There’s every chance that 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 his eagerly awaited follow-up, “Don’t hate the referee, hate the Law”, but it would be useful if someone wrote it.
To hate the laws of football, you have to know what they are and it appears an increasing number of people paid to talk about the game don’t and can’t admit it when that’s the case. Fikayo Tomori’s foul on Mason Mount and red card at San Siro on Tuesday was the perfect illustration.
Despite decades of the same pundits screaming at players to stay on their feet, by doing exactly that Mount confused many into thinking Tomori’s tug on his shoulder was not enough of an infringement. Once the referee correctly deemed it a foul, then it is a red card. Tomori is not attempting to play the ball.
Just because it’s not an act of severe violence doesn’t mean it isn’t a foul. A foul can be soft and still a foul. It’s a perverse law when Tomori could have slid through the back of Mount, taken player and ball, been way more dangerous and possibly be shown a yellow card. Don’t hate the ref, hate the law.
So often you hear nonsense: “there wasn’t any intent – checks laws, can still be a foul; “there was contact” – checks laws, doesn’t have to be a foul. Here’s the extraordinary thing about the laws of football. They are freely available to read. You can get a pdf from the Ifab website if you want. It’s not a page-turner, it’s not “every bit as good as 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 first page. “For some people, this discussion is part of the game’s enjoyment and attraction but, whether decisions are right or wrong, the ‘spirit’ of the game requires that referees’ decisions must always be respected.”
There’s a real question about whether discussing contentious decisions is “part of the game’s enjoyment”. Do fans genuinely enjoy poring over collisions in super-slo-mo or listening to radio shows and podcasts frantically trying to work out where the shoulder ends and the arm begins? There is a finite time to analyse a football match and the more time spent on that, the less time breaking down tactics, explaining why that player is free at the far post or simply enjoying a beautiful pass or turn or volley.
Watching a decision, disagreeing with it and yelling “This is the Premier League we’re talking about, something needs to be done” is easier than explaining Pep’s inverted full-backs. Even chucking a former ref in a portable building out the back and crossing to them for explanations doesn’t seem to clear anything up.
Mistakes do happen and need to be discussed. Fulham fans must still be reeling from events at the London Stadium last Sunday. But in all the fury about VAR when it isn’t perfect, no one mentions it when it overturns a mistake and is used correctly, which the stats suggest is most of the time.
Pundits and fans can be forgiven for not knowing all the laws – the ‘You Are The Ref’ feature could only have lasted for so long if we didn’t know them all. I have no issue with admitting I don’t know the handball law any more. And I’ve just read it. That isn’t an individual referee’s fault – that is Ifab’s problem. It is a mess.
Perhaps the inability to admit ignorance is a consequence of the binary nature of social media where forthright, strident opinion is encouraged over anything else. “I’m not sure about that” doesn’t get a thousand retweets.
What, if anything, is the effect of all of this? Former pros misunderstand the laws, give referees stick, then social media accounts that should know better parrot these views and throw out meaningless questions such as: “Was this offside?” Any growing sense of injustice over a decision spawns all manner of conspiracy theories. There is clearly an agenda against [YOUR] club – why has the PGMOL put him in charge of that game when he was born slightly closer to their stadium?
Perhaps all this would be fine if it ended with paranoid internet football fans yelling into the void, but top referees get abuse that goes beyond any level of acceptability. Mike Dean was stood down from officiating a match after receiving online death threats last year.
And what about at grassroots? Does the conversation from the TV studio filter through social media to how officials lower down the pyramid are treated? That’s hard to quantify. But last week a 24-year-old was arrested on suspicion of the serious assault of a ref after an amateur match in Lancashire. Dave Bradshaw sustained “significant injuries” in an attack by a Platt Bridge player during a South Lancashire Counties league game against Wigan Rose.
Last season, 380 players and coaches received bans for attacking or threatening match officials in English grassroots football. This weekend, the Merseyside Youth Football League has cancelled all fixtures after “multiple incidents of inappropriate and threatening behaviour” towards officials. No refs means no football. The FA is going to trial the use of body cameras for grassroots refs to help protect them. How utterly depressing. However tangential the link, those incidents should focus the minds of all of us paid to talk about football.
No one should be above criticism, but at the moment not enough emphasis is put on the fact that it is a very difficult job, with intense pressure, and that we all mess up sometimes and so referees naturally will, whether at Old Trafford, Stockley Park or on Hackney Marshes.
Above all, if we are accusing someone of making a mistake, we should probably check the laws and be sure it was a mistake in the first place.