We don’t need no education
August 26, 2011 § 8 Comments
A thought struck me while I was watching Manchester United against Tottenham on Monday night, moments after the ball struck a United hand and the beer in the hand of the buffoon behind me struck the back of my neck as he bellowed and flapped in incomprehensible, walrus-like fury. I assume he wanted a free-kick. Now, it wasn’t a free-kick, because it was obviously an unavoidable and accidental contact of ball and hand, but that didn’t stop most of the pub first going up, then chuntering about the injustice of it all. United getting the decisions again.
Some of that is partisanship, obviously. Show two football fans the same incident and they’ll interpret it according to their own perspectives (I’ve written about why I think that might be before). And of course, simple mistakes happen all the time; as anybody who’s watched a game with me will know, I’m a bastard for a phantom handball. But I don’t think it’s controversial to suggest that there are gaps in the knowledge of the average football fan.
Before we go any further, I’m not — explicitly not — setting myself up here as being in any way superior to this “average football fan” of whom I speak. I’m not. I’ve read the rules, but I don’t remember them all, and am just as prone to being an erroneous pillock as anybody else. So, in the following, when I say “they” I am including myself.
(I even got corrected on the offside rule the other day. By a woman. Oh, the shame.)
Handball’s just the most obvious example, and the structure of the debate is a familiar and tired one. Something happens. Somebody — a commentator, or a manager, or a friend, or whoever — asserts that the decision was wrong. Somebody else asserts that it was right. They debate this, with reference to parts of the law that don’t exist, without reference to important parts of the law that do exist, citing erroneous precedents and ignoring relevant ones.
In search of a highfalutin reason for the odd lacuna of knowledge in many football fans, we might propose the simplicity of football itself. Football, ironically, is a pick-up-and-play game. The fundamental principles of the sport can be derived simply from its name, meaning that it’s possible to begin to play without really needing to know anything beyond: there’s the ball, kick it in the goal. And the general principles of the offences — the idea of a foul, the idea of a handball — are pretty intuitive: don’t kick people, don’t use your paws.
This means two things, I think. Firstly, there doesn’t seem any real reason why you couldn’t get to the very top of the game without bothering with the finer points of the rules at all; certainly, some of the leading lights of Britain’s punditocracy seem determined to prove this right. Secondly, perhaps part of the consequence of playing-before-understanding, particularly in a country where football is competitive from such a young age, is that the rules inevitably come in a partisan context. Decisions are things that happen for or against you, hence they are things that are good or bad rather than right or wrong.
But whatever the underlying reason, there is most certainly a gap in knowledge, and as with all things in life, it falls to us to look to our family for guidance. Specifically, our Auntie. Here’s how the BBC can, and must, help us help ourselves.
Step 1: Cancel Match of the Day 3. Not only on grounds of taste and decency — though seriously, folks, what the fuck? — but because that frees up some money. Maybe not a lot, but probably enough.
Step 2: Find a decent, retired referee. Not David Elleray. Or Graham Poll. Or — God forbid — Jeff Winter. Paul Durkin would be a good shout; everybody liked him.
Step 3: Put Paul Durkin (or whoever) in a room with a television camera. Point the camera at his face and have him, with reference to one potential point of controversy, explain simply and clearly first what the rules say, then what they mean, and then how decisions are made.
Step 4: Do not, under any circumstances, let anybody from the Match of the Day 2 production team dick about with the results. No montages. No cartoon illustrations of referees with clouds over over their heads. No hilarious mash-ups of managers losing their rag with the Benny Hill music. (A note to over-elaborate TV graphics departments: your futile attempts to make yourselves look necessary are only drawing attention to your fundamental irrelevance.) The only post-production this is going to need is maybe a couple of illustrative clips, perhaps a jaunty-but-brief theme tune, and the shortest credits sequence known to humanity. Seriously, pare it right down. Think Open University programming, but more minimal, and with less dubious facial hair.
Step 5: Repeat until you run out of refereeing points to address.
And there we go. The BBC — an organisation that has a charter to “inform, educate and entertain”, yet somehow ended up making Horne & Corden — now has an archive of short informative films. The films can live on the website for checking as and when, can be dropped into Match of the Day where relevant, and can be shown before the season starts as a refresher for everybody. Most importantly, a little bit of patient explanation might go some tiny way to reducing the chances of me having flat lager poured down the back of my neck next time a referee gets something right.
What finer points of football law would you like to see Paul Durkin explain? Stick ’em in the comments.