What happens when a team stops yelling at the ref?

Is it possible to play soccer without moaning at the referee? German weekly Die Zeit  decided that this rhetorical question needed further exploration. It challenged a Level 6 amateur team in Berlin, SV Empor, to try and play the entire second half of last season without confronting the match officials. The resulting documentary film (in German) can be seen here, and it makes for a compelling watch.

The term ‘amateur’ in German soccer is a sham. Even down to the eighth or ninth level, many players pocket cash payments for winning, because ambitious clubs want to scale the league pyramid. The quickest way to lure the best players is to offer more money. The players on SV Empor are on a small win bonus of around $60 per game, but some other teams in their league reputedly pay their players several hundred dollars a month.

Before the second half of this past season (2022-23) in the Berlin-Liga, the players agree to a tripartite code of conduct:

. No discussions. Accept refereeing decisions, even when we feel they are unjust.
2. No protesting. Either verbally or by raising an arm to claim a corner or a throw-in. Refs can manage without our obviously biased ‘help’.
3. We stay calm and sporting. Kicking the ball away, verbal fights and deliberate fouls born of frustration damage the club’s image.

Although, as one player says, “That’s pretty much what we say before every game — that we’ll leave the referee in peace. But we never actually manage it.”

The next few games deliver mixed results in terms of both sporting and disciplinary goals, but the 26-minute movie does manage to throw up both a hero and a villain. The hero is the team’s 19-year-old goalkeeper, Aaron Yusuff. During one of the first games filmed, a shot from an opponent enters the goal, then exits again through a hole in the side-netting. It all happens very quickly. The three-man refereeing team hesitantly decides on a corner. The scoring team exhorts the referee to ask the goalkeeper if the ball went in or not. The Empor goalkeeper admits that it was a goal, the referee points toward the center spot, and the opposition players thank Yusuff and shake his hand.

Over on the touchline, his coach Mario Jurcevic is less than happy at this victory for sporting conduct. “Yusuff, you need to keep your mouth shut!” he yells across the field. “That decision is for the referees to make.”

Jurcevic is one of those coaches who’s a nice guy until he’s not. As a referee, I’ve met multiple versions of him. Before the game, he can be warm and chatty. During the game, he’ll scream at you with a psychotic venom that will later be passed off as “just my emotions.” Jurcevic claims that he has a winning mentality, and that this mentality is dying out on the game. He says that there’s no point in having “11 little balls of cotton wool on the field when you’re facing 11 men made of cedar wood.”

Jurcevic also admits that when he started out in coaching, he trained the defenders on his U-15 team to always raise their arms and appeal for offside, because then the referee would always blow the whistle. It’s because he wants to win, he explains again. And when there’s money at stake, winning becomes the only thing that’s important. It seems he’s agreed to take part in an experiment that he has utterly failed to understand. At the end of the season, SV Empor fires him.

In the course of the movie, one question keeps recurring – why does this problem exist in soccer when it is absent from several other contact sports such as American football, rugby, handball and even hockey? In these sports, the players respect the referees’ decisions and rarely if ever argue back. The punishments for dissent, fouling and poor behavior are imposed, every time. That’s why the players accept them and are never surprised.

The excellent Bundesliga referee Patrick Ittrich says in the film that he’s often asked by his amateur colleagues why he doesn’t show more cards for dissent and unsporting conduct, because then it would have a knock-on effect on the game at lower levels. Ittrich laments that if he showed a dozen cards every game, then people would say he had lost control. And he’s right, because that is exactly the criticism referees have to take when we show ‘too many’ cards. What’s missing is the backing for such sanctions from the highest levels. FIFA and the national soccer federations need to authorize referees to get tough, and to support them when they do.

SV Empor starts the experiment in eighth place, and they finish 10th. True enough, they garner far fewer cautions for dissent and unsporting conduct in the second half of the season, but it doesn’t noticeably improve their ability to win games. Captain Hendrik Kühn is asked at the end, “So, is it possible to win without moaning?” It’s a long time before he replies. The movie has also discussed at length the perceived beneficial effects of putting pressure on refs. “Yes,” he finally says, but he doesn’t sound convinced.

One thing the film doesn’t mention, though. SV Empor had won the Berlin-Liga’s Fair Play Award for the best disciplinary record for the previous five seasons. Last season, they only finished third in the Fair Play table, partly due to coach Jurcevic getting two cautions and two straight reds. The league winner by a clear six points was a team called Sparta Lichtenberg. They also won the Fair Play Award by a country mile. It’s amazing what you can achieve on the field if you shut your mouth and focus on the sport.

* * * * * * * * * *

Following my last column on the Video Assistant Referee (VAR),  I was intrigued to read this take by former English pro ref Keith Hackett  in his Daily Telegraph commentary:  “I feel with VAR that referees are using it as a safety net too much and this has led to a decline in standards across the board. It is like many are too afraid to make a decision during matches, knowing that they will be bailed out by VAR.

"It’s created a to-me, to-you situation and the game will never raise its standards like that. It feels to me that the VAR is being used as a safety net by incompetent referees to hide behind making a decision when it can be made by someone else.”
7 comments about "What happens when a team stops yelling at the ref?".
  1. Mike Lynch, August 23, 2023 at 7:10 a.m.

    Why can't soccer give the official an extra tool in the toolkit for unsporting play. Not a Rugby expert but I believe dissent by a player gives the referee the authority to move the ball closer to the goal. Once the ball gets moved 5, 10, 15 yards closer for each continued dissent, watch the behavior stop immediately. Or just as a handball in the penalty area yields a free kick from 12 yards, how about putting some teeth into consequences for tactical fouls for both taking away a goal scoring opportunity and/or stopping a promising attack with a free kick from anywhere on the penalty area arc? This would stop the tactical fouls immediately except where the player felt the situation was more dire than a free kick from the top of the box. The constant arm tackling of players to the ground, clear and deliberate trips of a player getting away, prolonged pulling of the jersey is not what the LOTG describe in the run of play. No, these are clear examples of playing the refs, using the rules to cover for poor play, poor positioning, etc., and currently these deeds are rewarded, encouraged, coached, because the consequences do not meet the infraction so of course, the players are going to do it. The solution is simple. Choosing to beef up the consequences is the difficult part. The game is the worse because of it. The time is now to put an end to constant unsporting play.

  2. humble 1 replied, August 23, 2023 at 11:29 a.m.

    That change could be catasrophic in the Premier League where referees and black box VAR - still get things wrong.  Imagine putting more power in the hands of these clowns.  To answer the question of what makes soccer more difficult for referees.  Substitutions.  Refs are afraid to effect the game.  This may relate back to hooliganism.  Refs are afraid because after the game - they may threatened by hooligans and/or ultras.  But why?  Because of substitution limits.  Two yellows and you are out.  Basketball - carefully defines a foul - and - after your 6th fould - you are out.  Video review helped basketball get a handle on flopping in the early 2000s.  But, basketball has ulimited subs - re-entry allowed.  So does Rugby - in certain circumstances.  Soccer, not long ago did not allow any subs.  Stone ages.  Hockey - has a sin bin - you go to the sin bin - the other team has a power play - man advantage - or more - can be multiple players in sin-bin.  For me - the biggest problem in soccer is still - fear of referees for their safety.  If you watch Dutch Eredivisie - when you watch on ESPN+ - when they go to VAR - they put a camera in the VAR room.  In England - it is a black box - why? - I believe - because of this fear.  That will not go away.  You need to devise ways to give referees the power to deal with disent short of throwin players out of the game - which triggers referee fear for their safety - maybe sin-bin or something - maybe - giving an disent card - and allowing 2 or three before expulsion - to distinguish stoppage infractions from run-of-play infractions - and give refs some method to formally warn violators before expulsion - like with the 5 fouls in the NBA.  Few arguments come from 5 fouls - player comes in with 5 fouls - on the rivet - everyone knows - he's on the rivet - fans, coaches, referees.  So yeah, soccer is the same, but different, hooligans and ultras are real - everywhere but here - and - refs lack a way to formaly warn players about desent - before tossing them - that is differnt from the machanisms they have to warn players for play violatioins.  Fix this - you fix most of the problem.  Good day.  

  3. humble 1 replied, August 23, 2023 at 11:38 a.m.

    It is hard to apply the rules of Rugby to Soccer - even tho for us yankees/colonists - it seems logical.  The big difference is.  All Rugby referee decisions are transparent - ref is mic'd - to stadium and TV - not like NFL - much more - they give explanations on the mic - but Rugby refs are not threatened after the game.  Rugby players beat the cr*p out of one-another - then go to the pub and sing songs and chants together.  There are no rugby derbys, hooligans, ultras.  Violent sport - but sport of gentelmen as they say.  The ref does his business - and joins down at the pub. This is not possible in soccer.  Derbys, hooligans, Ultras and of course the seedy underside of soccer, the betting mafia's - first stop - always refs.  To solve the soccer problem - you have to understand why soccer is different from any other sport.    

  4. Bob Ashpole, August 23, 2023 at 11:12 a.m.

    Hockey must have changed a lot since I was young.

  5. David Decker, August 23, 2023 at noon

    Keith Hackett says that "VAR is being used as a safety net by incompetent referees to hide behind making a decision when it can be made by someone else."   

    What levels of play use VAR?  The average Sunday League?  These low level amateur teams?    How many truly incompetent referees are there in the top level leagues such as the Premier League, Bundesliga, Serie A, La Liga, etc. that do use VAR?

    Seems to me that the VAR officials are just overwhelmed with technology and feel like they have to do SOMETHING with it, when letting the call on the field stand would be just fine.

  6. Kent James, August 23, 2023 at 4:15 p.m.

    I have not yet watched the documentary, but I plan to, it sounds very worthwhile.  But I think the experiment is not really a fair one, since only one team was not arguing with the refs.  They should have challenged the whole league.  While I think when players focus their attention on arguing with officials, they lose focus and don't play up to their abilities, when one team constantly complains to the ref and the other team says nothing, some refs may listen to the complaints and give the complaining team the benefit of the doubt they don't deserve.

  7. stewart hayes, August 23, 2023 at 5:45 p.m.

    It is really not a very wise coach who screams on the sidelines because the athletes will be distracted from what matters most.  You would think the Germans would have figured that out by now.  Japan has.   

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