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Pity the Poor Referee

Two stories about football in my Sunday newspaper left me pondering questions of broader import than the activities of the muddied oafs on the field of play and their even more bovine followers on the terraces.

The first one, which, perhaps significantly, appeared in the general news pages rather than in the sports section, concerned the mental welfare of professional football referees.  Some of them, it seems, have been so traumatised by crowd abuse and the mental anguish inflicted by social media trolls, that they threatened to quit unless given access to psychological counselling.

I can only presume that – having been to no more than one football match in the last fifty years – the taunts of the crowd now go well beyond what I used to hear when I did follow football.  These were usually references to the referee’s need for an early visit to a sexually-active optician, or a reference to his unwed parents having given birth to a mental deficient.

The response of the English football authorities to the plight of today’s referees, the newspaper reported – quoting as a source what it calls an ‘academic book’ called ‘Elite Soccer Referees’ – was to appoint a suitably qualified therapist to whom referees might unburden themselves at least twice a month.  I can only wish him, and his patients, the very best of luck.  As no doubt will their Royal Highnesses William and Harry.

Referees will no doubt take heart from this news.  They may also be encouraged by the second story, although some may have misgivings for reasons other than mental health.  This one is about technology rather than psychology, but both are part of the same theme, which is that referees need any help they can get, on and off the field of play, not only in order to do their jobs properly but also to avoid going bonkers in the process.

The technology will be applied for the first time to a football match being played tonight.  Its significance is that it will be the first in which a referee on the pitch will be able to call on the services of a ‘video assistant referee’.  The VAR, as he will almost certainly be called, will be sitting, in comfort and safety, in a sealed room somewhere remote from the stadium in which the game is being played.  For all I know he will be sitting in GCHQ, Britain’s intelligence-gathering centre.  (The Germans, having tried this system already, located their VAR in a room near Cologne Airport.) 

Tonight’s referee, faced with a decision to award a goal or a penalty, or any other potentially match-changing decision that might otherwise subject him to crowd-inflicted mental torture, will be able to ‘go upstairs’ to seek an opinion.  This already happens in rugby where even used sparingly it often adds ten minutes to a game.  It even happens in the once gentlemanly world of cricket, where the VAR is called a ‘third umpire’.    

Tonight’s match is described as an experiment.  But it is a safe bet that what is now being described as experimental will soon become elemental.     

Quite right, too.  Or is it? 

The author of the second article cited above opines that introducing technology “is another attempt to impose science upon something which is valuable principally for its flawed humanity – flawed in the case of the players, flawed in the case of the referee.  And that one should accept that these flaws exist and get on with the game”.     

It is a decent point, and one with which I instinctively agree, but it also is, I fear, a losing one.  Technology will not be denied.  Nor will referees afraid for their mental and physical safety every Saturday night.  

As for the rest of us, meaning those who have the time to waste watching football, the prospect is that matches already irritatingly interrupted by institutionalized foul play will be infuriatingly disrupted by endless television reviews.  These, incidentally, are bound to be subject to as much controversy as the decisions of the flawed and fragile man with the whistle.    

But the point is that from now on the crowd’s boos will be directed at an ethereal presence – and the trolls probably won’t take the trouble to find out who to smear. 

Progress, I suppose, but how it reflects on a supposedly civil society is another matter, and too complex for discussion here

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