Offside

'The crisis of refereeing authority is one of FIFA's own making. The more disciplinary powers referees have been given, the more their authority has been undermined.'

Duleep Allirajah

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The dismissal of Wycombe’s Steve Brown, for removing his shirt to celebrate his team’s winning goal against Leicester in the FA Cup quarter-final on 10 March 2001, has been widely condemned (particularly after Brown revealed that he only wanted to display a vest bearing the name of his chronically ill son).

Ironically, Steve Brown was given his marching orders on the same day that FIFA, the world football governing body, decided that players who strip off to celebrate a goal would no longer be cautioned. FIFA also urged all leagues to employ professional referees in a bid to repair the damaged authority of the men in black (and sometimes green).

But any initiative that leaves untouched the disciplinary regime at the root of the problem seems bound to fail.

Journalist Ian Ridley thinks video replays should be used to aid difficult decisions because ‘The game is simply too quick for one referee these days’ (1). But video replays would not have prevented Steve Brown’s red card; the fact that he whipped off his shirt was never in dispute.

TV pundit Ron Atkinson advocates a ‘three-strikes-and-out’ system, which would allow players two cautions before a dismissal (2). This idea might prevent the worst injustices, where two mistimed tackles can earn a player an early bath (‘I’ll tell you what, the ref’s had an absolute shocker’, as Big Ron would say), but a new caution system alone will not enable referees to regain the respect of players.

The crisis of refereeing authority is one of FIFA’s own making. FIFA was initially concerned with eradicating the tackle from behind. But throughout the 1990s FIFA issued disciplinary edicts like banknotes in Weimar Germany. The more disciplinary powers that referees were given, the more their authority was undermined.

Referees now have very little discretion over how they maintain order on the field. In the past a referee might have had a quiet word with an offending player and taken the heat out of the situation. A yellow or red card would have been a last resort. Referee Steve Bennett’s justification for sending off Steve Brown illustrates how little leeway officials have to apply common sense: ‘The FA has mandatory instructions about a player removing his shirt and it’s as clear as that. I had to yellow card him for that offence and he’d already been booked which left me with no option.’

Even though removing one’s shirt will no longer be a bookable offence, referees will continue to caution players for all manner of petty misdemeanours: time-wasting, kicking the ball away, failure to retreat for a free kick, deliberate handball, swearing, gesticulating to the crowd, and arguing with officials (yet David Seaman’s haircut goes unpunished).

If referees are obliged to treat footballers like naughty schoolchildren, it is little wonder that players no longer respect them. As Paul Gascoigne so eloquently put it, after being dismissed for swearing at a linesman, ‘What is the world coming to when you get a red card and fined two weeks wages for calling a grown man a wanker?’.

(1) Observer, 27 August 2000

(2) Guardian, 26 August 2000

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