The problem with Brit-style chatty refs

By Paul Gardner

Toward the end of the first half of the Olympic final there was an intriguing short episode featuring the English referee Mark Clattenburg and Marcelo, the Brazilian defender. Marcelo had recklessly tackled Mexico's Oribe Peralta, and Clattenburg had immediately shown him a yellow card. Marcelo had spread his arms in that universal gesture of innocence and bewilderment to show -- quite mildly, there were no dramatics -- that he disagreed with the call.

Clattenburg got the call right and acted decisively, Marcelo showed his displeasure. Nothing unusual in any of that. Then came the odd bit. As Marcelo walked away, shaking his head in disbelief (though surely mock disbelief), Clattenburg called him back and for the next 12 seconds proceeded to give him a face-to-face lecture. Again, all very calm and correct; Clattenburg was not shouting, while Marcelo simply stood there, nodding his head occasionally.

Now, what was that all about? For a start, which language was Clattenburg, who did all the talking, using? Does he speak Portuguese? Or does Marcelo speak English? I don’t know, but I’d take a bet that the answer to both questions is no. Clattenburg could claim that English is all he needs, because FIFA has ruled that English is to be used by referees at international games. Which is quite a good idea, but not really of much use if you’re dealing with a player who does not speak English.

So Clattenburg’s lecture was simply a charade? I’d say so. Which leads on to the bigger question: Would things have been any different had Marcelo understood every word Clattenburg was saying? I doubt it. Because, whether or not there is a language barrier, the little chats that referees have with players -- and they are a particular specialty of British referees -- always contain a substantial element of farce.

Clattenburg’s warning (I’m assuming that’s what it was -- what else could it have been?) came after he had issued a yellow card. But most of these chats seem to be designed to take the place of a yellow card. A verbal, or oral, caution. Is there any allowance for such tolerance in the rules? Not that I’m aware of. If a player commits certain offenses, as outlined in the rules, he should get a yellow card. Period.

Is a referee permitted to soften that mandate by substituting a verbal caution, a sort of pre-yellow-card caution? I would say no -- but they do it all the time. Tune in to any EPL game -- Sunday’s Wigan vs. Chelsea game, for instance, refereed by Mike Jones, a fully-paid-up member of the chatting-referee fraternity. When Wigan’s James McCarthy visited a nasty -- and dangerous -- foul on Juan Mata, Jones called the foul, and gave McCarthy a brief verbal warning, but no card. Three minutes later McCarthy was at it again with a late -- also dangerous -- tackle on Eden Hazard. And again Jones called the foul but didn’t give a card. Later in the game, Chelsea’s Frank Lampard went in hard -- and landed on the ankle of Jordi Gomez. Lampard got the brief verbal warning -- and no card.

There is no question, in the three instances I’ve cited, of the referee playing the advantage rule. In each case, the foul was called. And in each case the foul was worthy of a yellow card. OK, that’s my opinion -- I saw them as reckless. And I can see no reason why a player who commits a reckless physical foul should escape the yellow card that the rules mandate.

Referees can argue that the rules are too harsh, that they are reluctant to give that first yellow for fear that they may later be required to follow it with a second yellow and an expulsion. Referees do not like forcing a team to play with 10 men, and keeping 22 men on the field is seen as a virtue. I have some sympathy for that position, but it is an altogether different argument, one that needs a drastic rule-revision to correct.

What would really help in assessing the value of the chats would be for us to be allowed to listen in. Not live -- but later. The chat tapes could be released for our inspection and/or delectation. It has puzzled me for a long time -- what can the referees be saying? Something like “Now see here, Mr. Snodgrass, that was a bad foul but I’m going to let you off this one time. If you do it again, I’ll book you. Now stop being a naughty boy, get back to the game, and behave yourself.” Accompanied, of course, by that laughably emphatic arm gesture that is presumably meant to let us all know that this is one tough ref.

Or does the referee feel it necessary to explain the rules? “Listen, Snodgrass, you may not know this, but under Rule (or in Brit parlance, Law) 12 what you just did is classified as Unsporting Behavior and you should get a yellow card. Just this once, I’ll overlook it. But try not to use your hand again.”

If the real chats are a lot more sensible than my virtual chats, then there should be no difficulty in letting us hear them. If they are not, then the referees should shut up and just give the cards.

One wonders, too, what the players might be thinking about all this. On the whole, I’d say they’d be inwardly smirking at the thought that they’ve got away with one. And that goes double when they realize that, even when they do get a yellow card, they can get away with another bad foul because of the referee’s reluctance to give that second yellow.

It is quite possible that players may actually not know the rules, but that can never be an excuse to overlook their transgressions, certainly not for pro players. That’s their responsibility -- to know the rules.

As things stand, I don’t see that the verbal warning is justified by the rules, and it certainly flies in the face of an obligation (I always hope that referees do feel such an obligation) to protect players. If the referee is in doubt about the severity of a foul, he should give the benefit of that doubt to the victim, not to the perpetrator. He should give the yellow, not the chat.

This matter of using chats to soften the rules has recently saddled MLS with an awkward problem. On the one hand, MLS has let it be known that it is clamping down on violent play -- to this end we now get regular reports from its Disciplinary Committee decreeing extra punishments -- suspensions and fines -- for players who, in the DisCom’s opinion, were not sufficiently punished by the referee at the time of a foul, or for players who might have escaped punishment altogether.

Alongside that, MLS has hired ex-EPL referee Peter Walton as the man to show American referees how to do their job. An English referee straight from the heart of the very chat culture that aims to reduce the punishment for fouls -- surely a philosophy directly opposed to that of the DisCom.

The thought that Walton might not be on the side of the chatters had occurred. But the Brits are usually pretty certain they’ve got everything right in soccer and, sure enough, Walton let us know how he feels about this in a recent interview on ESPN’s web site.

It makes interesting reading -- though not, I should think, for the MLS DisCom and its backers: “When a player makes a challenge that endangers an opponent's safety and everyone in stadium just goes ‘Ouch!’ the law dictates ‘Red Card.’ But if the player already has a caution and the challenge is merely worthy of a second yellow, I would prefer to see a referee employ a management technique: talk to the player, calm him down and let everyone know that he will get another card if the offense is repeated.”

Extraordinary. This is a statement from a high-ranking MLS employee. So far, MLS has issued no disclaimer, no disavowal of Walton’s words, which make a mockery of what its own DisCom is trying to do.

18 comments about "The problem with Brit-style chatty refs".
  1. Ramon Creager, August 20, 2012 at 7:59 a.m.

    When I was a referee I often heard that this was good refereeing. I even heard that very same word: management. It wasn't my style though. I think it's foolish, and we all saw the results when this silly technique was used by an EPL ref at the very highest level at the World Cup 2010 final between Spain and the Netherlands. That doesn't mean that a ref shouldn't communicate with players; I did, but not to tell them "I'll let you off this time," nor did I make it obvious to the world. Instead, I'd let them know, as we would run back to the center before a goal kick, say, that they were starting to skirt the edges: someone in danger of reaching persistent infringement levels; or someone tackling hard but not recklessly, but who may be getting frustrated. If there was a yellow-worthy offense, the yellow comes out first time every time. Players know when a foul is yellow worthy, and a referee risks losing control when s/he doesn't give one when warranted, because in those cases the other team will bring out their own brand of justice.

  2. ROBERT BOND, August 20, 2012 at 9:31 a.m.

    robots are the only solution...

  3. R2 Dad, August 20, 2012 at 10:16 a.m.

    I might point out that Pierluigi Collina was quite a talker in his day, and is still considered one of the best experts on the subject.
    Personally, I've found that players at U16 and above are much less receptive to "the talking" than younger players, who may not actually know the LOTG.

  4. Andrew Bermant, August 20, 2012 at 10:17 a.m.

    This was indeed a form of game management. Clattenburg obviously felt that he needed to control the tempo and reduce potential friction on the field; what better way than to have a short chat with a player. Further, he may have been explaining to Marcelo that he was fortunate not to have been sent off - and that he'd better be angelic this this point onward. This was an exemplary application of game management. If more referees applied this technique, perhaps we would have fewer "incidents" on the field. Well done...

  5. Caroline Lambert, August 20, 2012 at 10:39 a.m.

    It is not for us to pass judgment. This referee has been a referee for years. He has hundreds of games at the very highest level under his belt. He is trained by the very best. He is assessed by the very best. The players under his control earn millions of dollars, the games are played in huge stadiums with millions of TV viewers. The outcome of the game will affect the future of the players - the stakes are extraordinarily high. How dare we, especially those of us who have refereed or watched referees at lower levels and seen games gone completely out of control due to poor refereeing, offer any criticism?

  6. Albert Harris, August 20, 2012 at 11:59 a.m.

    So you're saying they're above criticism? I like Clattenburg, but I seriously doubt even he would claim he was above criticism or never made a mistake. It's a tough job and I wouldn't want it but criticism comes with the territory. At least he did give a yellow card for an obvious card worthy foul. I'm pretty sure Webb would not have; and Poll would have forgotten that he did. LOL Just one man's opinion of course.

  7. Caroline Lambert, August 20, 2012 at 12:05 p.m.

    Not above criticism. Just not from people who have no clue what it's like to referee at that level. They get plenty of knowledgeable criticism from their colleagues, assessors, and others who've been in that position.

  8. Carl Walther, August 20, 2012 at 12:24 p.m.

    "I just don't understand. I told my son not to do that 22 times, and he still does it."

  9. Caroline r Pew, August 20, 2012 at 12:41 p.m.

    I agree with the not substituting a chat for a card but the bottom line is that the english refs manage the game much better than the MLS refs do and make better decisions on the whole.Now whether that is because they have done it longer,which I think is a ridiculous reason since most of the MLS refs have been doing it for quite a while,or they have different training, at the end of the day they are reffing better than the refs in the MLS.Part of that is the majority of our refs are terrible all around so maybe that makes the english refs look better.

  10. Ramon Creager, August 20, 2012 at 1:22 p.m.

    Caroline, no clue? That is de facto" above criticism. Many people have a stake in what is, after all, a spectator sport: players, of course, none of which have refereed at that level; their clubs; referees; but spectators too. It's perfectly legitimate for spectators to criticize; after all, if they don't like the product, they will go elsewhere, and your sport becomes a fringe curiosity. But I'd also argue that many of us, having played, coached or refereed, even at not so exalted a level, have enough background to make accurate and relevant criticisms. After all, the style Paul Gardner is criticizing here is but one refereeing style. We've all seen different styles in use, often in the same tournament, and I've even seen the same ref change styles with success in the same game! We can see what seems to work and what doesn't. If we still had "no clue" after that, how would we ever learn?

  11. Steve Greene, August 20, 2012 at 1:36 p.m.

    The article asked and answered "Is a referee permitted to soften that mandate by substituting a verbal caution, a sort of pre-yellow-card caution? I would say no -- but they do it all the time."

    The answer is in the Advice to Referee's and the short answer is yes - however it is not to "soften" the punishment but to exercise the referee's judgement that showing a card will benefit the match.

  12. Teresa Buffington, August 20, 2012 at 2:50 p.m.

    An opponent in one of my sons games at a Championship event called one of our players a "nigger" as the gk was setting up for a goal kick. The boy who was called a nigger threw up his hands in disbelief. The gk heard and held the ball. The line ref said he did not hear it and ordered the game to continue. The gk still held the ball. The player who was called nigger approached the center referee in disbelief that the player was not going to get a card. The center ref held the kid that said it felt bad and admitted calling our kid a nigger.. still no card..a dull roar was coach was swaring and calling our team liars and asking our coach "if he would like to take it to the parking lot" with his fists up. The ref wanted the game to start and finally gave the yellow card to our black kid. Wow. We just played on...and won. I think the ref should of IMMEDIATELY brought both boys together to talk and no card. This would of been a perfect opportunity to "chat" It worked out well in the end. The parents contacted each other. The kid apologized. The tournament director did nothing.

  13. Brent Crossland, August 20, 2012 at 3:42 p.m.

    Unlike some of you, I've often found a quick, brief conversation with a player to be a valuable tool to help me manage games. At the least it gives me a moment to assess the player's current attitude and/or level of emotion. If he/she just committed a borderline foul but seems to understand it was over the top I may think this incident was an anomaly. If I get a glare and a dismissive "whatever" I will probably watch that player more closely for a while.

  14. Doug Wiggins, August 20, 2012 at 3:55 p.m.

    "......What would really help in assessing the value of the chats would be for us to be allowed to listen in. Not live -- but later. The chat tapes could be released for our inspection and/or delectation....." Paul Gardner you must be saying this tongue-in-cheek?! If not, please see a mental health professional ASAP!. If we start requesting recordings of referee chats with players, what is next? .. opposing players' 'chats' with each other about their lineage, their mothers' profession, their ability as soccer players, ect.. Maybe we should 'mic' the player and referee locker rooms also. While we are at it Paul, let's just record you while you are working, then perhaps we can dissect your thought processes and come up with an answer as to how and why you create some of the bizarre suggestions that you make!

  15. James Madison, August 20, 2012 at 10:44 p.m.

    Paul is bad enough when he writes about coaching. He is at his absolute worst when he tries to comment on officiating. One of the best aspects of Clatterberg's officiating in the Gold Medal match was his player management. CRs are expected to use mouth as well as whistle, and Clatterberg did both very well. What Paul can do best about officiating is SHUT UP!

  16. Jogo Bonito, August 21, 2012 at 7:45 a.m.

    Why so angry James? PG makes a solid point that is clearly in the best interest of the game. Just as he did last week when he wrote about coaching. Here's the problem: the coaches, for the most part, have failed at helping the game progress. They have consistently chosen big, strong players that offer little skill over more complete players. These "study lads" constantly throw themselves at the legs of opponents with reckless abandon. So since the coaches don't care about the game, it's up to the refs now. I have an idea. How about if players learn how to defend. Maybe they can play by the rules - move their feet, stay up and do their job by either dispossessing the opponent or making them pass the ball. Refs can encourage this by strictly enforcing the rules and punishing players every time they come barreling into an opponents feet. I say no room for a chat here.
    Shut up and book 'em! If more refs did this, coaches may actually start choosing soccer players over thugs.

  17. Kenneth Barr, August 21, 2012 at 10:55 a.m.

    Actually, Maecello does speak English rather well. Once again, Mr. Gardner has shown his disdain for all things the English do, which speaks more about him than anything else. While the standard of officiating has suffered since FIFA put in the 45 year old age limit, it's good to see refs communicating and enforcing their decisions, something the English tend to do better than most others. Onc again, Paul Gardner has labored mightily and come up small.

  18. Kent James, August 25, 2012 at 6:18 p.m.

    Referees should talk to players as part of game management, but talking should not take the place of cards, it should be in addition to cards. As a player, I was always frustrated when refs chose to talk to the first player who deserved a yellow card instead of issuing it; I've never understood that type of management (and refs at surprisingly high levels seem to think that is "managing" a game by avoiding showing a yellow). Does every player get a verbal warning instead of a card? Does the ref think that not showing a card for a clear foul deserving one will somehow discourage future fouls? Where talking does make sense is in a borderline case, where the ref says "that was pretty close to a card, I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt on this one but if you do anything close to that again and you'll have one" or "you're lucky it's not red; if you're not on your best behavior from here on out, you'll be gone". But generally PG is right on this one. And the comment by Walton that he would discourage referees from giving out deserved 2nd yellows to avoid a team playing a man down should be enough to eliminate him from having any teaching role for soccer referees anywhere, since it violates both the spirit and the letter of the law.

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