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.
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.
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.
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.