Thursday, 8 September 2016

The referee's fear of the penalty

Game 10, 2016-17

Four minutes to go, the score's 2-3 in a furious and foul-ridden boys' under-17 game, and I blow for a penalty to the home team. It's an unnecessary foul from the defender, who stands his ground and then backs into a forward as he's jumping for the ball. The forward goes arse over tit and lands in a heap. I'm five yards away - a clear foul, a clear penalty.

Yet again, the ref uses his special powers to force
 a defender to commit a foul in the penalty area.
The away team sees it differently. Five players surround me and yell. Their bench is up on its feet, expressing solidarity through raised arms and rubicund outrage. It's been like this the whole second half, from both teams. Amazingly, I don't change my mind. I show a yellow to the loudest dissenter and they back off. The home team converts the penalty.

I'm not fond of penalties. So often the foul doesn't fit the punishment. Once I was reffing a men's game and a defender committed a soft foul at the top corner of the penalty area, seven minutes after kick-off. I blew for the spot kick, and the captain pleaded, "You can't give that, we've only just kicked off!" In a way, I sympathised. I'm sure he and his defender would have liked to go back ten seconds to make it not happen. His team didn't deserve to go 1-0 down for such a pointless infringement.

Referees often don't make these calls, reasoning exactly that - a 'soft' foul isn't worth a penalty kick. But a foul's a foul. If you'd call it in any other part of the pitch, you should call it in the penalty area too, provided you're 100% sure it was a foul. The problem for referees is that, like last night, we then have to take the blame for the foul. As though I had used my mental powers to control the defender and make him back into the forward. God forbid that his trainer talk to him about why he committed an anodyne offence in such a dangerous area of the field.

"You lost control of the game in the second half," the away team coach tells me afterward. I walk away without telling him what's on my mind in that second (I can exclusively now reveal it was: "Ah, go fuck yourself, you arsehole."). Another way of looking at it would be to say that he lost control of his team, as did the home bench.

Mass dissent - always a fun moment for all
involved (image: worldsoccer.com)
Fired on by the bellicose reaction of the coaches to every foul (and there were multiple trips, shirt-pulls and illegal shoves), the behaviour of the players deteriorated, leading to more fouls and more dissent, and a deeply unpleasant atmosphere overall. In the first half there were no cards, because I was a touch too lenient and giving the players the benefit of the doubt - I genuinely don't like giving out cards. In the second half I handed out eight yellows and issued multiple appeals for the players and the coaches to calm down. Aside from abandoning the match, there wasn't a lot else I could do.

It's a ridiculous cliché I can remember hearing in the stands at professional games as a kid. The ref would show a couple of cards, there might be a flare-up, and an old bloke would turn around to another old bloke behind him and say knowingly, "The ref's lost control." The other old fellow, usually smoking a pipe, would concur with a nod born of wisdom and experience. It's not the wankers kicking opponents and squaring up to each other who are losing control. It must be the referee.

After a long inquisition at the final whistle - the away players laugh with open contempt when I explain the penalty decision - I walk back to the changing room feeling that, for €14, I could have better stayed at home sitting opposite a mirror and laughing at my own reflection. "Well reffed," says one kind spectator as I leave the pitch. "Don't let the bastards get to you."

That makes me think of the young referee I met before the game, who'd just done a boys U13 match. He's still in high school, and has only been reffing since the start of the year. He thought refereeing would be a good way for him to stay involved in the game when he stops playing. "Are you enjoying it?" I asked him. "Not really," he replied. "I'm thinking of packing it in." Why? "The coaches," he said, without hesitation. "They never stop complaining." Soon they'll be able to complain that there's no one left to ref their sorry games.

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