The man in black

October 27, 2010 § 4 Comments

On any given Saturday, at any given time, the most important person at a game of football is not the badge-kissing mercenary up front. It’s not the sharp-studded midfield enforcer, or the lionhearted adulterer at the back. It’s not even the gruff-voiced man in the sheepskin coat standing by the touchline.

It’s the referee.

Referees, in one form or another, have presided over football matches since at least the 1600s, yet the quiet disappointment that accompanies them is rarely acknowledged. Their presence is a tacit admission that these 22 grown men cannot be trusted to follow a relatively simple set of rules themselves. And rather than undertake some serious self-examination as a species, and attempt to better ourselves, hoping one day to arrive at some eudaimonic plateau of shared respect where a football game needs nothing more than two pairs of eyes for offsides, and a bloke to watch the clock, humanity has decided that its own fundamental inability to play nice requires an arbiter.

Which is fine, obviously. But given this, yesterday’s news that Steven Craven, an assistant referee from Scotland, has resigned his position and ended his professional officiating career following the receipt of death threats from supporters of Glasgow Celtic, deserves more attention than it has received from the nation’s media.

Craven’s offence, you may recall, was to issue a threat to Bhoys fans that unless he could be stopped – nay, terminated – he would run them to ground, one by one, and forcibly tattoo ‘God Save The Queen’ on their foreheads, before burning down their houses and stealing their teapots. He then went on to add that he was the reincarnation of Oliver Cromwell, mandated by livid heaven to once more bring genocide and stupid hats to the shores of fair Erin …

Oh no, hang on. Sorry. He advised the referee to reverse a penalty decision.

To call the death threats an overreaction seems inadequate, like calling FIFA’s internal politics murky, or Stan Collymore thick. Indeed, a death threat is so far from any kind of proportionate or logical response to a contentious penalty decision that one is tempted to assume that the knuckle-dragging mouth-breathers responsible are afflicted with some kind of terrible curse, a curse that causes them to view anything that even remotely displeases them as some kind of mortal threat. Old woman holding up the queue at the post office? Smack her in the face. Buggy clipped your heels in the shopping centre? Dropkick the child into Warburtons, and put your head on the mother just in case. Wrong coloured car parked outside your house? Set it on fire.

The phenomenon of the disproportionate death threat is, sadly, a familiar trope of British footballing life. Following Craven’s annoucement, former Scottish referee Kenny Clark told the BBC that officials have, in the past, received razor blades tucked inside letters, or had the windows of their homes smashed. And then, with depressing predictability, threats were made against Willie Collum, referee in last Sunday’s Old Firm game, following another disputed penalty decision.

It’s by no means a byproduct of the unique/insane ferment of Scottish football either. Chelsea fans forced two European referees – Tom Henning Ovrebo and Anders Frisk – into hiding, following losses to Barcelona in 2009 and 2005; Frisk eventually retired, citing a campaign of intimidation against not only himself but his family. And in the summer of 2004 the whole of England came together in condemnation of Urs Meier – Urs Hole, the Swiss banker – who ruled out Sol Campbell’s late, late goal against Portugal for a foul on the goalkeeper. The Sun published Meier’s contact details, invited its readership to have a go, and he too was hounded out of the game.

The Scottish Football Association are warning that more officials may follow Craven’s lead, and it would be hard to blame them. The number of new referees in England dropped dramatically over recent years, though the Respect campaign reports on the first half of this season indicate a 9% overall rise. This is encouraging, because it shows that people still want to officiate, but it’s also cautionary. If Respect, and the values it promotes, can have a positive effect, then that means prospective referees are paying attention to the messages coming out of football. This is all the more reason to make sure the messages aren’t threats to kill.

While the news of this latest stain on the soul of the game has been rather overshadowed by the death of an octopus that ate some food on television once, the issue is real, and it threatens to undermine the vey basis of the game. Because without officials – those slightly deranged people who put themselves through the abuse out of a quite bewildering attachment to the game – there is no sport. We’ll be left issuing clairvoyant cephalopods with flags and whistles, and leaving the whole thing in their tentacles.

That said, the late Paul received a number of death threats of his own, and he didn’t even know he was making decisions. The world is looking increasingly broken.

PS. You may have noticed that throughout this piece I have made no comment on whether the various refereeing decisions were, in my view, incorrect. This is because it doesn’t matter in the slightest. Even that Sol Campbell one. Doesn’t matter.


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