Friday, 14 September 2018

Time-wasting and dissent - new laws for Fifa to consider

Happens too rarely - yellow for time-wasting
"Before taking a throw-in, free kick or goal kick, adjust your sock. And then adjust your other sock," a professional coach I used to work with in the US once told my edlest daughter's team. It was advice on defending a narrow lead in a recreational league. The players were 14 years old.

Like the perpetual sore of dissent, tedious time-wasting has become deeply embedded in football at all levels. There are sanctions to punish both, but they are not strictly applied because referees do not want to look overly officious for handing out serial yellow and red cards. The more that dissent and time-wasting have become an accepted staple of football, the harder they've become to punish.

Right after this summer's World Cup, the editor of Germany's kicker magazine, Rainer Holzschuh, wrote a series of proposals to counter time-wasting and unsporting conduct. Here's what he wrote in the July 16th. edition:

1. After a free-kick is awarded, no player on the team that has committed the offence is permitted to touch the ball. Punishment: yellow card. (Holzschuh doesn't mention the standard practice of standing in front of the ball to prevent a quickly taken free-kick. In refereeing clinics, we are taught this shouldn't be seen as an offence in itself - only if the encroaching player moves towards the ball and touches it after a quick free-kick is executed. Maybe it's time to re-think and clarify/strengthen this Law too.)

2. After a penalty is awarded, all players must immediately leave the penalty area bar the keeper and the kick-taker. Goalkeepers may not leave the six-yard box - to prevent them trying to put the kick-taker off. (Holzschuh stipulated no punishment here, but a yellow to a player on both teams would seem like a good way to send the necessary signal. Same for the goalkeeper.)

3. Any player whose injury causes an interruption in play must leave the field of play for at least two minutes.

4. When players are protesting, the referee can give a clear signal, after which all players must immediately back off. Punishment: yellow card. 

5. Coaches who - after an initial warning - continue to protest a referee's decisions, must be sent to the stands. Likewise when they try to rile the crowd up.

"The match officials cordially invite you to
 enjoy an improved view of the game."
Whatever you think of the above suggestions, there's no denying that, from a coach's point of view, both dissent and time-wasting are often effective. The former to intimidate and influence a weak referee, the latter because it is never properly punished (how many times does a goalkeeper have to faff about at a goal kick before he sees a yellow card? Usually at least three), and the requisite amount of time is rarely added on. 

Such antics used to be considered 'professional' behaviour only seen at the higher levels of football. The financial incentives were used to justify all unsportsmanlike conduct. Now that this conduct has spread all the way down to the most junior amateur leagues, it is time to take urgent action and enforce new Laws from the very top of the game all the way down to the shitty leagues where underpaid idiots like myself are roundly abused week after week.

Although he was an excellent teacher of technique, the professional coach and I parted ways not long after he began to explain the use of deliberate fouls to the teenage girls. My eldest daughter is now 22, and still loves to play recreational football.

You can order Referee Tales author Ian Plenderleith's new book 'The Quiet Fan' here for £9.99.

Monday, 30 July 2018

Same old shit - opening game is my closer

Game 1, 2018-19

All through Friday night's game I had 'Someone Out There' by Rae Morris going through my head, but it should really have been a much uglier song, by Eels. So instead of hearing a recurrent, "Someone out there loves yoooooo" through 90 minutes, I'd have been mentally singing to myself, "I'm tired of the old shit/Let the new shit begin."

Rae contends that someone out
 there loves a referee. Somewhere.
It's a 'friendly' game between a level 8 men's team and the U19 squad of the city's third largest club. The lads are a step quicker and smarter than the men, and so the latter - who are knackered after 30 minutes - resort to fouling, and then moaning at me when I call them out. The game becomes fractious and there are already three yellow cards before half-time - one for dissent, and two for unsporting behaviour when two players square up to each other and refuse my suggestion to kiss and make up. So far, so predictable.

There are two archetypal incidents for football at this level. First, the U19 team score their second goal just before half-time on a through-pass. The men's team shout as one for offside, except for their number 99, who has been too slow to move up (possibly weighed down by his number). I shout "Play on!" and point at the number 99. When the goal has been scored, several players on the men's

Thursday, 21 June 2018

The Greatest Goal Never

A World Cup short story by Ian Plenderleith, presented by Referee Tales

Some people say that being a referee is like working in the sewers. No one wants to do it, and all you get is shit. And yet, some of us are willing to muck in where it stinks. Where there's nothing to see and smell but a torrent of human effluent. Yeah, you're welcome.
    Let me say from the start that I was sent home from the World Cup for doing my job properly. That’s the truth and the whole story in one short sentence. There is not a single piece of cinematic or photographic evidence to even suggest that I made the wrong decision. And that’s because I didn’t make the wrong decision. Ah, people say, but you couldn’t have known that at the time. Well, of course I couldn’t have known for sure at the time. It was a very close call. But every replay, no matter how much you all wished it otherwise, proved beyond any doubt that I was right to raise my flag. Each time they re-ran it, frame-by-frame in the slowest of motions, the pundits reluctantly reached the exact same conclusion. The decision was correct, and no one can ever take that away from me.
    Centre ref Phil O’Hara's voice came over the headset while incensed Colombian players surrounded me, all screaming in Spanish as I withstood the kinetic hatred of their glistening, maddened eyeballs. I know just enough of that language to understand that I was the bastard offspring of a syphilitic street-whore. I was unmoved, though disappointed that Phil didn't come over to hold them back and card at least one of the mouthy fuckers for dissent. 
    “You're 100 per cent sure, Mick,” he half-stated, half-asked. I told him firmly that I stood by my call, but he could send it upstairs to the video ref if he wanted. Right at that moment I was really happy that we had the video assistant. If it backed me up, I was vindicated. If I was marginally in error, we were off the hook. Phil, though, didn't like the extra help. He's a top-class ref, but really

Monday, 4 June 2018

Every week another asshole

Games 47-48, 2017-18

The first half of this boys' U15 game is the most peaceful I've refereed all season. There are only two fouls, and a mild query from the away team about a possible offside on the home team's first goal. As is often the case, the defenders have turned around to see that a player with the ball has outsmarted them. I tell them that he wasn't offside when the ball was played, and we get ready for the re-start without any further discussion.

Their coach is much more vociferous. From his ideal standpoint 50 yards from the play I hear him yelling. I ignore him.

Always worth reprinting this one.
At half-time, with his team 3-0 down, he walks over to me and starts complaining about the offside decision, and not in a civilised way. "It's because I'm a shit ref," I reply mildly. He hesitates for a second, then starts to moan about something else, but I interrupt him and say, "I told you already. It's because I'm just a shit ref. What can you do about it?" Then I walk away to my changing room (broken into during the first half, but nothing taken because I hide my phone well and never bring my wallet with me when I ref).

In the second half, the angry coach's previously polite and well-behaved team decides to follow the adult's example and, the more goals they concede, the more disrespectful and insolent they become,

Monday, 28 May 2018

Missing, presumed dead - Fair Play

Game 46, 2017-18

The home team in this boys' U17 game is bottom of the league with six points, and bottom of the Fair Play table with many more. The two often go hand in hand - the team currently at the top of this league is also first in Fair Play. There are obvious reasons why a well-disciplined XI performs better on the field.

Slogans with good intentions -
but they change fuck all.
I talk to the home side's coach before the game. He explains that he only took the team over two weeks ago, and is preparing them already for next season. "Things have been a bit chaotic," he says. And when the game starts, you can see why a change of coach was necessary. Their understanding of the offside law is non-existent, and their position in the Fair Play standings truly reflects their sourpuss, foul-based approach to football. Again, what a privilege to referee such a game for €14.

The away team, in sixth place, has no problem catching their opponents offside again and again, to the sound of much screaming from the home team's parents. I'm not sure if they're yelling at the number nine who's consistently caught out, the players who pass to him, or at me for calling it. Probably all three. But I've been in a state of numbed indifference to almost everything since the last game two weeks ago, so I pay them no attention.

The course of the game is predictable. The home team fall three goals behind, and in the face of summer heat and frustration at their own incompetence they start to get nasty. There's a rash of

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Stormy skies, multiple reds and murder

Games 44-45, 2017-18

It's quiet and sultry in the park, with death and distant storms in the air. Two teams of men lazily warm themselves up for the 1pm kick-off. Four days earlier, just a few hundred yards from where we're about to play sport, a dog-walker found the body of a 29-year-old woman. Life must go on, though - this end-of-season dead rubber at the middle to lower end of the city's bottom league abjures all musings on mortality. After all, there's 13th place to defend.

"But ref, I was trying to play the ball!"
It doesn't take long for the afternoon to plummet from meaningless kick-about to a prolonged and rabid expression of collective outrage. It's all my fault, of course, when in the ninth minute an away defender chooses to upend the home team's forward, who's through on goal in the penalty area and about to shoot. It was I who personally wrote the rules saying that the denial of a clear goal-scoring opportunity is a red card offence. And no, there was no attempt at all to play the ball, which was far beyond the lugging defender's reach. It was a cynical, calculated trip.

The red-carded player and his team-mates all surround me, shouting and gesticulating. I've rarely been less moved by such a display of raw emotion. The home team converts the penalty and the away team spends the rest of the afternoon playing the victim, penalised by the mean referee who's

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

"We could either be nutters, or a club where you can bring the family"

Game 43, 2017-18

Just over a year I wrote about a game where I red-carded three players from the away team on a particularly hostile afternoon, even by the standards of this region’s amateur leagues. Last October I reffed them again, with barely a problem aside from one yellow card for dissent. Yet while they had become more sanguine, they had crashed to the bottom of the league, having no points from 13 games, with an impressive Goals Against tally of 106.

Time for a change.
This past Sunday I was assigned to ref  them once more, on a well-kempt grass field surrounded by four steps of terracing. A beautiful little football ground on a stunning afternoon. Meanwhile, the team has undergone its second complete transformation in just over a year. They’re good again (having soared up to second from bottom with 21 points), but still calm. “They’ve got eight new players,” the opposition’s low-key coach tells me before the game, resigned to the fact that his side is meeting them just at the wrong time – as they're hitting form.

I like this bloke a lot. He also tells me that if any of his players get carded for dissent, he slaps them with a fat fine. If he disagrees with any of my decisions, the away coach promises, then he won’t yell

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Video evidence should prompt reform of the offside law

I once wrote a short story narrated by a linesman who disallows the best goal of all time. It's a slick, 33-pass move, followed by a mazy, Messiesque dribble, then an audacious cross that ends with a spectacular, Ronaldoesque overhead kick. The linesman flags for offside, and the TV replays prove him correct. But only by a negligible margin of an inch or two. His decision is spot on, according to the rules, but he's globally vilified for being the man who cancels out what is inarguably the most brilliant move in the history of football. 

Lines the linesman cannot
see. Do we need them?
This story rolled around my head and was forgotten long before the introduction of video evidence, but now its moral again seems pertinent. In the Bundesliga this season, goals have been celebrated by fans, only for their joy to be annulled minutes later by a cold, factual look at the video evidence. Most famously, Cologne's very late 'winner' against Hanover was (correctly) overturned for offside by the video referee, while an earlier incident when a Cologne player was erroneously called offside in a goal-scoring position was ignored - presumably because it would have been impossible to bring play back (one of many flaws in the video evidence system). 

A reader's letter in this week's kicker bemoans the use of video evidence to correct offside decisions as yet another step in diminishing football's role as 'the people's game'. Siegfried Müller of Karlsruhe argues that football can easily dispense with arguing about marginal decisions. "The law should be

Monday, 23 April 2018

A weekend of strikes, anger and disappointment

Games 40-42, 2017-18

After more than a month off refereeing due to a combination of bad weather, illness and holidays, I was set to return to the field this weekend. Then my refereeing body called us out on strike (youth games only) to protest a physical attack last week against one of our members during a boys' U17 game. Nonetheless, I was still in charge of four games this weekend, one way or another, and all of them reflected to varying degrees the still toxic football atmosphere in my city.

The time has come...
I supported the strike and the reasons for it, even though the action was not even discussed (let alone voted on), as it should have been, at our monthly referees' meeting last Tuesday. Not all referees  supported strike action, but you had no choice - if you'd been assigned to a youth game, you were now automatically withdrawn.

On Friday evening, before the strike has started, I ref a boys' U17 game. The home coach introduces herself to me one minute before kick-off, just as she's bringing her team back in from warming up. "Kick-off's at six," I say, pointing out that the away team is already out and ready. She shrugs. I add that I have plans tonight, looking at my watch, but I might as well have been reading her the Confucian Classics in their original Chinese. We kick off eight minutes late.

At half-time, though, she's much keener to talk, appearing at my changing room door with her team 0-3 down. "You need to watch out for offside," is her opening line, with courtesy still far from being her strongest point. Oh, really? Offside? What's that? I never bother with it, you know. Just let the

Monday, 12 March 2018

The problem with teenage boys...

Game 39, 2017-18

When I was a young father people used to look at my daughters and ask me, “Don’t you ever wish you’d had a boy?” I used to reply with a short and truthful “No,” while resisting the urge to tell them to shut the fuck up insulting my children by implying that they’re the wrong sex.

“Well, wait until they’re teenagers,” these fatbergs of wisdom would knowingly fart on. “Then you’ll wish you’d had boys.” It turned out they were wrong again. And having coached and refereed teenage players of both genders, and having once been a teenage boy myself, I can only feel grateful for having avoided living with these fluid-shipping, hormonal wrecking balls masquerading as the Lord of the Big Fucking Cock. 

Pelé and Garrincha - you have to
 be about this good to skip training.
On Friday I tell three players on my U15 team they can’t play at the weekend because they missed both training sessions last week, and didn't take the trouble to let me know why. One immediately texts and says he is sorry, but he’d been injured. The second eventually calls and sort of apologises. The third one writes in the team’s WhatsApp group that we will surely lose because now “shit players” are getting picked ahead of him, the standby Garrincha.

I delete him from the group, suspend him for four weeks from the club, and tell him that he can play again once he’s apologised in person to the entire team. He replies by asking when he can have his player pass back so that he can find a new team. Yeah, good luck with that. Trainers everywhere just love a 14-year-old