I talked with the coaches before the game, and mentioned the two recent meetings. They laughed and said that they knew each other well, and that there was never any trouble when the two sides met. Both teams seemed in good humor prior to kickoff, and as we lined up to take the field, I asked who'd received the caution in the cup game. One player from the home team sheepishly raised his hand. "What was it for?" I asked. "You know, this and that," he answered vaguely, eliciting smiles from both sets of players.
The game was indeed mostly peaceful, except for a stocky midfielder on the away team. He was a good player, and scored his side's third goal as they breezed into an early lead, but he yelled excessively at one of his defenders for a minor error. His coach ordered him to calm down. Just before halftime, with his team now leading 5-0, the midfielder walked past me and made a sarcastic comment about a challenge on him that he thought had been a foul, but which I hadn't called. "So, we're allowed to break each others' knees now, are we?"
I showed him a yellow for dissent, more for the tone than for what he said. His coach immediately subbed him out, delivered a stern lecture, and then kept him on the sideline for the first 20 minutes of the second half. When he returned to the field, he didn't utter a sound. It was the only yellow card of the afternoon, and the only even vaguely unpleasant incident.
I thanked the coach at the end of the game for taking the player out when he did. On one level, it was clearly for the player's own good. It also prevented any nastiness creeping into a peaceful game, and was a perfect example of how responsible coaches can help referees regulate the temperature of the action. It sounds like a very obvious point, but it rarely happens.
Youth coaches need to train their players about the way they see referees and how they conduct themselves on the field from a very early age. With the youngest age groups, when players tend to accept referees' decisions, it should start with making sure that they shake the referee's hand and thank him or her directly after the final whistle. This is especially important after a defeat, when players may be upset or resentful about how the game has gone.
The next step is to teach players how to accept the referee's calls, even when they think that they've been hard done by. The nature of soccer is that referees will no more call a perfect game than the players around them will come through 90 minutes without making several errors. That means substituting out, talking to and, if necessary, sidelining or suspending players who are disrespectful or abusive to game officials. It should not be acceptable on any youth team, at any level.
The experienced coach Hans Meyer recently told German magazine 11 Freunde: "Well-seasoned observers can assess the merits of young players pretty quickly. But it's much more interesting to observe their conduct on the field for a longer period. How do they behave toward their fellow players, and what's their attitude to hard work? Do they moan about a misplaced pass? Are they the type to motivate their teammates? And: can they handle it, when the referee waves play on after a hard challenge?"
I printed this quote out and taped it up in the locker room of the club where I coach. It's still there two years later. It's a short but extremely apposite summary of how youth players need to behave if they are going to make progress -- both on the sports field and beyond. At our monthly referees' meeting in August we were told that the number of qualified match officials in Germany has declined in recent years from 80,000 to 58,000, "trending negative". The reason is simple -- the widespread lack of respect from players, coaches and spectators for a job that requires time, energy and devotion in return for almost no pay.
It's therefore imperative to educate young players right from the start about the importance of respecting the referee. It will improve the atmosphere on any team, and consequently hold the players together as a unit if they focus on the soccer, not on the official. It will improve them as players and as human beings. Quite simply, it's the right thing to do.
(Ian Plenderleith is a coach and referee in Germany's amateur and youth leagues. He holds the Uefa C-License and coached youth soccer in Maryland from 2004-2014. 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.)