Jchances are Ice-T wasn’t talking about football when he wrote ‘Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game’ in 1999. Twenty-three years later, there’s still no sign of it. its long-awaited sequel, “Don I Hate the Referee, I Hate the Law,” but it would help if someone wrote it.
To hate the laws of football you have to know what they are and it seems an increasing number of people paid to talk about the game don’t and can’t admit it when it does. Fikayo Tomori’s foul on Mason Mount and the red card at San Siro on Tuesday were the perfect illustration of this.
Despite decades of the same pundits yelling at players to stay up, by doing just that, Mount confused a lot of people into thinking Tomori’s pull on his shoulder wasn’t enough of an offense. Once the referee has correctly ruled it a foul, it’s a red card. Tomori doesn’t try to play the ball.
Just because it’s not a serious act of violence doesn’t mean it’s not a fault. A foul can be sweet and still a foul. It’s a perverse law when Tomori could have slid down the back of Mount, taken the player and the ball, been much more dangerous and possibly given a yellow card. Don’t hate the referee, hate the law.
So often you hear the nonsense: “there was no intention – check the laws, it can still be a fault; “there was contact” – check the laws, must not be a fault. Here’s the thing amazing about the laws of football. They are freely searchable. You can get a pdf from the Ifab website if you want. It’s not a page-turner, it’s not “just as good than Grisham”. Lee Child and Richard Osman can rest easy.
“As many situations are subjective and match officials are human, some decisions will inevitably be wrong or cause debate and discussion,” it says on the front page. “For some people, this discussion is part of the fun and allure of the game but, whether the decisions are good or bad, the ‘spirit’ of the game demands that the decisions of the referees are always respected.”
There is a real question as to whether discussing contentious decisions is “part of the fun of the game”. Do fans really like to dig into super-slo-mo collisions or listen to radio shows and podcasts frantically trying to figure out where the shoulder ends and the arm begins? There is a limited amount of time to analyze a football game and the more time you spend on it, the less time you spend breaking down tactics, explaining why that player is free at the back post or just enjoying a nice pass, a turn or a nice volley.
Watching a decision, disagreeing with it and shouting ‘This is the Premier League we’re talking about, something has to be done’ is easier than explaining Pep’s inverted full-backs. Even throwing a former referee into a portable building out back and demanding an explanation doesn’t seem to clear anything up.
Mistakes happen and need to be discussed. Fulham fans must still be reeling from the events at London Stadium last Sunday. But in all the rage about VAR when it’s not perfect, no one mentions it when it cancels out a mistake and is used correctly, which is what the stats suggest most of the time.
Pundits and fans alike can be forgiven for not knowing all the laws – the “You Are The Ref” feature could only have lasted so long if we didn’t know them all. I have no problem admitting that I no longer know the handball law. And I just read it. It’s not the fault of an individual referee – it’s the Ifab’s problem. It’s a mess.
Perhaps the inability to admit ignorance is a consequence of the binary nature of social media where outspoken and strident opinion is encouraged over anything else. “I’m not sure about this” doesn’t get a thousand retweets.
What, if any, is the effect of all this? Former pros misunderstand the laws, give a thumbs up to umpires, then social media accounts that should know these views better, and throw meaningless questions like, “Was that offside? ” Any growing sense of unfairness about a decision breeds all sorts of conspiracy theories. There is clearly an agenda against [YOUR] club – why did PGMOL put him in charge of this game when he was born a little closer to their stadium?
Maybe it would all be fine if it ended with paranoid internet football fans screaming into the void, but the best referees suffer abuse that goes beyond any level of acceptability. Mike Dean was removed from refereeing a match after receiving online death threats last year.
And what about the basics? Is the TV studio conversation filtering through social media about how officials at the bottom of the pyramid are being treated? It’s hard to quantify. But last week a 24-year-old was arrested on suspicion of seriously assaulting a referee after an amateur game in Lancashire. Dave Bradshaw suffered ‘significant injuries’ in an attack by a Platt Bridge player during a South Lancashire Counties Championship match against Wigan Rose.
Last season, 380 players and managers were banned for attacking or threatening match officials in English grassroots football. This weekend, the Merseyside Youth Football League called off all matches after “several incidents of inappropriate and threatening behaviour” towards officials. No referees means no football. The FA will test the use of body cameras for base referees to protect them. How utterly depressing. As tangential as the connection is, these incidents should focus the minds of all of us paid to talk about football.
Nobody should be above criticism, but at the moment there isn’t enough emphasis on how hard, high-pressure work it is, and that we all get it wrong sometimes and that the referees will naturally do that, whether at Old Trafford, Stockley Park or Hackney Marshes.
Above all, if we accuse someone of making a mistake, we should probably check the laws and make sure it was a mistake in the first place.