Given all the criticism we read and hear of the on field behaviour of professional footballers, one thing always stands out for me – something often overlooked, but something vital that allows the game to function from the lowest levels to the very top. That simple thing? The powerful acceptance that the referee’s decision is final.
One of the first lessons you are thought as kid in football is that the ref is the boss and that you must adhere to his rulings. You may not like it, but you cannot change it. You just have to suck it up and get on with the game no matter how egregious any perceived mistake.
Despite all the pouting and tantrums, footballers to their credit continue to observe this critical pillar of the game.
Think of any of the famous and not so famous controversial refereeing decisions in football’s televised history. Think of the Russian linesman in 1966, Lampard’s “goal” against Germany in 2010, think of Luis Garcia’s ghost goal, the hands of God and Henry. Or even more recently, think of the chalking off of Van Persie’s goal at Reading and Suarez’s injury time winner in the Merseyside Derby, or the sending off of Torres by Mark Clattenburg. Whether they were brilliant if controversial refereeing decisions or straightforward mistakes caused by bad positioning or the blink of an eye, the players and teams affected may have howled their displeasure – but they accepted the decision and moved on.
In fact, only once in my thirty something years of watching and playing football (parks level) have I seen a team refuse to accept a ref’s decision – and that was the brilliant Kuwaiti sheikh pitch invasion in the 1982 World Cup. This is truly the only exception I can think of – an exception that proves the rule, perhaps. A rule that every single player at every level of the game understands holds the game together. Without its strict observance, there is no game. And so while players may doubt a ref, they continue to understand the critical importance of accepting his decisions and his mistakes, however grudgingly.
Acceptance that the ref’s decision is final is also important because it presents a clear link between the kid learning the game, the Sunday Leaguers, the semi pros and the professionals. In a very real way, the unheralded acceptance by the top players (whom we unwittingly ape) playing for the highest stakes in the game of refereeing decisions protects the refs who turn out for a pittance and play a central role in making the game happen at the grassroots level. Yes, we have all abused refs, cursed them – just like our heroes – but by and large that is all we have done.
Refusal to resume the game or even taking out frustrations on refs in a physical manner are thankfully extremely rare occurrences. And that amazes me in many ways – especially having played games in places where your opponents would take little notice of the police, yet take the poor or contentious reffing of an official as part and parcel of the game .
The propensity for brilliance and error is what makes sport and football great drama. And much as brilliance on the football field can inspire us, error is also part of the folklore of the game. That room for error must be extended to the referee – and continue to be celebrated and treasured. Accepting that people can make genuine mistakes or that things will not always go your way is good for people – football players and fans alike.
Constant reviewing of incidents in games on television serves to chip away at the authority of the man in the middle. Perhaps rather than focusing so much effort and technology on the validity of the split second decisions of refs, the media and fans should grow up a little and do what the players on the pitch do at every level – accept that the decision was made in good faith, and move on.