -- not just EPL clubs, but all clubs, everywhere -- do impose such punishments, then they are keeping very quiet about it. The discipline required in these cases, to be effective, must start at home -- with the club and with the club coach. If Ferguson can go after referees in the tunnel, if he can publicly accuse them of bias, why should his players feel obliged to show referees any respect?

Scudamore focuses on the behavior of players, pointing out that they “enjoy a privileged life” and that “extra responsibility comes with the territory.” He then feels obliged to almost apologize for his criticisms, insisting that he is not “demonizing” players.

Yet, without a similar -- or even harsher -- criticism aimed at the coaches, that is exactly what his campaign is going to look like.

If Scudamore, for whatever reason, does not wish, or is afraid, to nail the coaches, he has a perfectly acceptable way of accomplishing that end without seeming to do so. Simply by punishing the clubs. No individual need be named -- it is just the overall disciplinary record of the club that is under fire.

That can be measured by a club’s foul count and by the number of yellow and red cards it accumulates. This is an indirect way of assessing the coach’s behavior, even though he does not commit any fouls, and cannot be carded (cards are issued only to players). But the sort of anti-referee post-game comments that got Ferguson into trouble should also be taken into account. So, too, should any behavior -- such as referee-mobbing -- that might lead to a charge of “bringing the game into disrepute.”

As for punishment -- the club can be fined, though to be effective the fines would probably have to be so high that they would simply be unacceptable to everyone. A much more threatening move would be to combine a fine with a deduction from the team’s points total.

Maybe Scudamore’s move will result in that sort of action. But I seriously doubt whether anything will come of his words. Why is the clampdown (if that’s what it is) being introduced when the season is almost over? Most likely because of Ferguson’s high-profile case -- even though Scudamore has trained his sights on the players, not the coaches.

But what makes any firm, decisive action most unlikely, is the news that Scudamore and the EPL will be discussing the matter with “the English Football Association as well as the bodies that represent players, managers and referees.” With that many points of view to be considered, you can be sure nothing decisive will emerge. Merely an agreement by everyone to behave themselves in the future ... an agreement which will rather quickly be forgotten as things get back to normal.

We have taken this route before. Very recently. At the beginning of its 2008-09 season, the EPL introduced a campaign “inviting” players to show respect to the referees. You can tell that initiative never got off the ground -- or why would Scudamore now feel obliged to revisit the referee-abuse topic?

9 comments about "Campaign against ref abuse should target coaches".
  1. Chance Hall, April 1, 2011 at 8:23 a.m.

    What is it with your attacks on SAF??? Did he take your lunch money, or take your girlfriend? Get over it and move on!!! You had a great chance here to actually do something positive for the game of soccer and of course you blew it. Grow up...

  2. Albert Harris, April 1, 2011 at 8:34 a.m.

    Paul, Paul. When will you ever learn. You can bad mouth the queen, but some things in Britain are truly sacred and above criticism...the most notable being Ferguson. Suggest that he is anything but godlike, and his minions will be snapping at your ankles. They snap even more when what you say is manifestly true. He's a great coach, no doubt, but has a definite sense of "entitlement". Although I must admit I did admire the big retro white phone. If you're going to thumb your nose at the authorities, make sure they know you're doing it. Classic!

  3. Amos Annan, April 1, 2011 at 9:33 a.m.

    Why is anyone worried about this stuff? Referees already have too much influence on the game. They should be able to handle the "abuse" of criticism.

  4. Steven Jeremenko, April 1, 2011 at 9:38 a.m.

    Paul, good article of which I'm sure that a lot of your critics will completely miss the aspect of the cultural disintegration of soccer that is the underlying point of your example. By disintegration I mean the lack of respect for the rules of the game and for those who hold players, coaches, and organizations accountable for them. While you specifically reference Scudamore latest political rhetoric, I disturbingly feel the disintegration can be seen culturally from the youth level to the professional ranks. While watching the U-20 CONCACAF Championship game between Costa Rica and Guadalupe, a clear cut penalty - no diving involved - was given to the Costa Ricans. Immediately, as if instructed to do so, the Guadalupeans began protesting in the referees face - the referee-mobbing you referred to. I thought to myself why? This is obviously a call that should not be arguable by any one who understands the laws of the game. I chalk it up to the cultural disintegration of soccer. The young Guadalupeans have seen this behavior demonstrated by their predecessors and "heroes" so that's the way they act as if it is instilled in them. The only yellow card that was given was the one to the goalkeeper who actually committed the foul but probably 3-4 others should have been carded if the rules were followed as they should be. This behavior is scary but commonplace and unfortunately even translates into the way players perform on the field. Even though some individual skill was demonstrated by a few, the lack of creative ideas and intelligence leads me to believe that the future of soccer is in jeopardy. Guadalupe and Costa Rica are not alone - ref. U.S. vs Paraguay - lots of grit no ideas. This inability to problem solve leads to frustration on an off the field which ultimately brings about type of unacceptable behavior you're referring to. But that's what we - players, coaches, organizations, fans - have come to accept as part of the modern game. A game marred by teams that need to bend the rules or influence referring - dare I say cheat - to win or get a favorable result. Are you kidding me? Something's gone wrong and unfortunately it has affected generations of soccer players to come.

  5. Charles O'Cain, April 1, 2011 at 9:44 a.m.

    Why is it always about punishment? Why not reward the best three club "disciplinary" records with 3, 2, and 1 EXTRA point at the end of the season, which would make the record even more important than the goal difference tie-breaker. Talk about a major incentive for "respect"... This does not get to the equally important question of referee performance and temperament. Pity the team which has more than its share of encounters with Martin Atkinson and Mike Dean.

  6. Brian Something, April 1, 2011 at 10:09 a.m.

    Why not give the Fair Play winner a European spot?

  7. Tyler Dennis, April 1, 2011 at 12:02 p.m.

    Brian and Charles are going the right direction.

    I want to know, why a ref doesn't yellow card the captain of the team that is mobbing him. A couple of those and it'll not happen. I think Ref's should man up when they are getting harassed and flash some cards... harassment will eventually stop and so will this idiotic childish behavior by the players and coaches. If my players did 10% of what the pros do, I'd sit them on the bench.

  8. lorenzo murillo, April 1, 2011 at 12:15 p.m.

    This is an ethical problem, not just of clamping down on player behavior. Ref's are in need of professional development, especially in their conditioning. The game is faster, and Ref's are the only one on the field that hardly get a break, running from one place to another.

    In regards to the comment by Scudamoore that players are privilege individuals, shows the lack of knowledge he has about the game. I am strength & conditioning coach, and the training players must go through is excruciating. Only your first game do you play 100%, from there on, you play with injuries. Look at Kaka, who play for club and country injured, most likely infiltrated to not feel pain, but once the medicine wears off, you're in for a ride.

    The attitude of fans, and those who know little about training that playing pro soccer is easy and "privileged" is distorted. My sports psychology professor at UCF would say pro athletes are "very stupid" individuals, who else would want so much physical pain?

  9. Kent James, April 1, 2011 at 1:47 p.m.

    When I read the column, my thought was "Paul, you're pissing into the wind; getting players and/or coaches not to dispute referee calls is an attempt to change human nature". But after reading the comments, I've changed my mind; I like Charles idea of rewarding points in the table for the team at the end of the season with the best fair play record (fewest cards?). I also like Tyler's idea of carding the captain in instances of mass dissent. Usually referees deal with those instances of trying to ignore the players (to let them blow off steam) and then carding one if they persist, hoping the others get the hint. But if the captain knows he's getting a card, he might take a prominent role in getting his team to back off. And of course, Ric, you are right about the need to get coaches and players to ref, and referees to play. As a player, coach, and (now retired) referee, I know each role provides a different perspective. Unfortunately, I'm not sure how we can make that happen.

Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications