Monday, 27 November 2017

Spectators racially abusing a player - how should a ref react?

Game 28, 2017-18

When a player swears at someone in the crowd, it's supposed to be an automatic sending-off. Just before half-time in yesterday's game, the away team's left-winger is standing in front of a bunch of kids, aged around 5-12 years old, telling them furiously to "piss off" just before he takes a throw-in. I leniently show him the yellow card, but he barely seems to notice, he's still so steamed. Coming off the field at the break, I ask him what the problem was.

Lenient yellow proved to be a lucky call...
"One kid was spouting off anti-semitic insults," he says. "A ten-year-old kid!" That's problematic, as the home side is ethnically north African, while the visiting side is the city's principle Jewish club. I rescind the yellow card, and am very happy that I hadn't shown him the red. I also ask him to avoid slanging matches and come straight to me if there are any further incidents in the second half. Then together with a reluctant steward, I oversee the expulsion of the kids from the ground.

The game itself is fine, for once - the few moments of tension quickly de-escalate either through my intervention or the conciliatory behaviour of the players. Are they perhaps overtly aware of the potential uproar should there be any nasty incidents
between these two particular teams? I don't think it's just that - they all seem to be genuine sportsmen, on the whole. I have to almost apologetically send off a visiting defender for handballing a shot on the goal-line. The protests are courteous and quickly curtailed, perhaps helped by the fact that the team being punished is already 6-1 up.

With just over ten minutes left, though, the away winger is about to take a corner when he gestures me over. One elderly spectator, he says, had started calling him a "dirty cunt" and a "son of a whore". I refuse to continue the game until the stewards eject the man, which happens under loud and angry protest from the offender. I make it clear to the home club that if there's another incident, I'll terminate the game.

The coach of the away team is sanguine after the match. "It happens all the time," he says. "Then when we complain, they always say it was just a spectator, and that he was nothing to do with the club. We try and train the players not to react and just get on with the game." I tell him I think that's an absolute scandal, and I repeat that point in my detailed report to the local FA. Reports to the local FA, though, have a habit of being filed away and never heard of again.

I'd returned the day before from a conference hosted by the Football Collective at the University of Limerick - a stimulating two days of exchanging ideas and research, and discussing, among other themes, how football should strive to make the world a better, more tolerant place.

In the sheltered world of academia that's all very well, but the players in this game gave the impression that such a goal is more than mere idealistic folly. The spectators, less so. For every vile and poisonous insult shouted out loud, there could be several more lurking in the darker side of spectators' brains. That's why there must be no tolerance in football - at any level - for those who articulate their hate.

Final score:  2-7 (2 x yellow, 1 x red)

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