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Sympathy For The Devil

Across the country every Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning, hundreds of thousands of men (as well as increasing numbers of women) will put on some form of kit and head out onto a football pitch. Ostensibly, their aim, for the next ninety minutes, will be to chase a plastic ball round a muddy field in the company of twenty-one or so other assorted fanatics. Their motivation? A bit of fitness, a bit of fresh air, a change to the usual routine or a chance to try out that tricky maneouvre they saw on TV the night before. 
Whatever, most football fans who don't join in this activity will understand why they do it. For the greatest game in the world is a truly participatory sport. Unlike, say, cricket, which needs all kinds of obscure equipment, all that footy requires is something you can kick without breaking your toes.
And yet, many of these games will have in common one feature that hardly anyone except the participants themselves can possible explain. All professional games, and the vast majority of the amateur ones, will be controlled by a referee. Why on earth anyone would want to do this job is beyond the rest of us but there they are, each and every week, with their whistles and their cards, performing a vital role without which the game could not function.
For the modern football fan (and particularly managers), the referee has become some kind of scapegoat and bogeyman (or woman), all rolled into one. If your team loses, it's easier to point out the mistakes made by the officials than look at the deficiencies of your own players. The referee simply cannot win, hated by someone whatever decision is made. Who on earth wants to do a job like that?
The major gripe most fans have about referees is the apparent inconsistency in many of their decisions. Identical tackles are dealt with in entirely different ways, offside for one team then becomes onside for the other and one player can hurl abuse all game with impunity while another only has to look at the ref. to go in the book. Why can't a common set of rules be applied equally to all?
In fact, we are getting consistency from today's referees: consistent proof that they are, contrary to belief in some quarters, actually just human beings like the rest of us. The unfortunate consequence of this is that yes, shock, horror, they make mistakes. And when they do, someone, some team, suffers the consequences. If it's us, then the ref is an incompetent idiot or worse, actually in the pay of the opposition. If it's them, well, it's about time we had some luck for a change, isn't it?
The simple truth that should become obvious with today's blanket coverage of professional football is that someone always thinks the referee was incompetent. Someone in apparently every game has been dealt a serious blow by the sheer idiocy of the officials. Can it be true that in the entire network of professional referees, there isn't anyone who's capable of doing the job?
The answer to this is that no, there is no-one (and never will be) who can do the referee's job given the current criteria and expectations. And that is simply because the criteria make it impossible, for they dictate that decisions must always be favourable to both sides and they must always be right. No-one must be left to feel that they've been 'robbed' and endless television replays can be used to verify that the officials have made all their split-second decisions correctly.
Even if we ignore the first point and accept that someone will always argue no matter what decision is made, the fact that we don't want to accept that referees make mistakes makes their job impossible. It is true that every referee this season has given bad decisions against us, just as they have for every other team in every other season. Given the number made during a game, some are bound to be wrong, whether it's a throw in given the wrong way or a bad tackle not punished.
Also, of course, it should not be forgotten that many decisions are simply a matter of opinion.
Referees have always given bad decisions but the prevalence and intrusiveness of television has highlighted these mistakes, and over the past couple of seasons the debate seems to have taken a turn for the worse. It now no longer seems to be accepted that, being human, the officials will get things wrong. The level of expertise and competence expected of them is simply impossible to achieve.
"We need professional referees" screams the manager, after his side's abject defeat in another relegation battle. "I'm fed up with my job depending on the incompetence of a few little Hitlers!" This may make some difference in that training and repetition will always help, but the main problem will never be solved: if you have human officials, they will get things wrong.
The other answer is to use the available technology and introduce television replays for close or controversial decisions. This is another debate altogether but until such time that the ref. can get instant access to video play-back there and then on the pitch, this solution is surely a non-starter for two main reasons.
Firstly, the length of time taken to review the video and communicate the answer will slow the game down an unacceptable amount. For those who don't believe this, take the example of American Football. Here's a sport whose staccato game play is ideal for using television replays; they tried it for a couple of seasons and then abandoned it because it made the game too slow. And this for a one-hour event that takes three hours anyway!
Secondly, how do you decide what decisions should be subject to video replay and which shouldn't? It's relatively easy in cricket where run-outs are subject to video evidence but, in football, should we review every decision that isn't obvious? After all, a team could score from the resulting throw-in, for instance.
In the heat of the moment, everyone screams at the officials if they think the ref has got it wrong. I'm no exception. Next time that blatant hand-ball isn't seen, I'll be there, hurling abuse and vitriol as if my life depended on it.
A sense of perspective is required, however, in the post-match analysis. The ref. may have got it wrong, but so did the striker when he missed that open goal or the defender when he passed straight to the opposition. We must accept that if we expect referees to do the impossible then, inevitably, they are going to fail.
Adapted and reproduced courtesy of


By Jeff Kirkpatrick


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