Commentary

Ref Watch: The goalkeeper's tears, and a penalty

The following is an excerpt from Ian Plenderleith's latest book, "Reffing Hell: Stuck in the middle of a game gone wrong." Illustrated by Tim Bradford (Halcyon Publishing)


"Thrice he assay’d, and thrice, in spite of scorn,
Tears, such as angels weep, burst forth." 
— John Milton (Paradise Lost)
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Just over 20 minutes gone in a boys U15 game, regional league. The dominant home team leads 2-0. From a direct free kick just outside the penalty area, the diminutive but agile away goalkeeper makes a fantastic, flying one-handed save up in the top left-hand corner of his goal. Corner kick, and applause.

I stand on the end-line closest to the taker, as I always do for corners. This one swerves in on goal and the keeper, unchallenged, can only punch it into his own net. 3-0. He’s angry with himself now — the great onehanded save has been annulled, at least in his eyes. Then two minutes later he makes another save, attempting to turn a shot over the bar. Only, he doesn’t get enough of a hand on it and the ball loops behind him into the net. He scrambles back to try and rescue the situation, but he ends up in a heap in the back of the goal. 4-0, and the game’s effectively lost with just 26 minutes played.

I run back towards the halfway line, but when I turn around for the restart I notice that the goalkeeper’s still lying on the floor, curled up in a ball in the back of the net. I run back to check if he’s injured, just as a team-mate is trying to help him to his feet, but he doesn’t want any help. He is crying, and crying hard. He hadn’t wanted anyone to see, but now that he’s getting to his feet there’s no mistaking his emotion. He screams in frustration grabs at the net, and kicks the goalpost. Added to his two mistakes is now the supposed shame of being the boy whose upset turned to tears.

I know how he feels, and I know that there is nothing I can do or say to comfort him. In my book The Quiet Fan, I describe how prone I was to crying during my teenage years, and how I sometimes thought that “I should have been born a girl. They got to cry all the time and no one seemed to bother. On the contrary, girls were expected to cry. It’s what they did. Shakespeare’s embittered King Lear called tears ‘women’s weapons’. For boys, they were more like inviting, open wounds.”

The goalkeeper is 14 years old, and I want to lay an arm around his shoulder and tell him that everything’s going to be alright. There are several reasons why I don’t, inappropriate conduct being the principal one, but almost as important is the knowledge that the last thing the goalkeeper wants or needs right now is empathy from the referee. Might as well just send his mum onto the pitch with his blanky and a cuddly toy.

Notably absent, though, is the player’s coach. There’s not even a call from the touchline to ask him if he’s alright to continue, let alone a request to enter the field of play and check on his welfare. I ask him if he’s okay to play on, and he nods furiously, wiping away the moisture. In his red eyes and raging cheeks I see everything that I dislike about competitive sport — the pressure, the disappointment, the grief and the anger. All for a game which, beyond the artificial context of this 70-minute faceoff, has no real consequence.

The game turns dirty and a little bit nasty in the second half. There’s a double time penalty when two opponents square up after a straight-legged foul. Moaning is kept to a minimum thanks to an early yellow at the first complaint. After the final whistle, one of the home coaches walks over to thank me, but with the usual proviso — he wants to complain about a penalty, a call that should “never” have been given (his team were 6-2 up at the time). I tell him that his player clearly and deliberately shoved his opponent over in the box, and the coach shakes his head, like I’m making that part up.

Final score: 6-3 (5 x yellow, 3 x time penalty).

Ian Plenderleith’s new book reflects the recruitment crisis in refereeing across all sports, around the world. 'Reffing Hell: Stuck in the Middle of a Game Gone Wrong’ is available in the USA on Amazon Kindle from August 8. The book is also available in print directly from the Halcyon Publishing in the UK.

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Refereeing in Soccer America and around the web

Among our recent ref, rules and officiating coverage and commentary:

1. When Video Review gets too clever, it's time to rely on a referee's instincts By Paul Gardner (Soccer America)

2. Mark Geiger: I've refereed World Cup soccer games. You have to avoid social media or it will ruin your life. By Andy McGrath (Business Insider)

3. The past and the future of the VAR application By Ahmet Guvener (Soccer America)

4Watch: Katy Nesbitt on her journey to World Cup reffing By Mike Woitalla (Soccer America)

5Added time at World Cup -- added strain or added drama? By Peter Stebbings (AFP)

6Reluctant referee Yoshimi Yamashita on brink of World Cup history By Andrew McKirdy (AFP)

7What's being done to stop adults' misbehavior at youth soccer games By Elizabeth Blair (NPR)

1 comment about "Ref Watch: The goalkeeper's tears, and a penalty".
  1. R2 Dad, November 25, 2022 at 12:41 a.m.

    I wish there was a primer on how coaches should approach the concept of developing youth keepers. It seems to be the least concerning decisions by youth coaches on who and when to put someone between the sticks, yet the potential negative mental impact is on a player is significant.

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