Whistlin’ past the graveyard

March 9, 2011 § 10 Comments

I think it’s a total joke – how can I hear this whistle with 95,000 people jumping up?
— Robin van Persie

As an excuse goes, it feels right, doesn’t it? Football crowds are noisy bastards when they’re in the mood, and by all accounts the Camp Nou last night was fizzing and bouncing like a spacehopper full of sherbet. (Yes, okay, that would likely just be a soggy waste of both sherbet and spacehopper. Shush.)

It is, indeed, the standard explanation for incidents of this kind: player X does not hear referee Y because of crowd Z. But it is, if you look at it closely, quite a counter-intuitive suggestion, since the opposite is true for the overwhelming majority of refereeing decisions: X generally hears Y regardless of Z. We know this is the case, because football wouldn’t function otherwise. So, if we are to accept the explanation, there must be a reason that a whistle that has been perfectly audible for the rest of the game suddenly becomes inaudible.

The three variables — our X, Y and Z — are the referee, the player, and the crowd. While the player lays the fault with the interference from crowd, presumably because blaming the referee would be counter-productive and blaming yourself would be weird, it’s worth looking briefly at all three, and considering how a player might not hear a decision.

The referee

If the fault lies with the referee, then it can only be in positioning or execution; either he was too far away for the player to hear, or for some reason the whistle malfunctioned in that one instance. In both of those cases, you would expect the official to take this into consideration when determining that a player had disregarded the whistle: a referee might be more lenient if he wasn’t quite up with play, or if his whistle hadn’t blown right. These are judgement calls on the part of the referee, and we can probably assume that in most cases, if a referee is happy to penalise a player for disregarding the whistle, the referee is also satisifed with their own position. And with their whistle.

The player

We can discount the idea that a professional footballer is generally hard of hearing to the extent that whistles are generally inaudible; this, one would hope, would be picked up before they get into the Champions League. And the idea that a player could become momentarily either medically or psychologically deaf to the whistle doesn’t really seem coherent. While there are plenty of anecdotal accounts of players who, bearing down on goal, are struck by sudden silences, or by the inability to hear anything but their own heartbeat, it would be fair to describe these as the exception rather than the rule. Otherwise we would, presumably, have many more strikers charging blindly toward goal, happily oblivious to the world around them. (Insert your own Milan Baros joke here.) Even if this did happen for the majority of strikers, we would still lack an account for defenders making clearances, and so on.

The crowd

This is the preferred option of the player, exculapting himself neatly from blame. But the crowd have been there the whole match, yet other whistles from the referee have been heard, at other moments of high spectatorial excitement. Indeed, the idea that whistles are audible above crowds is the very basis of high-level officiating. It would of course be unsupportable to propose that a crowd can never drown out a whistle; get enough people to shout and you can drown out anything. But unless there is a clear indicator that the crowd have attained a level of noise above and beyond their previous efforts, it would be perverse to conclude that one specific case was different.

The key, from a referee’s perspective, is timing. If a player doesn’t appear to hear one of the first whistle blows, or if the first time the crowd rise noisily it appears that they overwhelm the whistle, or if players are having repeated problems hearing, then an official can assume that players may not hear calls, and should adjust their decision-making accordingly. If, however, the first auditory failure occurs an hour into a pretty-darned-feisty game, a referee is entitled, logically, to infer that since the whistle has been heard on each previous occasion, it has been heard again.

Of course, none of this can be used to conclude whether or not van Persie did or did not hear the whistle; only he knows that. (Though it’s an odd shot to take — at range, weaker foot, poor angle — for a player who thinks he’s free of the defence.) But it does show that Massimo Busacca was justified in thinking that van Persie would have heard the whistle, since neither he nor any other player had had problems hearing it for the previous hour.

Whether Busacca should have booked van Persie is a different argument. The point is that a referee whose whistle has been evidently audible throughout the game is entitled to infer that for any specific instance — as long as their positioning is good and their equipment works — their whistle has been heard. Those same 95,000 people had been there for every single whistle previously, and they hadn’t been watching in silence. (Insert your own “atmosphere at the Emirates” joke here.) Busacca was entitled to conclude that van Persie was significantly more likely than not to have heard him. And with refereeing, that’s usually as good as it gets.


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§ 10 Responses to Whistlin’ past the graveyard

  • Jack's disbelief says:

    Jesus. The New Seriousness taking off to new levels of anodyne muck.

  • Giles says:

    Christ on a bike with an indeterminately loud bell, Andi! I know that there were a lot of boring Arsenal fans whining last night, but this is no way to deal with them. What do you think your beloved Croatia would have done with such a soft sending off? Which is surely the more interesting issue. You tweeted last night that you recalled similar cards for Carrick and others, I was sort of hoping for a comparison of British vs European decisions on kicking the ball away. I didn’t see the incident until after the game had ended and I’d come to terms with being beaten fair and square, so I was pretty pissed off when I saw the highlights. Much more interesting to me than whether he actually heard it, was the delay of a single second between the whistle and the offence: it wasn’t as if play stopped and he petulantly kicked the ball to waste time. I’ve never seen a yellow for timewasting been given anything like as harshly as that, but if you or others have that’s why I read Twisted Blood, for your insight and knowledge of football, or for the joy that pulsed through that excellent piece on Croatia, but not for this.

    • twistedblood says:

      Hi G!

      If this come across as an attack on either RvP or Arsenal fans in general, then it’s not meant to. For reasons articulated here, I don’t think debates about refereeing decisions in themselves are of that much value.

      In any case, my own feeling on the red card is that it wasn’t of much effect to the result, and so not really worth addressing in itself. But the reason RvP gave was interesting, because it’s the one all players in this circumstance give, and I thought it would be interesting to try to tease out whether or not a referee could take that into account. As you can, I don’t think they legitimately can.

      The British vs. European question is an interesting one, and if I’d had a day off today I might have looked into it. As I was at work, research wasn’t really possible. That tweet last night was slightly inaccurate: Irwin was harshly sent off in the 1999 FA Cup semi-final. However, FWIW, my feeling is that Premier League referees have basically abandoned the yellow-for-carrying-on-and-scoring (see Arshavin at the weekend) and reserve their timewasting yellows for kicking the ball away, or similar. But that is just a feeling.

      I feel I should point out also that I don’t mean to accuse RvP of lying. As I stress in the piece: nobody knows but him. And I’ve been assured by Gooners on Twitter that shooting early with his wrong foot from distance is something he sometimes does in these situations.

      Finally, what would Croatia have done? Much the same as Arsenal did. And they’ve have given the same reason. Which is why I felt it was worth writing about.

      Bisous, my man. See you soon.

  • John McGee says:

    On the second point about the player hearing the whistle there’s an interesting read across to an anecdote in Hunter Davies ‘biography’ of Tottenham Hotspur – The Glory Game.

    In it a young player (I forget his name) was taken on despite being profoundly deaf. It was a gamble on the part of the club who hoped his talent would allow him to overcome it. Davies, such is his love of such trifles, weaves it in now and again as a recurring thread. The lad wasn’t kept on as a pro – his disability and the sensory loss caused by it were deemed too damaging in a game environment. An interesting aside to this tale I hope.

    FWIW the book is also amongst the very best football books I’ve read. And Joe Kinnear comes across as a bell end – pleasing.

  • jenre says:

    My first thought was that he’d heard the whistle and kicked it in frustration. You make exactly the same point I did. If he genuinely didn’t hear the whistle why did he rush the shot so much, and with his much weaker right foot? He had time for a touch onto his left.

    Still, it was incredibly harsh of the referee to give him a second yellow. Even if he hadn’t been booked yet it would have been harsh.

    • twistedblood says:

      As noted above, I have been told by a couple of Arsenal fans that RvP has been known to try similar, early, wrong-foot snapshots when onside, so perhaps that isn’t quite as indicative as it initially appeared. Or perhaps they were talking nonsense; I don’t know.

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