I spend a lot of time getting around my home city of Frankfurt am Main by bicycle. This also means I spend a lot of time locking and unlocking my two-wheeled means of transport. And every time I turn the key and look at the row of secured bikes next to me, I feel a breeze of resentment that human beings are so incapable of trust and basic honesty that I need to clamp a $70 chain through the frame to stop the next passer-by from running off with what's not theirs.
The International Football Association Board (IFAB), the FIFA body that tweaks, makes and sometimes breaks the "Laws of the Game," is on verge of allowing body cameras for amateur referees. The English Football Association, which requested IFAB's approval for a bodycam trail, this week published the number of bans it issued last season for assaults on referees at grassroots level — 380. And those are just the ones that were reported and acted upon.
On top of actual violence is the constant threat of violence. You can not take the FA's statistic in isolation and claim that, compared with the number of games where no attacks took place, the number of assaults covers only a very small percentage of matches played. The atmosphere in amateur soccer has become so unpleasant in so many countries that the possibility of an assault hangs over the game like a toxic cloud, ready to burst at any perceived provocation from the ref — a red card, a penalty call, an overlooked offside. I've refereed numerous games in Germany where even a disputed throw-in can prompt a volley of threats, vitriol and verbal abuse.
Are body cams the answer? I suppose you can argue that they are, in the same way that a bicycle lock increases the chances that someone won't steal your bike. It's a preventative measure that may stem the assault/theft statistics, and that's a good thing. But it doesn't solve the problem of why we have come to this point. Why can we not trust each other enough to leave our bicycles unlocked? Why can referees not expect players, coaches and spectators to refrain from assaulting them?
Personally, I would rather not wear a body camera while refereeing. It feels like an admission of defeat, even if it grants me a feeling of greater security. True, in those cases that become before the disciplinary panel, it could straighten out the facts when Player A claims that his fist to my chest was in fact an altruistic gesture to ensure my heart was still beating. His teammates and coach back him up. It really wasn't that kind of game, the referee's account is greatly exaggerated, and Player A's a fine lad who loves his mum and fluffy kittens too.
Yet, we already have so many cameras. Every street and every building and every road has multiple security cameras. In China, face recognition technology means you can be named and shamed on a giant screen just seconds after jaywalking. We have dashboard cams to record every journey by car or truck. Every sports stadium and arena has them too, while on the touchlines, ambitious coaches of youth teams are filming entire games so that they can pinpoint the reason they're not state champions (quick pointer: it's because your players can't pass or control the ball). Do we really now need cameras strapped to the referee's chest because sportsmen can't handle being punished according to the established rules of the game?
The danger here is that security cameras are seen as the solution, when they are really just another depressing reflection of the catastrophic state of the human condition. Here's what should really be done for the long term good of the game:
• Coaches at youth level need to be taught that one of their main duties is to teach their players not just how to pass and control a soccer ball, but that the referee should be shown the utmost respect at all times. The referee's decisions should never be questioned. The referee should be thanked at the end of the game without commentary. And if coaches really do feel the need to offer their opinions on the referee's abilities, they can do so via email to the league's administrators once they get home.
• Caches at youth level should have a statutory qualification on how to teach sporting values to their young charges (let's call it Coaching License X). A two-day course focused on nothing but how to behave, and how to pass on that behavior to the coming generations. Yes, even the 'dads-in-chinos' coaches who take over their kid's U-7 team despite never having kicked a ball in their lives. In fact, especially those coaches. Everyone, no exceptions. No X-licenced coach, no team.
• The Coaching License X should be suspended for a number of weeks as soon as anyone on the team — players, coaches or parents — shows disrespect to the referee. That team cannot play until the license is reinstated, and all interceding games are forfeited.
• IFAB needs to direct referees to enforce the rule on dissent from the very top of the game. Yet another reminder (Law 12): "A player is cautioned if guilty of dissent by word or action." I'll start the social media campaign for them myself, for free: #DISSENTOFF
The plague of bad behavior in soccer has been learned down the decades and it's steadily gotten worse. Now it's time to unlearn it and improve ourselves again. It's a far more positive approach than strapping a camera to a referee's chest, even though it may require much more initiative and organization.
Although, given the IFAB's historical lack of imagination, there's as much chance of it happening as me leaving my bicycle unlocked outside Frankfurt's main station, and coming back two hours (or even two minutes) later to find it still there. Shame on us all and our decrepit values.
(Ian Plenderleith’s new book, Reffing Hell, documents six years of soaking up dissent and abuse as a referee in Frankfurt’s amateur leagues. It’s also very funny and entertaining too. You can buy an e-copy at amazon.com, or order a real world copy direct from its UK publisher, Halcyon.)