Monday, 12 September 2016

"I'm going to break your neck"

Game 12, 2016-17

Before this game I'd only once been threatened with violence in eight years of refereeing. I sent off the coach of a boys U11 team who went nuclear over an apparent handball and didn't want to let it go. He also didn't want to leave the field. When he finally went he asked me if he should wait by my car. I should have called off the game right there and called the police, but two teams of ten-year-old boys were staring at me and I didn't want to create any further drama or ruin their Saturday morning.

Professionals setting a model 
example (Pic: Reuters)
Yesterday's threat was less nuanced. The usual Sunday afternoon scenario: two men's teams with little ability, a very bouncy plastic pitch, temperatures in the low 30s, lots of fouls, lots of moaning (mostly at each other, some aimed at me), the odd piece of football. A bullet-headed player on the away team becomes conspicuous by his general anger. After one foul against his team he screams and whacks the ball against one of the subs' benches out of frustration (fortunately there's no one sitting on it). I show him a yellow card and he looks at me and asks with genuine bewilderment, "What's that for?"

A few minutes later, the same thing - a free kick against
his team, he yells in frustration, kicks the ball again, though this time not as hard. It narrowly misses my head. I go to talk to him, and he claims he was just playing it back to the opponents so they could continue play as quickly as possible (his team were 4-1 down). I give him the benefit of the doubt.

Three minutes before time he starts a stramash after facing down and then pushing an opponent who's just fouled one of his team-mates. The team-mate is writhing dramatically on the ground, groaning in agony - this happens a lot, and almost every time the player is back up on his feet and playing again within two minutes. There's a brief mass confrontation, which I break up with the usual loud whistling and appeals for calm. At this point I should have shown the player a second yellow. But I'd sent off one of his team-mates a minute earlier, and the entire team are growling at me that I should now be sending off the player who just fouled the man on the ground (I gave him a yellow - it was a bad foul, but not bad enough for red). The game's nearly over, and in the interests of peace and harmony I again let him off.

My angry friend is standing right next to me at the final whistle a few minutes later. Rather than offer me his hand, he speculates that I was bribed by the home team. Now I finally show him that second yellow and then the red, just as he's walking away. He's incredulous. "Did you just show me a red card? I'm going to break your neck," he breathes, low and threatening. His team-mates pull him back. I walk away and back to the dressing room, protected by the home team. He continues to scream at me all the way across the adjacent field and back to the club house.

I'm outwardly calm, but my hand is shaking as I put the key in the changing room door. I lock myself in and try to gather myself. There's a huge commotion outside, lots of screaming. I pack my things and wait to leave. Somewhat comically, I'm escorted to my bicycle a short while later, but there's no sign of my would-be assailant.

And of course all you can think is, "Why on earth would any sane person spend his Sunday afternoons doing this?"

Final score: 4-2.

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