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:
1. 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.