Monday, 13 March 2017

Three red cards and some issues of racial awareness

Games 40-41, 2016-17

Some days, this seems like time
better spent than refereeing. 
Sometimes I get assigned to a game out of town, and when I look at the laughably christened Fair Play Table, my heart sinks a little and I think I know why I'm being given the treat of a longer trip. Yesterday I was sent to officiate between teams who, in the disciplinary rankings, were third bottom (the home team) and bottom (away). This is in a league of very few angels, where you have to be almost conscientiously deviant to hit last place.

I presume that the idea is to ship an unknown ref in for a potentially explosive game, then let him flee the scene never to be heard of again in that neck of the woods. It's true there are some players you encounter on a weekend afternoon you'd might not want to meet on the street late on a week day night. I've retained a clear image in my head of the player who threatened to break my neck last autumn. You know, just in case.

I talk with the referee who's just officiated the game before me, between the reserve teams of the same two clubs. How was it, I ask. He shrugs. "Well," he says of the away team. "They're..." And he
names their nationality, like it's understood. I say that in my experience, there are no national boundaries to foul play, mean tempers and crass stupidity. Well yes, he replies a little guiltily, I suppose that's true.

Before kick-off I wish both teams a fair and sporting encounter, but I might as well have been standing on an empty beach spitting at an on-rushing tsunami. Right from the start they set about fouling each other. Almost every challenge ends in a free-kick, and almost every free-kick is subject to dispute, particularly from the away team. I give out a couple of verbal warnings about the level of dissent, but it's like telling a flock of starving vultures to please leave that cow's rotting carcass alone on the grounds that it should be granted a dignified burial.

Hey lads, play fair with that carcass now!
After half an hour I've had enough of the away team's central midfielder wittering on, and I book him for dissent. He says, "Are you biased against us because we're..." and he names their nationality. "What are you accusing me of?" I ask back, loudly and expressing the necessary outrage at having had both my partiality and my world view called into question. He walks away. Can you call a game off and then call a lawyer to instigate a case for slander? 

By half-time it's 1-0 to the home team, with two yellow cards on each side. It would take a colossal entry to document all the ways that the away team in particular infringe the values of sporting conduct, fair play and respect, but suffice to say that by the final whistle, they are three men down. Two go for yellow-red offences involving varying degrees of dissent and dirty play, and one player gets a straight red for deliberately following through on a tackle some weeks after the ball was played. When down to nine men they equalise in injury time through a gratuitous own goal and celebrate like they've made more than just a point.

One of those yellow-red cards provokes a scene I've not yet dealt with as a referee. I send off the away team's captain - already booked for screaming at me for the second time about an offside non-call - after he scythes through a home team forward. The away players surround the forward, who is black, and accuse him of having made a meal out of it. The fouled player remains calm, and I intervene and send them away. One of the away team's defenders mutters a racial epithet that I'm almost sure that I hear correctly, although he is now too far away from the scene for anyone else to have heard.

Did I bottle doing this?
If I'd shown him the straight red, it would have not only meant yet another angry scene right there on the field, but also a long disciplinary process over the coming weeks. It would have been my word against his, and because he only muttered it, I could not with full conviction say that I definitely heard the words I think that I heard. Instead I follow him, with the red card in my hand, and ask him if he's prepared to repeat what he just said. Of course he pretends not to know what I'm talking about. I look him in the eye and warn him not to utter one more word for the rest of the game - it's maybe an unsatisfactory solution, but the best I can come up with in the already fraught circumstances.

Another question. If I had red-carded and then reported this player for his comment, should I not also have reported my fellow referee for his remark prior to the game? Should I not do that anyway?

After the game, which finishes 1-1 after seven minutes of added time (because many bad fouls lead to many injuries), the player who got the straight red card comes to my changing room to apologise, claiming that the foul was "unintentional". I thank him, but say that wasn't how it looked from where I was standing five yards away. He's brought his small son along to project the image of an easy-going family man. Which he probably is. The football field can do wicked things to a man's mind.

I give the player passes back to a representative of the away team standing outside their dressing room. How long will the red-carded player be banned, he asks? I tell him I don't know, it's not up to me. "He's one of the club chairmen," he says, and both of us and several by-standers burst out laughing. As the sun goes down behind the trees, casting lanky shadows over the now peaceful pitch, at least we all share that common outlet.

Final score: 1-1 (four yellow cards, two yellow-reds, one red)

Game 40, Saturday: 3-2 (no cards)

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