Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Game of Deception

The English Football Association's (FA) decision to investigate allegations that referee Mark Clattenberg racially abused Chelsea players has led to calls that referees should be ‘miked up’, as they are in both rugby codes. The argument is that doing this would create an environment where both players and referees would be less inclined to trade insults, if they knew that their words were being recorded.

While such a system would help players abused by a referee, it is questionable whether such a system would help referees, even if managed correctly. A system whereby what is said can be reviewed by the referee might help them to sanction players for use of offensive language, if such language falls within the coverage of the microphone. However, it could also undermine the referee by allowing a player to call a decision into question. Referees might refrain from sanctioning players for fear of getting it wrong.

You have to also question why football would want to record what is said during the heat of the game. Referees are already linked to linesmen and other officials by microphone, so any inappropriate comments would be picked up by them. The balance of power is already too far weighted towards the player. Referees are routinely abused by players and the crowd (name your chant) during a game, yet no action is taken. When one allegation surfaces that a referee might have abused a player, talks begin about changing the system. FIFA and the FA have already undermined the referee’s authority by employing goal-line technology to assess the four incorrect goal-line incidents that typically occur during a season.

It might also backfire. If players know that their peers are listening, they might compete to see who can record the best insult during a game, or who can get closest to the line of what is deemed acceptable. The ingrained respect for the referee in rugby doesn’t exist in football, as anyone is allowed to contest a decision (in rugby, only the captain can do this).

Referee microphones also fails to address the bigger problem, which is that football has become a game of deception. The competitiveness of the modern game coupled with the money involved mean that players and managers are seeking whatever slim advantages they can gain over their opponents, and football is allowing them to do this by not giving the referee the necessary tools to do his job. I have heard supporters and commentators berating players for not going down during heavy challenges. Fooling the referee, through diving and other methods, has already become a key part of many players' games. The dictionary definition of 'fool' is 'one who is deficient in judgment, sense, or understanding' - hardly consistent with respect.

Football needs to act to empower referees, rather than taking power away from them. As I have suggested before, a fairer system would be to allow team captains to refer three decisions per game for review, either on a big screen or via another method. That way, if there is a disputed incident that leads to a key goal, the referee has a chance to correct incidents of diving, feigning, incorrect offside decisions, handball, goal-line incidents, unseen fouls etc. without undermining his position by taking away his power to make that decision. The Chelsea v Manchester United game might not have been so heated if Clattenberg had the option of reviewing Javier Hernandez’s goal, which was offside.

Almost all other sports allow for decisions to be reviewed by the referee, which means that player attempts to deceive the referee can backfire. The longer football supports a game based on deception, the more ingrained the lack of respect for officials will become.

Andy Brown


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