Pep Guardiola was actually criticizing English referees for allowing too much violent tackling, when he added “maybe there is too much focus on diving and not enough on some of the tackles.”
That has long been a point made in this column: no one gets hurt in a diving incident, yet it is singled out as a crime on a par with a leg-breaking tackle. In other words, the referees who seem quite pleased to support the diving witch hunt, come over as more devoted to avoiding the horror of being themselves conned, than they are to safeguarding players from injury.
Of course it’s an utterly nonsensical situation, one that will not withstand more than a moment or two of clear thinking. But refereeing and clear thinking are not comfortable bed-fellows. There have been, and continue to be, too many examples of illogical rules and rulings to be in any doubt about that.
Guardiola goes on: “I like the physicality of the Premier League ... I know contact is more allowed here than any other country but there are limits.” Yes there are, but they are impossible to define: one coach’s violent tackle is another coach’s “hard but fair” tackle.
Of course, anyone venturing to suggest that there is too much physicality in the English game is obliged to add that he actually likes rough play -- or he will be mocked as a milk-sop. But by appearing to approve of physicality, Guardiola blunts his reference to “limits”? What limits does he mean? The only ones with any standing are those imposed by the rules, and they are hardly pinnacles of clarity. The referee is allowed considerable latitude in deciding what is careless or reckless and so on.
The English refereeing culture appears to be one left over from the 19th century, even from the very day in 1863 when the sport of “football” split into two different games -- rugby and soccer. One of the reasons for the split was that the soccer advocates wanted a game based on skill, not one based on physical power, which was what the rugby enthusiasts wanted, and got.
That pivotal decision ought to have settled the matter once and for all, but obviously not. It seems that some of the spirit of the rugby advocates still lives on in English refereeing.
Guardiola wants English referees to “protect” players more, not a bad idea, but loses his touch with reality by stating that “they don’t have to change the way they play here.” Eh? What Guardiola is seeking is the virtual disappearance of violent (as he sees it) tackling. That is, the end of “hard but fair” (as its proponents, and most English referees, see it) tackling.
To those who like rough tackling, that would amount to a huge change in “the way they play.”
Another EPL coach, the almost legendary Arsene Wenger, has been heard from on this topic. A few years back he told us: “I don't have a problem with players who go in completely 100 percent -- but the intention of the players has to be fair.”
Apparently, the same stance as Guardiola -- but would anyone doubt that in any particular incident, judgment on what is fair would depend on the color of the players’ shirts?
More recently, Wenger had the temerity to mock an almost sacrosanct feature of English refereeing: the cozy chat. How the EPL referees love to call players aside and chat with them for a few seconds, usually ending with that apparently stern arm gesture that means Enough!
This habit of verbal warnings is not acknowledged in the rule book. But on the face of things, it seems a good idea, allowing the referee to take a border-line yellow-card foul and reduce it slightly to merely a talking-to. The English like to call that “man-management” and I’d say it has its merits. In theory. In practice it usually comes over as just another way of being lenient, of not giving an offender the punishment he should get.
I have tried, for decades now, to get referees to tell me what they say in these little chats. I’ve even been promised a tape of a chat. But no ref has ever revealed anything, and no tape has ever appeared.
I’ve no doubt at all why that is: because the chats must be so utterly banal -- stupid even -- that referees are embarrassed to disclose them. A possible reason, one that would at least have some validity, would be that the referee is explaining the rules. But I regard that as unthinkable. It is not the referee’s job to tell a player what’s permitted and what isn’t. A professional is surely obliged to know the rules. If he doesn’t, that is his fault, and not one that the referee is supposed to correct.
A treasured image of this chatting comes from the Olympic final in 2012. Brazil-Mexico in London’s Wembley Stadium. The referee -- England’s Mark Clattenburg (known to me as Mark Chatterbox) -- is looking stern. In front of him we see Brazil’s Marcelo and Mexico’s Oribe Peralta, guilty of some mutual affray. Clattenburg is doing all the talking, the chat goes on for quite a while, more than 30 seconds, I’d say. As I have great doubts that either Peralta or Marcelo speaks English, or that Clattenburg speaks either Spanish or Portuguese the episode was farcical. But Clattenburg, brought up on man-management, evidently felt the baffling chat was a necessity. I doubt that either Marcelo, gazing up to the sky and grinning slyly, or the grim-faced Peralta found it much help.
Just what referees say in these chats remains, for the moment, a secret. But I think it likely that Wenger has this nicely worked out. It was back in the 1950s, he says, when the referee talked to a player, telling him “‘If you're not nice, I might punish you.’ Come on, let's not waste time ... Nothing happens. People want crisp, sharp action, and the referee has to make sure that that happens. We don't live in the dark ages."
Well, it’s not that bad, but referees -- especially the English variety -- have yet to acknowledge the full implications of this being 2018 and not 1863.