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14 January 2002

There’s nothing like a bad ref to make a game really exciting

By Robert Winder

The footballing gods – the television moguls who finance and oversee the national game, that is – must be rubbing their hands with glee. Not only does the Premiership look like being closer and more exciting than usual. Better still, referees are finally getting the headlines they deserve. Almost every game now requires a lengthy and often fiery post-mortem about refereeing decisions. In the past, they were amateurs, these refs, white-legged bumblers whose frailties had to be accepted with a certain charitable good grace. But now they are professionals. Money has been thrown at their feet. And no one has to let their officious interventions pass without question any more. The longed-for holy grail of television football – limitless controversy – is finally within our grasp.

It is never easy to sympathise with these strange men in black who whistle while they work, and smile when the millionaire athletes they are supposed to be supervising spit and fume in their faces. It takes a strange man to volunteer for such an odious duty. They often seem like limelight-loving petty bureaucrats, desperate for a chance to pull rank and stamp their little feet. What fun they must have when they get together for a gossip, exchanging boasts on what they plan to do with that Roy Keane, given half a chance, or – ha! – did you see the look on Robbie Savage’s face when I sent the lad off? Priceless! One senses that what the referees secretly aspire to, given the number of bad-boy footballers involved in drunken brawls these days, is an instant breathalyser kit. All right, Bowyer, blow into this tube, sonny. Drunk in charge of a football – the possibilities are endless.

If one does have any feeling for referees, it’s only because the behaviour of the players is so comically awful. Four-letter words are just part of the industrial language of the game, I suppose, but they are deployed with relentless fervour by the nation’s sporting pin-ups. Almost every night, on close-up television, we can see them f***ing and sh***ing their way through the game. The referees’ authority is fragile, and they know it. So when, some seasons ago, Paolo di Canio was suspended and pilloried for decking a referee with the kind of mild push you’d use on a toy boat, he was striking a historic blow, shattering a crystalline illusion by humiliating his tormentor physically. The sight of that ref, pedalling backwards like a cartoon cat before sitting down in a drippy tangle of arms and legs, struck fear into the hearts of the game’s bosses. Since then, there have been many resolutions to clamp down and bring the present generation of spoiled-brat players to heel, or at least down a peg.

It’s working like a charm, partly because the players and managers refuse to help. The players contest every throw-in decision as if it were a lethal conspiracy against them, while the managers seem outraged by the idea that their precious lads should stop elbowing each other in the cheeks, or shouldn’t fling themselves to the ground in search of free kicks and penalties. There is one exception to this: offside decisions. In every game, there are several wrongly awarded offsides – usually they are given in favour of the defending side. And the players, bizarrely, accept these flagrant abuses of their superstar status with something approaching meekness. Clearly, these are game-changing incidents, and in the face of such lassitude it is only a matter of time before the authorities act.

They could drop the offside rule altogether, which would open the game up, create more space and more goals, and allow the linesmen (sorry, “assistant referees”) to spend more time looking out for sneaky or foul play. Or they could do the opposite: they could insist that play continues until a goal is scored, but rule that all goals will then be checked for offside. This would create a pleasurable moment of tension for the crowd as it waited to see whether the goal was “good”, and allow commentators to show their expertise (or lack of it) by predicting the outcome.

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Refereeing errors are, as we footballers say, “all part and parcel” of the game. They have been enshrined as a central feature of the entertainment package by a system that offers, to pundits and spectators, a superior view to the one granted to the actual officials.

This is a keenly debated issue in cricket, too, where the umpires are cheekily given the worst view in the house, and then bitterly derided for failing to see what was stark- staring obvious to anyone with a slow-motion replay camera in front of them. In cricket, as in football, the players absolutely refuse to help, pressurising the poor old sucker in the hot seat for all they’re worth. They feel fully justified when they succeed in pulling a fast one, while reserving the right to have a tantrum if a fast one is pulled on them.

It is bound – one might also say, intended – to promote the kind of controversy on which the tabloid marketing impulse feeds and thrives. Indeed, it might even be part of the campaign to make cricket more popular. In both sports, wickets and goals become secondary to “talking points”, and the games themselves increasingly resemble wrestling, presenting us with a pantomime of justice and injustice, grievance and revenge.

It is for this reason that the people who wring their hands soberly over the issue might be missing the point. With each ratcheting-up of the pressure on referees and umpires, the real commercial logic of modern sport – the creation of notoriety and controversy – accelerates. It’s what some would call a no-lose scenario.

Hunter Davies is away