Pro soccer's pernicious influence on the amateur game

On Saturday afternoon I refereed a boys U-15 game in one of the German regional leagues. I gave out five yellow cards -- one for dissent, and four for various levels of foul play. There were also three, five-minute time penalties -- one for further foul play, and a pair for unsporting conduct after a square-up and shoving match between two players. So in total there were eight punishments in the course of a 70-minute game, and that was not at all untypical for a youth game at this level.

I now issue a nostalgia alert before taking you back to English youth and amateur soccer in the 1970s and 80s. In all of the years I played at school, club, university and later at adult level, I can barely remember a single card being shown. Few players or coaches had the audacity or the impertinence to talk back to referees and dispute their calls. We also somehow managed to play without committing a constant stream of deliberate fouls, and very rarely got involved in nasty little rivalries with opponents. In short, I showed more cards in one game this past Saturday than I experienced in 20 years as a player, when up until the mid-1990s I played 30 to 40 games a season.

There's no profound insight behind the two main reasons for this change, and they go hand in hand -- the vast amounts of money in professional sport, and the saturation coverage of every game, from every angle. It all kicked off in the early 1990s when the biggest English soccer clubs looked at the U.S. sporting business model and realized they'd been under-selling themselves. They created the Premier League and, with their European counterparts, lobbied UEFA to turn the European Cup of genuine champions into the cash-yielding Champions League (including a host of non-champions).

If that seems like a major leap from the U-15 game I reffed, let me make the obvious connection. The unsporting behavior on the youth and amateur soccer fields is directly mimicking the worst behavior of players and coaches in the professional game. The eye-watering sums involved means that the emotions of all those participating too often border on the unhinged. Numerous TV cameras are devoted to recording the facial expressions and gesticulations of those on the sideline -- the coaches, the injured star, the chairman. Goal scored -- unbridled ecstasy! Goal conceded - utter despair!

The media now focus on these banal narratives as much as they focus on its tactics and its results. They fake a parallel world of destiny, triumph and tragedy and treat its outcomes like monumental news. Events of apparently extraordinary significance are previewed, pushed and promoted as though the very future of mankind is dependent on the outcome of Sunday's "massive" game. Only for the commentators and their cameras to move quickly on to the next match-up as soon as the stands are cleared and everyone's calmed down.

This manufactured hysteria -- thankfully missing from my youth -- is now prevalent at all levels of the game. It's driven or encouraged by parents and coaches who harbor their own ambitions, and who foster negative play and attitudes to stave off defeat. Young players will be advised to nag the referee, or deliberately foul an opponent who dribbles past them. Poor sporting values are being taught and justified by peers who should be preaching the very opposite, while banners paying lip service to Fair Play do nothing more than flap in the wind.

That's a direct consequence of broadcasters showing slow-motion replays every single time a revered coach starts gyrating around his technical area and haranguing the fourth official. The phlegm can start flying for something as minor as a disputed throw-in. And if Jürgen Klopp is enraged about one of his players receiving a yellow card, then it must be all right for his ragged equivalent seventeen steps down the soccer pyramid to scream at the amateur ref who's only there for some fresh air and pocket money.

I can't find it in myself to fully blame coaches like Klopp, who are all under ridiculous pressure to deliver success. The same applies to the players, not all of whom moan at the referee. The problem lies equally with us, the watching public, placing an absurd and disproportionate emphasis on the importance of sport, and the media -- in all its forms -- who feed our desire to lose ourselves in a circus that essentially has no meaning.

"It's more than just a game" is the soccer media's favorite myth of the past two decades. What exactly this 'more' constitutes is never really explained, so it's packaged within hackneyed, vague and ostensibly noble concepts like Passion and Emotion (which is mostly just plain old Anger). In reality, the 'more' just means more cash, more commerce, and more overloaded hype.

It may disappoint me that soccer's no longer the game I grew up with, but it shouldn't surprise me. After all, as kids we mocked the older generations who were scandalized by the long hair and extravagant goal celebrations of the 1970s. There are increasingly more and more weekends, though, when I feel like I've become a relic who is so out of step with the modern game that I question over and again whether I should still be involved at all.

(Ian Plenderleith is a European-based soccer writer. His latest book, "The Quiet Fan," is available here. His previous book, "Rock n Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League," is available here.)

14 comments about "Pro soccer's pernicious influence on the amateur game".
  1. Randy Vogt, May 6, 2019 at 3:49 p.m.

    A very good article although I have a different take as I have not seen the number of cautions and send-offs dramatically increase in my games since I started refereeing in the late 1970's. Although I do realize that having experience rather than being new and being an adult instead of being a teenager has a lot to do with that. What I have seen an increase of is diving by boys in youth soccer games and their coaches encouraging them to do it (and thinking that I don't hear them).

  2. Ian Plenderleith replied, May 7, 2019 at 2:26 a.m.

    Hi Randy, I should differentiate somewhat between the US and Europe - when I reffed in the US (2009-14, in the DC area), I issued far fewer cards in youth soccer than I have in Germany. One entire spring season I actually gave out no cards at all. Coach/player/parent conduct is not perfect in the US, by any means, but after two months refereeing in Germany I almost quit before making the decision to develop a thicker skin and not take anything personally. In the US, bad games tended to be the exception, here that's the case with quiet games. There are numerous possible reasons. To some extent it could be down to the suburban milieu I was reffing in near DC, and the inner-city environment of where I'm reffing in Germany. In the US, working with 3-person reffing teams definitely helped, in Germany you're always on your own at the lower levels. There are also different stakes - in the US the goal in youth soccer was more likely a college scholarship, in Germany it's the ambition to turn pro. Looking beyond soccer, I also feel that the prevailing social and political climate both in the US and Europe has seen unhinged anger become accepted and excused in many quarters, and that's probably the greatest shame of all.

  3. Randy Vogt replied, May 7, 2019 at 12:31 p.m.

    Thanks very much for your response, Ian!! I agree that there are some people with "unhinged anger" in the world but I'm very lucky as I rarely experience them on soccer fields or in life in general. I look on the positive that my games, whether in an urban or suburban environment here in New York, tend to be quiet. You are correct that it's much easier to ref with AR's than solo and I sometimes felt very lonely when I started out doing nearly all my games solo. The closest that I ever came to Germany is refereeing in Italy as a guest of 1992 and '94 tournaments with one ref for each game except for the finals. I was treated with respect since I was a guest (some people thought I was German instead of American) but not so some of the Italian refs as a few of the spectators yelled some disgusting things of a personal nature about them. I refereed in Torino and did one game in San Remo and if I went back a quarter-century later, I wonder if it would be any different.

  4. Wooden Ships, May 6, 2019 at 4:30 p.m.

    Excellent insight Ian. As a 60’s and 70’s (somemore amateur play in the 80’s) player we didn’t accept/tolerate dirty play, embellishment or dissent. Yes, money has an influence but coaches have the greatest position to influence play. Too many have sacrificed their principles. 

  5. Bob Ashpole, May 6, 2019 at 4:31 p.m.

    Good article. Adults create the atmosphere for youth sports. It doesn't have to be and shouldn't be toxic.

  6. uffe gustafsson, May 6, 2019 at 5:27 p.m.

    Bravo on your article think you are right on.
    back long time ago, certain behaviors was not done or accepted. I remember some years ago at a tornament think they where U11, one of our girls got past the defender and defender got hold of her jersey and yanked her back, never have I seen that when I played  as a youth. This is commen practice at proffetional level today. Clearly someone taught that defender to do that, no U 11 girl would come up with that on their own. So yes  coaches are mimicking what they see on TV. Youth players will do what the coach is telling them. This is a situation that coaches are creating and that incl dissent.

  7. Alan Goldstein, May 6, 2019 at 8:45 p.m.

    1) one can blame professional referess or the leagues themselves for accepting the disrespectful behavior without penalty
    2) nevertheless,, there is no reason that professional behavior can or should be accepted on the youth level. Blaming professionals for youth behavior is merely proving an excuse for the failure of adults to make clear what is ok and what is not. 
    3) Pouting that professionals have changed their marketing of the game forgets the very name of their level of play..  PROFESSIONAL  they are there to make money, don't blame them for that. They could make that money without allowing for the diving (anywhere on the field) , harsh fouls, disrespect for referees, etc. 

  8. Peter Isaacs, May 7, 2019 at 9:37 a.m.

    Very well written and thoughtful.  As a former all-american, professional, and national team representative,  and a USSF  referee, believe I am uniquly position to chime in.

    Simply put, FIFA is to blame for the ridiculous behavior of some of these coaches and players.  Yes, the game has indeed grown up, and yes there is astronomical sums of money involved, and yes the coaches are under a lot of pressure.  Yet, despite all these realities the governing body, FIFA, has been MIA (missing in action) in terms of recognizing and doing something about all the stress that is being unapologetically released on the officials.  The author is spot on when alluding to Juergen Klopps sideline convulsions and others who see that and think it is okay.  And by the way, Mr Klopps antics is relatively mild compared to what I and others have witnessed in recent times.
    So this is where FIFA must come in.  Only the powers that be in Switzerland can adjust and regulate the very inappropriate behaviors directed at the referees.  Of course, everyone knows that FIFA's recent history suggests that the powers that be were focused on other things of a financial nature.  And until they do, players and coaches will continue to do the disrerespectful things they do toward the referees.
    I really do hope that a new Ara can be ushered into the modern game where VAR is alive and  healthy and so is the respect that is shown to the hundreds of thousands of thankless referees, without who there would be no game.

    Peter Isaacs

  9. Bob Ashpole replied, May 7, 2019 at 9:42 a.m.

    Well said. Thank you for your insights.

  10. Wooden Ships replied, May 7, 2019 at 5:55 p.m.

    Waiting for it to come from “on high” isn’t happening. To wait, is folly. Coaches and players must be the agents of change. Referees, also must agree by showing less tolerance. Obviously, they lack the owners and leagues/associations support all too often, which is why the ones actually playing and directing (managing/coaching) need to expect higher standards. And, you are spot on that without officials you have pick-up. Another quick option might be an officials boycott, at all levels. 

  11. Ian Plenderleith replied, May 9, 2019 at 6:50 p.m.

    Completely agree, Peter. Some proper directives from above at the professional level on applying the dissent Law could quickly eliminate the problem.

  12. Andre Bell, May 7, 2019 at 11:19 a.m.

    The profesional game, if they enforced these three laws of the game, would make a dramatic difference in the flow and entertainment of the game, and they are decent, encroachment, and holding. Reference your article, decent is the most abused law and that attitude is fed down to the lowest level of the amatuer game and is so ugly to see players up in the referee’s face over the simplest of calls.

  13. Craig Cummings, May 8, 2019 at 8:19 p.m.

    Ian do you speak German? or do you caution for discent like i do in a vietamese league i do not speak thier native tongue.

  14. Ian Plenderleith replied, May 9, 2019 at 6:47 p.m.

    Yes, I do, but I see your point - you don't necessarily have to understand the language to understand dissent. It's as much to do with the player's attitude and the way they express themselves as it is to do with the actual words spoken.

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