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.