How I yearn for 'especially sporting conduct'

Former U.S. national team player Timothy Chandler was recently involved in a much-discussed penalty area incident  during his club Eintracht Frankfurt's Bundesliga game at SC Freiburg. Freiburg's forward Vincenzo Grifo knocked the ball past Chandler, then went to ground. The home crowd howled for a penalty, the referee took a long look, then Grifo got to his feet and admitted that there had been no contact. He was immediately congratulated by the home players and later praised to the hilt by Eintracht coach Oliver Glasner. Referee Florian Badstübner refrained from showing Grifo what should have been, strictly speaking, a yellow card.

Which is all fine and good. Only, should sporting behavior not be the absolute standard, and absent from all post-game analyses? Shouldn't the norm in fact be no cheating and gamesmanship at all (stop laughing over there at the back)?

When it comes to diving, that's increasingly the case. Thanks to the VAR, a penalty call against Chandler would certainly have been overturned. Grifo -- a very likeable person and player, it should be said - must have known that he would be vilified for trying it on with this old trick, and that TV replays would quickly find him out. Perhaps he remembered how striker Timo Werner was booed for years around Germany after fiddling a penalty with a dive for his former club Leipzig in the pre-VAR era. Werner left for Chelsea in England and is not widely missed.

As someone who grew up playing in England in the 70s and 80s when this kind of thing just wasn't done, I'm obsessed with the concept of sportsmanship. Even more so now that I'm a referee. There's a section in the German federation's post-game reports where referees can tick a box for 'especially sporting conduct,' and then file a glowing report. Not once in seven years of officiating here have I seen the remotest cause to highlight someone doing the decent thing. It just doesn't happen. Despite the slogans on the armbands and hoardings, you're a fool to think that Fair Play matters.

Earlier this month, though, I refereed a boys U-19 game when the perfect opportunity arose to file that special report. The game took place on a rutted, muddy field, and the nets were in a terrible state, repaired in dozens of places. I'd checked them before the game, but I missed a hole right next to the goal's left post. And, you've guessed it, the away team -- which was leading 2-0 at the time -- scored a goal through this very hole, and the ball continued on a relentless path toward the boundary fence. There was a problem, though. At the exact second the ball went in, a defender had blocked my view of the goalpost.

Naturally, the attacking team claimed the ball had entered the goal. I examined the net, which was when I found the hole. I was 99.9% convinced myself that the ball must have gone in the goal and straight back out again. But I hadn't seen it, and I can't give what I don't see. So I asked the defending team, "Did the ball go in?" Not a single player would look me in the eye and answer the question. You might argue at this point that I should just have given the goal, and that's a very strong argument. I don't think anyone would have complained. Yet I wanted to give the home team the opportunity to take a moral step up in what had been the customary miserable game full of fouls, moaning and opponents squaring up to each other. Go on, be the better men, just for once. Nothing.

So I went to the team's two coaches. Had they seen if the ball went in or not? Of course, they claimed they hadn't seen it either. I apologized to the away team -- who were thoroughly dominating the game, and who took the decision pretty well -- and said that I couldn't award the goal if the home team would not give me an honest answer. I repaired the net, and the game continued with a goal kick. At halftime, two parents from the home team confirmed that the ball had indeed gone in (thanks for letting me know, 10 minutes too late ...). Fortunately, it had no bearing on the result, and the away team ran out 4-1 winners.

The home team last week withdrew from the league, which didn't surprise me. The coaches were barely interested, and the overall team spirit was non-existent. Late in the game, I'd red-carded one of the players for an act of unprovoked violence when he deliberately kicked an opponent hard in the shin, long after the opponent had played the ball. It summed up the team's approach on a grey November day when you felt like no one in the side really wanted to be there. And yet, if just one player on this team had said, "Yep, the ball was in, ref," then I'd have given the goal and finally written one of those reports for 'especially sporting conduct.' The team would have received recognition from the state soccer association, and the story would have done the rounds in the city and likely in the press too -- this happened with a similar incident a few years ago when a goalkeeper admitted that a shot he'd 'saved' had indeed crossed the line. Perhaps it would have kicked off a new approach to their attitude, and prompted talk about how undisciplined teams rarely win games. About the reasons we play sport, and what we get out of it.

There was no camera to record the moment, though, so no one present had a Grifo-like attack of conscience. There was no definitive proof that the ball had entered the goal, just a collective claim set against the sullen, passive mendacity of the defending team. It soured the afternoon further still, and most likely catalyzed the home team's decline. In truth, that's no great loss to the soccer landscape, but it's nonetheless an unsurprising indictment of the state of sportsmanship on the city's increasingly joyless amateur fields. Shame on them all.

(Ian Plenderleith writes a weekly blog, Referee Tales, about his experiences officiating games in Germany's youth and amateur leagues)

17 comments about "How I yearn for 'especially sporting conduct'".
  1. R2 Dad, November 30, 2021 at 3:51 p.m.

    Timely article, and yet another reason why I don't do these older matches. At least younger players give pause and consider telling the truth. You are a glutton for punishment, Ian. I am curious how, in your retirement, you will reflect on all the hours spent officiating and whether you believe it was time well-spent. I got into officiating because there was a need for officials so my kids could play the game. The same initial problems I ran into at the begining (parents ingnorant of the game, kids uninterested in watching the professional game in order to learn, abusive coaches, skilled players getting overlooked due to size) are all still present. At what point do you get off the treadmill?  

  2. Ian Plenderleith replied, December 1, 2021 at 7:07 a.m.

    I've thought about quitting too often to count, but overall I still love being out there more than I want to be sitting at home with my feet up. Recently I've found a 'support group' of a few fellow referees and we offload our frustrations via WhatsApp and over beers once a month. That's a tremendous help.

  3. beautiful game replied, December 1, 2021 at 8:09 p.m.

    Thank you Ian for bringing back memories of a 1960s semi-pro soccer game in Philadelphia, PA. I had a clear view of a ball struck like a missile from the left side of the penalty box which penetrated through the  goal net at the far post.  The crowd in the bleachers erupted with "goal" and the officiating crew just raised their palms & shoulders. The head referee approached the scoring team's manager and after a brief delay restarted with a goal kick. An amazing goal that the officiating crew was unable to validate. During a post-game meeting of club members, the manager advised that according to the referee, he lost sight of the ball and his ARs were were not able to confirm a goal. 1,200 spectators in the bleachers witnessed it and luckily, the club supporters did not have to suffer much as their team won 2-0.

  4. George Vecsey, November 30, 2021 at 9:12 p.m.

    Dear Ian, I love your columns,  particularly ones mentioning sportsmanship. This one reminded me of Wenger turning back a victory in 1999 because a young Arsena recruit (from Africa) did not understand the soft post-injury inbounding of a pass, and converted it into a goal, but Wenger did not accept the goal, and went on to a replay which Arsenal won. 
    I fearlessly predicted that similar gestures would not start breaking out. 
    Thanks for your view as a ref.

  5. Ian Plenderleith replied, December 1, 2021 at 7:09 a.m.

    Thank you, George! I remember the Arsenal-Sheffield United incident well. Also, there was Liverpool's Robbie Fowler deliberately missing a penalty (also against Arsenal, I think) when he knew that he hadn't been fouled. Going back a while, though...

  6. Randy Vogt, November 30, 2021 at 9:48 p.m.

    Ian, how about this from games I officiated for "especially sporting conduct?" Team does not have enough players to have a full squad in the field so other team matches their numbers of players. Happened a few times in both soccer and futsal. Normally dominant HS teams use their second team as starters against overmatched opponents from much smaller schools.

  7. Ian Plenderleith replied, December 1, 2021 at 7:17 a.m.

    I've tentatively suggested playing down a player or two a couple of times as a referee, but it rarely happens. At the U7/U9 level I've done that as a coach. But with league games and with points at stake? No chance, I'm afraid. The best you can hope for is a coach subbing in the second string players once the score's at 9-0 and maybe switching the positions around. 

  8. Randy Vogt replied, December 5, 2021 at 8:20 p.m.

    Ian, well it happened again today, in a BU15 tournament game where one team needed to win to receive a trophy. The other squad only had nine players at kick-off so they played 9 vs. 9 in the first half, then 11 vs. 11 in the second when two players came at halftime. Team needing to win was down 0-1 and 1-2 in first half but eventually won, 4-2.

  9. Mike Lynch, November 30, 2021 at 10:34 p.m.


    Thanks for an article highlighting the need for more sporting moments. My prayer is that my players and myself would have the courage to do the right thing when the moment comes up. We can't know when it will come, but we can be ready. 

    I offer another reason for encouraging more sporting moments: you have to be a better soccer player. If I tactical foul, I don't have to transition as quickly or effectively nor keep good defensive shape when attacking nor make great defensive plays while outnumbered or have a great goalkeeper who can still make the save despite being exposed, etc, etc. Of course, when we fail to be sporting, we don't have to be better. 

    Don't get too discouraged. Hopefully, another opportunity will come up soon!

  10. Ian Plenderleith replied, December 1, 2021 at 7:24 a.m.

    There are small signs of encouragement - a player will admit he got a touch on the ball to change the call on a corner-kick or goal kick, say. But (so far) never when it comes to game-changing calls. Excellent point about it being a teachable moment for young players to improve so that they don't have to foul. It annoys me on TV when ex-pros in the commentary box say, 'Smart foul there, he/she had no choice.' Well, he/she could have tried winning the ball, or opted not to foul and let play continue. A friend's father-in-law once told me about playing for the amateur club South Liverpool in the late 60s - he did exactly that in a game, allowing an opponent to continue on goal rather than fouling him, leading to the game-winner. The coach tore a strip off him afterwards and said, "You've deprived these lads of their bonus!" Clearly, some of the players were less than amateur. He was never picked again. 

  11. Kent James replied, December 1, 2021 at 11:20 p.m.

    Ian, I completely agree on the "professional foul" mantra.  Eric Wynalda used to praise defenders for committing such "smart" fouls (otherwise I thought he was fine as a commentator).  Committing those fouls shows no faith in your goal keeper (or other defenders' ability to cover you).  Sometimes commentators are a bad influence on the game.

  12. James Madison, November 30, 2021 at 10:58 p.m.

    I recall the reverse happening in a highlevel "friendly match in Brazil.  It was between Brazil and I do not remember who in a  run-up to, as I recall, the 1990 World Cup.  It was clear on tv from the beginning and confirmed on replays, that the ball went through a hole in the side netting and lodged in the goal. The CR signatled goal; the lead AR tried in vain to get his attention to advise correctly no goal. Brazil did not acknowledge no goal,and a kickoff ensued.

  13. Bob Ashpole, December 1, 2021 at 12:24 a.m.

     There are important life lessons found here that matter far more than a soccer match.

  14. Kevin Sims, December 1, 2021 at 10:22 a.m.

    Here, here! Thank you.

  15. Kent James, December 1, 2021 at 11:15 p.m.

    My philosophy has always been that if you have to cheat to win, you don't deserve the win so what's the point?  The only challenge to that is if the other side is cheating (and getting away with it), but you hope the refs take care of that.

    As for cards for diving (enforced by VAR) the German case cited may start a trend where players want to avoid a caution by making sure the ref knows there was no foul.  That would be a good thing.

  16. frank schoon, December 2, 2021 at 10:56 a.m.

    You do what is right in your gut, as an individual and therefore accept the positive as well as the negative consequences. But this baloney about hoping, 'I wish everybody will be honest'(like ME) ....well good luck with that!.. For example, for those coaches who think they are so ethical as they express themselves here, why don't you then express the same emotion and disgust openly as the other coach toward your player when one of your players makes a bad foul upon the opponent. What really happens is that you keep your mouth shut because you want to try to minimize the severity of consequences the player will receive. This happens all of the time during the game. The only time you get upset and emotional is when it happens to your own player. BINGO!!!

    In my first year of coaching, I made the decision once the opponent team was forced to play with 10men, to take one of my players off as well.  I'm very competitive and if I was going to win , I was going to win with equal odds ,fair and square...I just feel like giving a stipulation why we won because we had one more player. The game ended up a tie. It didn't matter whether I should or shouldn't have, for I accepted the consequences. I don't expect other coaches to do this and therefore I won't cry about it...It all depends upon the individual himself and bring in the organization and call for changes....

    You have to realize, you have placed yourself in an environmment where everybody tries to cheat on their taxes, hide things, and it varies in degree.

     Just like in a soccer environment, the individuals involved are not equal as far as one's inner development as a being and therefore individuals cheat at different levels and degrees, since nobody as developed as Jesus's honesty, let us say.  What is so rediculous, I find, are these stupid patches players have to wear saying ,"RESPECT"...Yeah, that will work in an environment where individuals have different levels of soul/inner growth. This is all outward, meaningless 'bloviating'. Or when everyone kneels before the game....Yeah ,that certainly will help you grow inwardly, for something that is probably done  to appease the politically correct. How many of these players think that this show of display, kneeling, is such a bunch of crap but do it anyway for they don't want to be called up to the front office the next day, to explain  oneself.
    Simply , what you think is right and don't bother others whose inner growth is different from yours.

  17. humble 1, December 2, 2021 at 12:31 p.m.

    Even U19 are youth.  They all emulate what they see on tele.  The English Premier league at the moment is setting a very very low standard.  Talking back to refs is an all time high, in my emperical experience, on TV and then on the youth pitch.  We used to see the odd player that was a referee-player, now we see entire teams come up to the ref as if it was a ref conference.  Nonsense.  My player is thankful for well refereed games he gets.  Keep it going! 

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