Thursday, 17 August 2017

Reffing like a UN envoy - ignored, deplored, reviled

Game 9, 2017-18

Three days after being assaulted for the first time as a referee, you'd hope for a gentle game. Maybe a friendly in a U9 league where both teams have kittens for mascots. As it is, I realise that weeks ago I was assigned to a City Cup first round game between two teams of distinct ethnic origins. They hail from a part of the world far from my city, and have been in conflict for well over a century. It's the luck of the draw.

Please can I ref
a game in the Cute
 Kittens League?
It's due to get dark around half-time, so the home team asks if we can play the first half on their smooth and kempt grass field (no floodlights), then move to the neglected cinder pitch, weeds and all (but with floodlights), at half-time. The answer: no. So they haul the wheelie out of the shed, paint the lines, and clear away the debris from a storm the night before. What follows on this decrepit surface is the most intense and challenging game I've ever refereed.

There are so many fouls that it's hard to recall more than a handful of clean challenges throughout the entire match. I play advantage multiple times just to keep the game flowing. This irritates the away team in particular when they don't make good on the advantage. Yet in between the dirty play there are some cracking goals - these are good teams. We go in at half-time with the score at 3-2 and a count of three yellow cards.

"You're as much use as a UN resolution, ref!"
I fear, though, that they are just getting started, and I'm right. In the second half the game remains closely fought, and highly fractious. I run around putting out fires with a water bucket like a lone United Nations envoy in the middle of a city under siege. My appeals for calm and a steady stream of yellow cards for foul play and dissent are about as effective as a UN resolution drafted and passed in faraway New York. There is something going on here far beyond my remit, on the brink of an explosion - five times I have to separate players or groups of players yelling and squaring up to each other. A chat with both captains makes no difference at all.

I don't help matters by making a significant mistake. I let play continue after an aerial challenge between the home team's robust centre back and the away side's already fuming centre forward. The striker goes down with a dramatic yell (not for the first time - every foul in this game is a short and

Monday, 14 August 2017

"Your refereeing's shit!" Then a flying shirt in my face

Games 7-8, 2017-18

Anyone who's ever had a job has fantasised about just walking out and sticking a finger up to their boss or manager as they leave. It's how I feel at half-time of the fractious men's game I'm reffing on a warm Sunday afternoon. Of course, just abandoning a game at half-time would mean giving up refereeing for good, but still I'm tempted. Just to see their faces when you say, "You can referee your own fucking game, you wankers. And you're all shit at football too."

That day may come, though I'm not quite ready for it yet. Still, If I'd known how the second half  was going to play out, it might well have happened.

After 25 minutes, a
gentle appeal for quiet.
Some times you referee a team that commits lots of niggly, deliberate fouls, then complains every time you blow the whistle. It's not a loud enough complaint to draw a yellow card, rather it's a deliberate campaign to intimidate you and make you feel insecure. In this game, it's the policy of both teams. After 25 minutes, as the ball's being fetched for a corner kick, I announce loudly:

"Hey ref! Hey ref! Hey ref! It's all I'm hearing. Shut up and play the game."

They duly ignore me, so in the next ten minutes I yellow card the next two complaints (away team) and the next two fouls (both home team). I also twice warn the home coach for yelling at me from the touchline. This works much better than my appeal for sanity. Half-time: 0-3. The only major decision is a penalty

Monday, 7 August 2017

No room for manoeuvre - a push is a foul

Game 6, 2017-18

There’s a very straightforward clause of Law 12 stating that it’s an offence to push an opponent. This means, quite simply, that if referees see you pushing an opponent, then they should blow for a direct free kick. It’s astonishing how few players understand this, though it could be a consequence of too many referees failing to penalise it.

Unrequited shove - too often
players get away with pushing.
It’s easy to identify a push when two players are, say, jumping for a high ball, or when a shove or even a subtle nudge to the back sends an opponent sprawling on the floor. The problems arise when two players are running side by side and the upper limbs start coming out left and right. Often it’s best to let them have a go at each other until one or the other emerges with the ball. But when it’s only one player pushing the other (rather than fairly using their shoulder), I always blow for a foul. And the reaction is almost always the same – ruddy-faced outrage.

During yesterday's season-opener in a men’s reserve league, I pulled up the home team’s number 4 for exactly such an infringement. He complained loudly, so I explained the call. “But this is football!” he protested. Meaning, I presume, that referees let him get away with it every week, and he sees

Monday, 31 July 2017

Debating DOGSO

Games 3-5, 2017-18

The spectator seems genuinely angry, as they often generally are on their way out of the ground after a home defeat. "That should have been a red card," he huffs at me with hot conviction. I'm standing at the tournament official's table, getting my cash, and don't bother responding. Right after the final whistle is generally not a good time for rational discussion.

DOGSO - much dissected and
discussed among reffing nerds
"Bet he's never refereed a game in his life," mutters the official. I laugh and give one of my standard replies: "Everyone's an expert. Everyone." The tournament's sponsored by a local bank, and there's decent cash involved for the winners. This is a welcome contribution to the sporting community, but not much help when it comes to sporting perspectives.

At the time of the non-red card, the host team had been 0-2 down in the final, their third (shortened) game of the day. It was just after half-time, and one of their forwards had successively shrugged off a couple of challenges on his way toward the penalty area. Just inside the arc, while shaping up to shoot, he was deliberately brought down from behind

Friday, 28 July 2017

A reminder that football is a human right

Game 2, 2017-18

Some of the grounds I referee at are located near accommodation for refugees. A couple of seasons back I walked into a dressing room looking for the home team's captain, and found a man from the container houses next door on his knees praying to Mecca. It must be both strange and challenging when you've been forced to swap your normal house of worship for the grubby tiles of a seventh level football team. Five times a day.

Last night I was refereeing a thankfully peaceful, and mainly uneventful friendly game. My brief pre-match lecture stating that I've a zero tolerance policy when it comes to dissent seemed to work. It's not often I say this, so it may be worth reiterating before every game, though the key will be to follow through. Over the 90 minutes, a few short, sharp words were enough to keep things calm when trouble twice vaguely threatened. No cards, no controversy.

So, nothing much to say about this match. Except that at one point, when standing on the end-line for a corner kick, I noticed three men from the nearby refugees' home watching the game from behind the railing. They were all holding plastic bags with a small amount of groceries. They watched the action intently.

Heavy and heavily
influential book.
Sport, I've long contended, attracts us not just because we want to see which team or individual wins, but also because it represents a benchmark of normality. Where games are being played, wars are not usually being fought. At a recent literary event in London, I was standing before a room of people where I had five minutes to explain why they should crowd-fund my next (possible) book, The Quiet Fan. I held up my battered copy of Purnell's 1972 Encyclopaedia of Association Football (my first ever football book, which I received at the age of seven), and nervously babbled something like this:

"When I first got this book I ravenously scanned its pages of stats and began to memorise the results of historic cup finals. I couldn't understand, though, why there were no results for the years 1916-19, or for the period 1940-45. What terrible things could possibly have been happening during those times that stopped football being played?"

Because as long as there are games going on, life feels stable enough. Organised sport is only

Monday, 24 July 2017

Bad behaviour in a pre-season friendly - here we go again

Game 1, 2017-18

In the country where I live the football press is pregnant with pre-season flam. It can't wait to give birth to the new season, but for now is hampered by interviews in which every coach, player and manager is obliged to say that this year they have a really strong squad, and that all the lads worked very hard during training camp. The clubs are all in such good shape that clearly no one will be getting relegated next spring.

Cycling towards my first game of the season, I wish that referees could be afforded a platform for such inane optimism. "This year," I would tell the reporter from The Referee's Recorder, "I think that all players will be so focused on improving their game that they will allow the referees free rein to call the game as they see fit. We will see unprecedented levels of sportsmanship, and I doubt that I will have to whistle a single foul all season, let alone show a yellow card."

In fact what dulls my mood on a warm, breezy day is the prospect of all the inevitable cards and complaints over the coming months. This opener is a friendly game, but we've all learnt by now that classifying a football match as 'friendly' is like calling the civil war in Yemen a temperate discussion ground for some minor differences in interpreting the word of the Koran. Players don't tend to end the afternoon by swapping phone numbers and arranging to go out for a beer next week sometime.

Indeed, with 20 minutes to go I have to take both captains to one side and offer them a choice. Either I

Friday, 7 July 2017

Analysing IFAB's June report - the general verdict: Yes!

The report last month by the International Football Association Board on forthcoming trials and discussions with regard to the Laws of the game was met with customary scepticism by an instinctively conservative football press. Change? We can't be doing with that! And yet IFAB has been slated down the years for being exactly that - too stuck in its ways to make anything besides fussy, pernickety adjustments to the Laws that have served to confuse rather than clarify.

Elleray - progressive report (pic: Fifa.com)
All that has changed under the tutelage of former referee David Elleray, who has been prepared to listen and discuss. He sees the need for change, while accepting that this involves a long process of trial and debate. The report contains some excellent suggestions. First, let's take a look at some of the laws that will be tried out in FIFA tournaments and offer simple verdicts - Yes, No or Maybe:

1. Showing the red card (RC) and yellow card (YC) to team officials for irresponsible behaviour.
Verdict: Yes. There is no good reason not to do this. Coaches don't always understand the three-stage system of verbal warnings leading to dismissal. Most have never even heard of it.

"Me? I would
 
never waste time?"
2. A substituted player being required to leave the field at the nearest point on the touchline or goal line (to reduce the time lost/’wasted’ by the player walking slowly to the halfway line).
Verdict: Yes. Again, why not? Every weekend we see foot-dragging as players leave the field, shaking hands with the ref, applauding the crowd and arguing with opponents telling them to get a move on and leave the field.

3. At a goal kick and defending team free kick in their penalty area, the ball is in play when it is kicked and moves, i.e. no requirement for the ball to leave the penalty area before the defenders can play it – this is to encourage a faster and potentially more constructive restart of play.
Verdict: Yes. This will be one of those occasions when people ask, "Why did the old law exist in the first place?" Especially good for very young players who are always hampered and confused by this

Monday, 12 June 2017

2016-17 Review - Football and the Human Condition

Game 55, 2016-17

Most of us are doing
what we can...
It’s the last weekend of the season, and it ends up being another game when my expectations are confounded. These are not only two clubs I’ve had trouble with in the past, but the game is at boys’ U17 level - that age when hormones seem most volatile, and the urge to shove, kick or insult an opponent can override the threat of punishment. Just like last week, I issue a pre-match appeal for calm, sportsmanship and decency, and point out that we’d all like to reach the end of the season unscathed.

There’s a size and talent gap between the home and the away team, but they both play decent football. Lacking any subs, the away team tires in the second half on a hot afternoon. Unlike many teams in their age group, though, they don’t start kicking out in frustration, or to yell at each other’s mistakes. They keep passing the ball along the ground right until the final whistle. The young coach utters not a word in my direction all game.

We get through with just a single yellow card on either side – one for a second clumsy foul (away team), the other for chucking an opponent to the ground (home team). The latter offence happens ten minutes before time, with the home team already 6-1 ahead. “Hey, we’ve had none of that all

Monday, 5 June 2017

'Spin on this!' - When the ref strikes back

Game 54, plus tournament, 2016-17

Should referees ever lose their calm and take the low road? Absolutely not. Not ever. Which doesn't mean to say that it won't happen. On Saturday I felt, for the first time in over eight years of refereeing, that I didn't need to take the shit being thrown at me any more. It didn't help. In fact it almost lead to me being physically assaulted.

A festival, a jamboree, a day-long celebration
of the game and decent sporting values!
It's the time of year for corporate six-a-side tournaments, and I was one of several refs at an all-day jamboree spread out over eight mini-fields. It's also a good chance to exchange views and experiences with colleagues in the referees' tent, and the pay's generally a lot better than at our officially sanctioned games. The downside is that the tournaments follow a pattern as predictable as an unregulated teenage party when the parents are out of town for the weekend.

Things start peacefully at 9am. The sun's out and everyone's in a good mood, apart from the team in green, already marked out in the first 13-minute game of the day as serial moaners. For the first two hours, though, the consensus in the refs' tent is that it's all "very relaxed". But the weather's turning

Monday, 29 May 2017

Wishing all of you at Wankers FC a lovely, peaceful summer

Game 53, 2016-17

"Once apparently the chief concern and masterpiece of the gods," HL Mencken wrote, "the human race now begins to bear the aspect of an accidental by-product  of their vast, inscrutable and probably nonsensical operations." And that was without him ever having watched an amateur football match.

HL Mencken writes to Fifa
about reforming the offside law.
A visitor from another planet might have wandered past yesterday's game at the butt-end of a league so low that there's no way out but upwards, and rightfully asked, "What on your increasingly dysfunctional planet Earth is all the fuss about?"

Well, you might patiently explain to the alien, this is what we call a game. Games are played for leisure, fitness and entertainment purposes as an escape from the daily toil. It's the final day of the season, and the team in orange, who are mid-table, are hosting the team in green that is third from bottom.

"So the game in itself has no importance," muses the alien. Correct - it has absolutely none, you reply. "Then why," the baffled visitor continues, "are the men in green surrounding some of the men in orange and shoving them, and why is everyone shouting, and why is that older