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All for the love of the game

Football can break down barriers, and we shouldn't forget it.

Amazing things, football pitches – amazing what can happen on them and the power they have to change lives.

The first game I refereed was in December 1989 and it was a far cry from 3pm on a Saturday afternoon in the Premier League. On a murky winter afternoon, I took charge of two teams of under-11s on a threadbare pitch with an incline. With kit borrowed from my dad, I didn’t really know what I was doing – and if you believe some of the chants at grounds today, there are some who believe that is still the case. The pitch that match took place on was at the heart of the community, on land next to the British Steel coking plant at Orgreave.

Five and a half years earlier, a friend and I sneaked out of school at lunchtime and climbed up the hill to find a good vantage point to watch what is now known as the Battle of Orgreave. Most of the fighting had been and gone, but there were still many miners and uniformed police about. To a 13-year-old, it was fascinating: it’s not every day that national news is on your doorstep. It was also a big deal in our house, because my father had worked down the mines at Orgreave.

The irony was that my dad had wanted to be a policeman but went down the pit because the money was better. It was me who ended up in the police force, because it seemed a more secure way of life. Indeed, it was. South Yorkshire Police was very supportive while I built my career as a referee.

Now I’m also fortunate to be part of another community – that of professional football, in which respect for the game is stronger than people might credit. During Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine, every game I refereed for Uefa had players from the Premier League who would stop to have a chat; they were honestly pleased to see us. It’s the same on Premier League match days. At the pre-match handshake, there’s genuine warmth, then people put their professional faces on and chase their goals while I get on with the job of controlling them. Outside the 90 minutes, players don’t hold grudges.

Life’s a pitch

We are all involved in football for the love of the game. There will be times when it gets bad press, but when you analyse something in such fine detail, naturally there will be negatives. We shouldn’t forget the huge export power of those 20 Premier League pitches: across the world, our domestic game is watched by billions of fans in 650 million homes across 212 territories.

Football breaks down barriers. As a group of referees last season, we launched a curriculum-based website that uses what happens on the pitch to help educate children, teachers and parents about lifelong citizenship messages. When I go into schools to promote it, the emotion evoked by the sport is overwhelmingly positive. A lot of young people want to be footballers but not because of the money. I doubt kids who are eight or nine understand what it is to be rich. They just want to be involved in something they find attractive and skilful.

Many things can create communities but football does bring people together. All clubs run community programmes that didn’t exist a generation
ago. David Miliband’s local club, Sunderland, has 7,000 children and adults engaged in sporting and education programmes each week. That’s a lot of lives changed through something as simple as a football pitch.

Howard Webb is a professional football referee

Howard Webb is a professional football referee.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Crisis