Referees are under constant pressure to get everything right, every time. When they don’t, they face the wrath of livid managers, bemoaning the standard of officiating, whilst back page columnists criticise both them and the authorities. But is it right to be getting on their backs all the time? And will Fifa ever bring in goal-line technology?
November last year, and Tony Pulis, the Stoke City manager, suggested that referees should be marked on their performance and relegated accordingly. I have two problems with this, one which carries a little more gravitas than the other. Firstly, it’s difficult to take any forty-something man who dresses like a naughty teenager seriously (Google him). Secondly, more importantly, that would suggest a lower standard of football requires a lower standard of referee. If anything, the opposite is true.
Picture the scene. Stoke play Wolves at some point next season, and three players get sent off for some eye-watering challenges. England’s top referee Howard Webb (more on him later) is incandescent after the game because Tim Westwood look-a-like Pulis only gave him a 4 out of 10 for his performance. “I think it’s well unfair, because I did, like, loads of good decisions and had maybe one howler. And Tony gives me a four. Just not fair.” He’s right, it’s not fair. The last things refs need is more pressure.
The pressure piled on referees in the modern game is both enormous and unreasonable. You might argue that they know what they’re getting themselves into, but I imagine it’s pretty difficult to replicate 50,000 angry screaming scousers at a training camp. And the players don’t help themselves. Manchester United’s Portuguese winger Nani has got himself a reputation for being a bit of an iniquitous little cheat, just as Cristiano Ronaldo did a few years ago. So even when he has been fouled, when a ref sees him rolling around stricken on the floor like he’s been dismembered, they, understandably, react in a fairly unsympathetic manner.
That’s not to say referees don’t make dreadful decisions with great frequency. Anyone who watched the world cup will probably remember that goal for England against Germany (the old nemesis). England were 2-1 down and playing pretty poorly, then Lampard hit a scintillating volley, which crashed against the crossbar and landed approximately 3 or 4 miles over the line. Everybody saw it. That would have made it 2-2 at half time, and entirely different game (which England definitely would have won). They went on to lose 4-1.
The aforementioned Howard Webb is rated as the nation’s best, but I have my reservations. He’s the type who, when it’s a goal kick or a penalty, will give the mediating corner. And he’s our number one. A couple of years ago the league’s youngest referee, Stuart Atwell (who seems to surround himself in controversy), gave the infamous ‘ghost goal’, which then-Watford manager described as “like seeing a UFO”.
Decisions like that are nothing new. Most will have seen footage of Geoff Hurst’s goal against West Germany in the ’66 World Cup final, which was controversial at best. Germany fans will say Lampards ‘goal’ evened it out somewhere, but it still hurts them. The problem is, huge advances in technology have made poor decisions like that much less acceptable.
Mark Hughes, the Fulham manager, is one of the most vociferous proponents of introducing goal-line technology into the beautiful game. It’s easy to see why. When he was manager of Blackburn (my team), West Ham were allowed one of the most outrageous goals I’ve ever had the displeasure of seeing. The ball no-where near crossed the goal-line, but it was given (by a linesman called Jim Divine, inexplicably). A simple bit of video technology would have proved beyond reasonable doubt that it was never a goal. They have it in rugby, where there’s considerably less money involved. Why not in football?
That’s where it becomes difficult. Where do the footballing authorities draw the line? Rugby is much less free-flowing that football, so it’s much easier to stop the game and have the video ref take a look at a replay. If it is brought in then, of course, managers will be demanding replays for bad tackles, handballs and penalty decisions. The English game in particular is extremely fast, so constantly halting play to check a video would severely disrupt it, potentially ruining the game as a spectacle, and that’s why Fifa have constantly rebuffed requests for technology.
Not only that, but bad decisions make for great talking points. I love talking about a referring shocker in the pub, and it gives the pundits the various TV stations employ something to witter on about in the studio after the match. Once the game becomes too draconian you run the risk of dehumanising it. And remember, referees are people too.
You can follow Neal Wallace on Twitter @nealjwallace