What can soccer learn from other sports in its perpetual struggle to stem the seemingly endless flood of anger, dissent and disrespect aimed at referees? Or to stop players constantly wasting time and engaging in gamesmanship without suffering so much as a caution? An interview this week in the German press with one Bundesliga referee and two of his colleagues from the sport of team handball threw up some radical but urgently necessary answers.
There’s a reason why there’s so little dissent in handball – it’s because referees are allowed to enforce the rules. And the rules on dissent (a two-minute time penalty, every time) have a far lower bar of tolerance than soccer, where chewing out the referee is a sin that goes unpunished, week after week. And when young players see the pros getting away with it on TV, they will be guaranteed to ape that anti-sporting behavior out on the amateur field the following weekend.
“Soccer has missed the opportunity to establish a proper level of respect,” according to Patrick Ittrich, one of the best refs in Germany right now. Ittrich sat down with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) and two top handball referees, Robert Schulze und Tobias Tönnies, and labelled “the eternal complaining” as the game’s biggest problem. Of course, he acknowledged, there are difficult coaches in handball too, but the rule book allows for a much more effective approach to poor conduct. That’s where soccer can learn, and in other areas too.
Take players simulating injury to run down the clock. If a handball player goes down and receives treatment, they have to leave the field of play. Ittrich says that if he could remind every soccer player rolling around dramatically on the floor that on-field treatment would lead to them automatically sitting out at least three minutes, then this particular aspect of gamesmanship would become part of soccer’s past. “Imagine how quickly the player would get up!” (MLS Next Pro introduced such a rule midway through its 2022 season.)
In handball, if a player picks up, moves or even touches the ball to waste time when their opponents have been awarded a free-throw, then the throw’s automatically moved forward to seven meters in front of the opponent’s goal. “In soccer,” says Ittrich, “that could mean a tactical foul in midfield leading to a free-kick 18 yards directly in front of goal. How often would we see tactical fouls after that?”
On a roll, Ittrich then addressed the plague of dissent. “You’ve sworn at me? Then you get 10 minutes off the field to cool down. Go on an exercise bike, like they do in gridiron, so you don’t get cold. And how is it possible that after making a decision I’m then being harangued by 10 players? OK, I’m exaggerating a bit, it’s more like six or seven. We call it mobbing the referee. As far as I’m concerned: Bam. Bam. Bam. Three red cards, or if one player already has yellow then they get yellow-red. And then we play 11 against seven. I’d be absolutely fine with that.”
My own refereeing blog is now in its seventh season of documenting the abuse I get for whistling games in German youth and amateur soccer. It’s no coincidence that there’s a refereeing recruitment crisis worldwide, at all levels and in all sports. The reaction that Ittrich hears when he tells people what he does at weekends will be familiar to every ref on the planet: “Why on earth would you put yourself through that?”
It's a question that’s becoming increasingly hard to answer in the face of FIFA’s inability to change soccer’s culture. The World Cup would have been the perfect time to advise referees to clamp down hard on dissent, right from the opening whistle. We saw no such thing. While the added time was piled on at the end of almost every half to compensate for time-wasting, the issue of time-wasting itself was ignored, despite there being multiple sanctions for such behavior in the game’s rulebook.
The "Laws of the Game" have long since been crying out for a radical overhaul. Not only to streamline and simplify them, but to make them consistently applicable across all levels of the game. In our online monthly tests, we are required to answer the questions by the exact letter of the law. On the field, we are advised to judge the games by a completely different set of criteria. For example, don’t yellow card players for dissent – that’s bad game management, and “emotions” are all part of the game. Don’t yellow card time-wasting, that’s just fussy refereeing and you’ll end up looking like a poor ref if you caution a dozen players.
The players love that approach to refereeing. It means they often dispute every decision and use every trick in the book to run down the clock. It also means a game that’s devoid of respect, decency and honesty. That’s pro sport, you could argue in return. Well then, let’s try a more robust approach that may be better appreciated by sport’s rugged competitors. Bam. Bam. Bam. Three reds for mobbing the ref. I’d be absolutely fine with that.