Monday, 8 August 2016

"Last time we played this team the ref fucked us over"

Game 3, 2016-17

First league game of the season, and it's a very local derby. The two small towns are separated by three kilometres of road, and several fields of corn. I set off in the naive belief that it will be a celebratory summer festival. After a lively game played in great spirit, the hearty locals will toast each other while quaffing copious beers and chewing on browned meat from an open grill. They won't care about the result. I picture myself standing among them, spinning great yarns from my refereeing travels, enjoying a couple of ales and some roasted pig before they bid me a cheery farewell.
"Sorry mate, got to go and
check the corner flags."

Well, that's how a whimsical film director might have scripted it. The reality is as grim as the away team's assistant coach who comes over to brief me while I'm warming up. "There's a fierce rivalry and a lot of bad blood between our two teams," he says gravely. "Last season we lost here 2-1 because the referee fucked us over." He proceeds to describe in great detail what happened, something to do with a red card and a free-kick. "Sounds like the ref had an off day," I reply cheerfully. "It can happen to all of us. Maybe it'll happen to me today." And with that I run off to check the corner flags.

It's the last time I speak to the away team's assistant coach,
though I hear him screaming at me a couple of times during the course of the game. It's hard to make him out, though, because the derby has attracted a crowd of around 150, most of them crammed into the shady protection of a small stand, while others sit beneath trees and bushes. They make a lot of noise. If I blow for offside (I have no linesmen), around half of them howl at me in despair. It's a micro-version of the big time, and I love every minute, despite the heat and the dead-eyed intensity of the players.

The away team's striker puts his side 2-1 up just before half-time after dribbling around the keeper. He does a little celebratory dance right in front of the still prostrate goalie, and I think about a yellow card for unsporting behaviour. But he breaks it off after less than a second in order to get mobbed by his team-mates. It's very rare to have to chivvy celebrating players back to the halfway line in the leagues where I work. Overall, though, they just about behave themselves - five yellow cards, and a few niggly square-ups. Once or twice there is even an outbreak of sportsmanship.

At the end it's 3-3, a pretty fair result, though neither side is happy. Clearly both teams wanted the opportunity to gloat and conspicuously ululate in front of their neighbours. A spectator yells something at me as I leave the pitch - something about not showing a yellow card. The nicest thing about being yelled at by a spectator is being able to walk right past him or her as though I haven't heard a thing. Because we are neutral, and the best thing about being neutral is not having to give a fuck about the final result. I'm just happy when I'm not surrounded by a crowd of angry players.

In towns like these are are always a lot of older spectators who've been involved with the team for decades. They are the memory and conscience of the club. One revered elder stops me in the bar and asks me where I'm from. I'm on new territory today, and so he wants some background on an unfamiliar face. At the end of our exchange he says, "Your performance today was respectable. Enjoy the rest of your weekend." There's no beer, no barbecue, no village festival, but I feel like I've been awarded the freedom of the town.

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