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

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Why do I referee?

Refereeing at the amateur level is a barely compensated activity that affords us much loud and personal abuse, and often provokes the question among friends, relatives and neutrals: "Why in the name of all that's profane do you spend your weekend doing that?" I have no idea, is my stock response. Joking aside, though, I really have no idea. That is, when I look at it dispassionately sitting safely at my computer terminal. In reality, I'm no closer to giving up than I was the day that I started nine years ago. 

This week I was interviewed on a number of football-related topics by Mike Woitalla of Soccer America, who asked me about the difference between refereeing in Germany and the US, my favourite idea for a change to the Laws of the Game, and why I referee at all.

SOCCER AMERICA: You've been living in Germany now for three years after living 16 years in Washington, D.C. Anything you miss about American soccer -- as a writer, fan, coach, referee or soccer parent?
As a referee and coach, I miss the generally calmer atmosphere of U.S. youth soccer. In Germany, it's always intense, at times intimidating, and occasionally downright violent -- in both youth and adult soccer. I'm trying to inculcate the importance of sporting values to my boys' U-15 team -- getting them to stay calm when fouled, or to shake the ref's hand at the end of the game, for example. It's a more or less permanent struggle. In my first year as a referee here, I almost quit several times. Now I've developed a very thick skin and write a blog to offload and have found that's really helped, but the change was a huge culture shock for me.
SA: If you could change a rule in soccer, what would it be?
Ten-minute time penalties for dissent. At the moment, the rule is a yellow card for "dissent by word or action," but it's only enforced in the most extreme cases. If I cautioned every case of dissent in my German amateur league games the field would be deserted after 30 minutes. I'd love to see referees respected as they are in rugby -- a single word to the ref and you're out to the sin-bin. If rugby players can do it, soccer players can learn it too.
SA: Why did you start refereeing and why do you continue?
For one season, my eldest daughter was on a travel team in the U.S. (she hated it and went back to rec) and they needed parents to train as assistant referees, so I volunteered. I was assigned to a tournament and really enjoyed it, so I straightaway trained to become a center ref too, and quickly realized that after more than 35 years as a player I didn't know half of the Laws of the Game (like most players). Despite the abuse, I'm in my 10th year of refereeing, and I keep doing it because I love being out on the soccer field -- most days, it's where I feel like I belong, where I'm happiest.

Monday, 26 February 2018

The fusion of Reason (the referee) and Emotion (the player)

Game 38, 2017-18

Let's say that in theory the referee represents Reason, and that the players represent Emotion. The (uncorrupted) referee has no interest in the outcome of any given game, as it's their job to rationally and neutrally implement the rules.

Meanwhile, the players have only two goals in mind - the success of themselves and their team. The desire to score and win is driven by feelings of loyalty and ambition. Anything that thwarts that ambition provokes frustration and even anger (I know this because I played for 40 years).

"Hey, Roald, lend the
ref yer coat, will ya?"
A referee must accept that, as the anchor of reason, they are going to come into conflict with the mental tipping point of performers who, in their dreams, imagine themselves as heroes, even if only for a few hours among a small group of people wearing the same coloured shirt. That's an integral part of the game. There are days, though, when the precarious balance between reason and emotion makes no sense at all. Days when I'm pushed to get emotional too.

On Saturday night it was colder than it's been all winter - minus 7 degrees, with that same persistently penetrative wind that's been chilling our fibres since the middle of last week. And yet again I had the immense privilege of refereeing a one-sided U19 boys friendly match for the vast reward of €14, while all sensible folk were huddled in front of the football highlights or drinking beer somewhere warm. I'm sure I wasn't the only one who didn't want to be there. That's just by way of background.

The second half ran to form. The away team fell four, five, six goals into arrears, and started fouling instead of trying to play. They picked up a few bookings and a time penalty. Two opponents squared