Commentary

Abandoned game in the Bundesliga -- it's not just the fan who's at fault

The abandonment of the mid-March Bundesliga game between Bochum and Borussia Mönchengladbach — after assistant referee Christian Gittelmann  was hit on the back of the head by a full cup of beer — attracted much comment, with the fan in the home block rightly condemned for a heedless, violent action that saw the game finish prematurely with 20 minutes to go, and Mönchengladbach 2-0 up. The universal outrage and the subsequent discussion, though, has been missing an important element — the context of the game.

This was a really ugly matchup. I was watching it live on TV with my family and we talked about switching off at the interval. There were numerous nasty fouls, and a great deal of hot debate every time referee Benjamin Cortus blew his whistle. By halftime, he had cautioned three players, but it could easily have been several more. The whole atmosphere of the game was one of several unhinged players sailing close to the edge, and the way that the referee was constantly questioned and pressured will have done little to discourage a crowd which is, to put it mildly, known for being 'emotional' (it's OK for men to be 'emotional,' but only at sports events).

Let's take Bochum's goalkeeper, Manuel Riemann, an experienced journeyman pro, 33 years old. After the beer hit Gittelmann, he was one of the first to run the length of the field and start shouting and gesticulating at his own supporters for what had happened. Very good. Yet during the first half Rieman had on two occasions stood right in front of referee Cortus and yelled into his face about decisions he disagreed with. God forbid that Riemann might think he's part of the problem.

You might argue that Cortus is also part of the problem. He could and should have showed Riemann a yellow card for dissent the first time that the goalkeeper screamed at him. It's just over two years since the German soccer federation issued a set of instructions to its top flight referees regarding dissent, diving, time-wasting and aggressive behavior toward referees. It reiterated that each offense on this list was to be punished with a yellow card.

And what happened? In February 2020, referee Tobias Stieler took heed of the guidelines and showed a yellow card and then yellow-red to Mönchengladbach forward Alassane Pléa during a game against Leipzig. First, Pléa had protested loudly and gestured at Stieler for not calling a foul. Stieler whistled to stop play and cautioned Pléa. The striker looked aggrieved, made a comment to Stieler, and two further dismissive gestures, and then he was off.

Yet hardly had he implemented the laws than Stieler came in for criticism from those within the game, even though his fellow referees and many in the media backed him. His punishment was way too harsh. He didn't show a referee's instinct that allows for the necessary leeway in interpreting the rules. If referees start yellow-carding every show of dissent, then there will only be six players left on the field! Good. Whatever it takes.

We've heard very little since of the German federation's campaign to clamp down on dissent and gamesmanship. A few weeks after Pléa's dismissal, COVID came along, and the game now had other concerns, such as how was it going to survive at all (remember that discussion?). In the meantime, it's now OK again to yell at the referees, undermine their authority, and then look astonished that a spectator becomes so riled up that they toss a missile in the direction of the AR's head.

The most baffling thing about all this yelling at the match officials is that — in almost every case — replays show that the referee has made the right call (and even if they didn't, it's no excuse to yell at them).

On Thursday night, I was at Eintracht Frankfurt's Europa League round of 16 tie against Real Betis Sevilla. Another very 'emotional' night, and the fans around me let English referee Michael Oliver know what they thought when his decisions went against the home side. To me, though, Oliver reffed impeccably, throughout 120 minutes (don't ever take me to a game — I will sicken and annoy you with my neutrality when it comes to the referee's calls). Most fans either don't know the rules, or they don't care to know them. But when they see the players dramatically throw their arms to the heavens in exasperation after almost every single tackle or foul or throw-in, that's quickly reflected in the stadium's overall anti-ref hostility.

When Gittelmann was hit by the beer, he picked up the cup and threw it backward off the field. Then he placed his flag on the grass and kneeled down, shaking his head briefly in a way that said, "Good grief, has it come to this?" The most dignified reaction of all to the histrionic mini-circus that so many soccer games have become.

I wish him a speedy recovery (he was diagnosed with whiplash and a contusion to the skull), but I also wish to revive the debate about implementing the rule on dissent. Yelling at referees is wrong. Even the "Laws of the Game" say so, and they explicitly provide for punishment — a caution. We must finally accept that the sanction fits the lousy conduct, and that it's certainly not the referees who are 'spoiling the game' when they show raging players and coaches a card for their egregious disrespect.

16 comments about "Abandoned game in the Bundesliga -- it's not just the fan who's at fault".
  1. Randy Vogt, March 22, 2022 at 6:19 a.m.

    What refs allow they are actually encouraging. I understand that pro players especially want to win as it is their livelihood but commenting and gesticulating every time a decision goes against your team has to stop and can lead to the sorry incident described above. MLS allows too much contact and dissent, even more so during the playoffs, so I often watch other games instead.

  2. George Gorecki, March 22, 2022 at 9:02 a.m.

    I have been coaching amateur soccer for over 40 years. When it comes to players and how they should interact with referees, I give them two pieces of advice.

    1. Even when the referee is dead wrong, he's absolutely right.
    2. Shut up and play.

    I'm happy to say that my teams hardly ever get cautioned for dissent.

  3. Ben Myers replied, March 22, 2022 at 9:55 a.m.

    I am with you 100% in treatment toward referees, but I am ten years behind you in coaching experience.

  4. Wooden Ships replied, March 27, 2022 at 12:24 p.m.

    George, that was what I told my university players. Had it happen one time, no caption given, but said player didn't play the rest of the match. 

  5. Michael Saunders, March 22, 2022 at 10:17 a.m.

    Excellent article pointing to an issue clearly identifying THE problem which cannot be "fixed" by the officials on the field of play. 


    No question that "dissent" must be dealt with in accordance with the LOTG.  Unfortunately Federations facilitate it by their feckless and hypocritical responses when referees card players accordingly. The author's example of what happened to referee Tobias Steeler in a Budesliga match in 2020 is a perfect example.  He followed the guidelines stated by the DFB, but then was not only criticized by the pundits for taking that action, but also by the German Federation itself !!


    So while I agree with my friend Randy Vogt's comment regarding "What refs allow they are actually encouraging....", the onus is upon the leagues & Federations that must back up the officials. By not doing so encourages more of the same which invariably leads to violent actions towards officials. 

  6. R2 Dad replied, March 22, 2022 at 5:02 p.m.

    When I think of players over-reacting to calls by the officials, i first think of CONCACAF, then La Liga, before the BL. Unfortunately the histrionics are quite contagious and Leagues have done little to course-correct. At the youth level the players mirror the actions of the coach. At the professional level the fans mirror the behaviors of the players. Addressing the source of the bad activities is the only way to get it under control. Still, there are now so many cameras at the stadia that identifying the bottle-thrower should not be too difficult. A ban for the rest of the season at the least, is in order. 

  7. Wooden Ships replied, March 27, 2022 at 12:22 p.m.

    R2, I would make it a permanent ban and charges filed.

  8. Doug Broadie, March 22, 2022 at 5:52 p.m.

    Even 10 years ago, I said that soccer had enough laws.  All they needed were referees who actually enforce those laws.
    It would be nice if they used var for corner kicks.  The games woud be 9-7 with at least 12 of them penalties.  ;-)

  9. R2 Dad replied, March 22, 2022 at 7:10 p.m.

    Maybe over the course of one match day, but then coaches and players would revise their behavior to avoid the pens. Action, Reaction. And then the problem goes away-ish.

  10. beautiful game replied, March 27, 2022 at 1 p.m.

    Again, thank you Ian for reminding those who need to be reminded that dissent unpunishable from the start is root cause for potential violence. 

  11. Kent James, March 22, 2022 at 7:24 p.m.

    When teams focus on what the referee is doing, their play deteriorates, which is bad for everyone. Referees not to enforce the rules, coaches and administrators need to back them up, not undermine them. If that is done consistently, most players and fans will follow.

  12. Kent James replied, March 27, 2022 at 10:48 p.m.

    Should say "Referees NEED to enforce the rules" (not "not to enforce the rules")

  13. Mike Lynch, March 27, 2022 at 11:28 a.m.

    Every game, there are 4 roles ... player, coach, referee, spectator. Stick to your role and the game will be a much better product than what we have today. 

  14. Jill Corbett, March 27, 2022 at 1:31 p.m.

    The hooligans are back. Soccer had regained their dignity, now this.

  15. James Madison, March 28, 2022 at 4:57 p.m.

    Right on, Ian.  Leagues need to support referees who deal with dissent  and referees need to hve the courage to deal with dissent, even at the cost of their assignments. If leagues do not provide support, but referees as a group are courageous, leagues will not have referees and they will come arount. The problem arises when, in order to continue receiving assignments, referees "scab" by succumbibng to the temptation to "go along" with not enforcing the Laws of the Game. 

    In a brilliant essay written more than 100 years ago, the famous author Jack London identified "scabbing" in social contexts in general, as distinguished from being limited to breaking union strikes 

  16. Ian Plenderleith replied, March 29, 2022 at 5:55 a.m.

    Must look that up. One of my favorite places ever visited in the US was the Jack London State Park near Santa Rosa - well worth the trip if you get the chance.

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