Offside, 18 March
Refs who can't handle a bit of vilification are in the wrong game.
Referees are revolting – it’s official. The chairman of UEFA’s referees’ committee, Volker Roth, has threatened strike action by referees in support of their colleague Anders Frisk who announced his retirement after reportedly receiving death threats from Chelsea fans.
‘There will be a demonstration of solidarity among the referees as you have never seen before’, warned Roth. ‘I am really no friend of strikes, but we must consider measures.’ The prospect of referees downing their whistles doesn’t exactly strike fear into one’s heart, does it? In fact it sounds quite comical. It would be a bit like traffic wardens or wheel clampers going on strike. Nobody would object but it wouldn’t stop us hurling abuse at them.
The phenomenon of referee abuse has been widely debated recently. The beleaguered refereeing community is said to be facing a triple onslaught from foulmouthed players, inflammatory coaches, and thuggish fans. Volker Roth blames Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho for Frisk’s retirement. ‘It’s the coaches who whip up the masses and actually make them threaten people with death’, said Roth. ‘People like Mourinho are the enemy of football.’
The card-happy, fake-tanned, peroxide-haired Swedish official was reportedly inundated with threats from irate fans after he had controversially sent off Didier Drogba in the first leg of Chelsea’s Champions League tie against Barcelona. ‘There have been threats on the telephone and via email and post, and my family have also been threatened’, said Frisk. ‘I won’t ever go out on a football pitch again. I am too scared. It is not worth it…. I don’t know if I even dare let my kids go to the post office.’
Leaving aside the thorny question of how Frisk’s children will ever be able to send large packages or renew their driving licences in future, it’s time we paused to get some sense of perspective. For a start, it is ridiculous to blame Mourinho for any death threats that Frisk may have received from Chelsea fans. All Mourinho did was point out, quite correctly as it happens, that ‘the referee had a direct influence on the result’ of the first leg. When asked if he was pleased that the return leg was to be officiated by Pierluigi Collina, he mischievously quipped: ‘If I could have chosen I would have asked for Frisk because maybe he would have helped us the same way he helped them’ – a thinly-veiled reference to Frisk’s reputation as a ‘homer’. Mourinho’s comments were a little bit naughty but hardly amounted to a fatwa against Anders Frisk. If Chelsea fans did send death threats to Frisk then they alone are responsible for their actions, not Mourinho.
This is the second time in the past few weeks that Mourinho has been accused of inflammatory behaviour. The Chelsea coach was banished from the dug-out after making the finger-over-lips ‘hush’ gesture at Liverpool fans when his side scored the equaliser in the Carling Cup Final. But the charge of incitement, while directed ostensibly at coaches like Mourinho or footballers who make inflammatory gestures at the crowd, effectively belittles football fans. The underlying message is that fans are dumb replica-shirted animals, easily provoked into a riotous frenzy, and incapable of exercising will power or restraint.
But one only has to look at the response of Liverpool fans to Mourinho’s taunts to see that, although they were clearly enraged, nobody jumped over the perimeter fence and chinned the Chelsea boss. There was no barbed wired or police cordon, so what was stopping them? Free will, m’lud, that’s what it was.
Allegations of death threats against Anders Frisk appear altogether more serious. But while being abused and threatened is undoubtedly disturbing, it is hardly an unusual experience for a football referee. Every week referees are escorted from the pitch by security guards as thousands of irate fans bay for their blood. One would have thought that possession of a very thick skin – or in Frisk’s case a leathery orange skin – is part of the job description. It’s also important to recognise that abuse of referees is largely theatrical. Physical assaults on referees, although more common in park football, are pretty much unknown in the professional game.
Anders Frisk was a strutting prima donna who loved the sound of his own whistle and didn’t know the meaning of the phrase ‘unobstrusive refereeing’. ‘Wherever he went, chaos and controversy followed’, observed Gabriel Marcetti in The Times. Frisk has a track record of losing control of games, notably last year’s Champions League match between Roma and Dynamo Kiev which he was forced to abandon after being injured by a coin. I’ve no idea what makes a man turn to refereeing though I suspect that somewhere in a referee’s psyche resides an unhealthy love of rules and regulations. However, what I do know is that a referee who wants to be the star of the show and can’t handle a bit of good, old fashioned vilification has chosen the wrong trade.
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