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 supported strike action, but you had no choice - if you'd been assigned to a youth game, you were now automatically withdrawn.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

Thursday, 22 February 2018

A nice sunset and a bog-standard shoving match

Game 37, 2017-18

Sometimes there's no story to tell, but at least there's a picture to show. What you do not sense from the photograph is the bone-cutting breeze that added an extra layer of chill to an already sub-zero evening. At half-time in this U19 friendly, the away coach - 4-1 down and with only ten starting players - made the case for a shortened second half. Neither I nor the home coach had any problem with that.

After another commendably discussion-free first half, the inevitable happened in the second - a couple of the away players started to get frustrated at the score-line and  committed deliberate, niggly fouls. This eventually resulted in a shoving match between two opposing teenagers, and the old fart with the whistle intervened to sort things out. Stern lecture, two yellows - the usual. The rest of the evening passed without incident, and at the final whistle we all trotted off a little quicker than usual to the warmth of the changing rooms.

When I got home I watched the second half of Sevilla v Manchester United. Hard to say which of these two games was more forgettable.

Final score: 9-1 (3 x yellow)

Monday, 19 February 2018

A 'soft' foul in the penalty area is still a penalty kick

Game 36, 2017-18

"And don't talk back to the referee!" I hear the home trainer instructing his U17 side just as I open the door to my changing room to step out and start the match. Sound advice.

And they don't, at least not to start with. This is the same club I reffed at on Valentine's Day, and clearly one with a generally healthy sporting culture. The first half passes without any major incident - no goals, no bookings, in a game of few chances contested by two well-matched teams. There's not a single sigh of dissent at any of the multiple free-kicks I blow for. If this keeps up, I'm going to start seriously enjoying my part-time job.

Careful with those arms
in the penalty area... (pic: N Lotze).
The second half would have passed just as quietly, had it not been for the two penalties. Both are conceded by the home team, and can only be described as 'soft', but they are clear fouls, committed right in front of me. Both times, a defender throws an opponent to the ground - not violently, just lazily. The first as the ball's flying overhead from a cross, the second as two players tussle for the ball after a corner kick. 

I've written before about players protesting penalty calls on soft fouls. "How can you give a penalty for that?" And I've written before that I have a certain sympathy - the weak foul didn't earn the harsh punishment of a spot-kick. But even a stupid and unnecessary foul is a foul, and if it's in the penalty area, it's a penalty kick. Go sing your laments on a hill-side in Zürich, but short of abolishing the penalty kick, Fifa's not changing the law on this any time soon.

So, I tell them all to shut up and back off. Both penalties are converted. The home team never really

Thursday, 15 February 2018

It's not hard to treat the ref like a human

Game 35, 2017-18

It's Valentine's Day and I have a date after dark, somewhere in the woods, with 22 younger women. Kick-off is 8pm. Mrs RT is not happy, but it's nothing to do with the younger women. I'm recovering from a heavy cold and she thinks I'm an idiot for going out to run around in temperatures just below the point of freezing.

Hot chocolate and
unromantic cards
for Valentine's.
She's probably right (she usually is), but I go anyway. It's not that I wouldn't rather stay at home in the warmth, eating the rest of last night's stew and watching Real v PSG. But once I've accepted a game, I hate to turn it back for any reason. The referees' assignors hate you doing that even more, and I completely understand their point of view. As a coach, I hate players crying off late with weak excuses, but they do it all the time. If this was a coaching rather than a refereeing blog I'd write a list here of all the best ones, while weeping and wondering why people ever bother volunteering for anything at all.

I like the home club - they're one of the few places to always give you a warm welcome and hand you a bottle of water without you having to ask. The key-grip to the referee's changing room looks like a murder weapon, but you never know when that might come in useful too. I sit down to get changed and am suddenly worried by a thought that hits me way too late. What if Mrs RT had come home tonight and been hoping to find candles, chocolates, cards and a three-course meal on the dining room table? The Full Valentine's Bollocks.

We did come to an agreement when we first met 23 years ago that neither of us was interested in all that crap. In fact on our very first Valentine's Day she more or less dumped me (the old-fashioned

Monday, 12 February 2018

Deliberately making the wrong decision

Game 34, 2017-18

On Saturday I gave a free kick when I should have given a penalty. There are no excuses for consciously making the wrong decision, but I'm going to explain it anyway.

The home team was leading 9-0 in a boys' U19 match. I had already awarded them three penalties. One had been saved and two converted. Their opponents simply were not good enough to take the ball off them. The home team's right-winger dribbled the ball towards the penalty area at speed. As he reached the area he was tripped, right on the line. I indicated that the foul had taken place just outside the area and awarded a free kick. No one complained.

The truth is, I was too embarrassed for the away team to award another spot-kick. Four in one game? How could you be so poor as to concede four penalties? My decision didn't trouble me. It was 9-0 in a friendly match. Perhaps the home team would appreciate the chance to try out a free-kick routine rather than bang home their tenth goal of the afternoon.

If the score had been 3-3, or if it had been a competitive game for points, I would have awarded a fourth penalty. So how can a referee justify deliberately making an erroneous call? I don't know. An

Monday, 5 February 2018

A friendly club - except when they're playing friendlies

Games 31-33, 2017-18

The end of the winter break is approaching and the fixture list is gradually filling with friendlies. I return to the club where last time around I sent off the home coach and three players, one of whom threw his shirt in my face and then had to be restrained from attacking me. Has he been banned for life? No, he's in the starting line-up, and is standing at the halfway line with his team-mates having a light-hearted chat with me prior to kick-off about just how nut-numbingly cold it is.

"Last time I was here I showed four red cards," I remind them. They smile at this fond memory and tell me there will be none of that kind of behaviour today. After all, it's just a friendly. The player who threw his shirt in my face looks me in the eye and says, "The guy you sent off that time won't be causing you any trouble. He's not playing today." Either he's thinking of another game, or he's hoping that I don't remember his face (I do), or that I didn't check if his name was on the team-sheet before I left the house (I did). Or, more worryingly, he has two separate personalities.

In the spirit of friendship, it was back to
 liberally dishing out these at the weekend
They're an odd fucking bunch, right enough. They joke with me before the game, and afterwards too. In between, they are almost exclusively unpleasant. There are two borderline red card fouls that I let off lightly with yellow cards and stern warnings. My friend with the faulty memory gets a yellow for a rash challenge too ("Yeah, but what about that foul back there by the other team that you didn't card yadder yadder" - I get this after every yellow, almost every game). A forward goes in the book for not once, but twice, deliberately trying to score with his hand. Again, in a competitive game that would have been a yellow-red.

And then there's the super-friendly number nine, who's constantly telling his team-mates to calm down as they moan at each other, try to provoke the opposition (who remain commendably unprovoked throughout), and whine at my decisions. He scores two goals right after the break to

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

A simple law to curb excessive goal celebrations

Last weekend, for my sins, I went with my Dad to watch Gainsborough Trinity play Alfreton Town, two teams at the lower end of the English regional sixth division (National League North). Gainsborough haven't had much success lately, so when they went 1-0 up after half an hour the celebrations were more than you might expect at this level. The goal scorer sprinted towards the home bench and jumped into the arms of his coach. The rest of the team followed and there was an almighty love-in.

My dad, who's very much old school when it comes to sporting behaviour, groaned at this excessive display, just as he'd loudly objected earlier to one of the Gainsborough players trying to get the referee involved in a long and pointless discussion about the exact place where an opponent's free-kick was about to be taken. The Alfreton players, meanwhile, had spotted that the Gainsborough players were now all in their own half, emoting by the bench. They had the ball at the centre spot and were ready for a quick restart.

They looked to the referee for a signal. And according to the laws of the game, he should have let them play. They would have had a clear run on goal, aside from maybe the home side's goalkeeper. But the referee refused to give the signal for the restart until all the Gainsborough players had finished hugging each other and had lined back up in position.