It was a moderately diverting night in Valencia. Chelsea put in a solid performance and had come close to what would have been a solidly impressive win, only for Solomon Kalou’s momentary lapse of reason for minutes from time, which cost Chelsea a penalty kick and, subsequently, two points in their Champions League group. Injury time ran down without major incident but, with time up and Chelsea preparing to launch one final free-kick towards the Valencia penalty area, the referee blew for time and we were suddenly propelled into a very modern ritual: that of the perceived slight. Juan Mata was booked for “something he said to the referee” and Ashley Cole followed him, for what looked like a shove. The haranguing continued as the players left the pitch.
Before we go any further, it is worth clarifying that this was an odd decision on the part of the official. Referees will usually allow a passage of play to complete before blowing for time, and this is quite plainly what did not happen last night. The histrionics of some of the Chelsea players, however, seemed pointless and ill-thought out. The referee had already blown for time. He was not going to change his mind. As such, even the notion that trying to influence the referee over future decisions seems far fetched. All that happened – and all that was ever going to happen – was that a couple of Chelsea players inched a little closer to a suspension for a later (and likely more important match) and all concerned in this little contre-temps ended up looking a little bit, well, silly. It is also worth pointing out that, whilst the above example of this particular phenomenon involved Chelsea, this club is, anecdotally at least, no worse than any other. It seems astonishingly infrequent now that any blowing of the referee’s whistle goes without something between an aggrieved facial expression, some sort of dismissive body language or something that resembles a rugby scrum.
If the Premier League was to have a motto to cover all of its member clubs, it could do worse than to use the phrase, “they’re all out to get us”, with “they” meaning some or all of the FA, UEFA, all referees, a specific referee or the media. In other words, anyone that may do or say something that will be detrimental to their club. So it is that all journalists are biased, referees have favoured clubs and those that govern the game are incompetent. Any (or all) of these statements may even be true, but the extent to which they have any whether they impact upon the overall scheme of things or whether those mentioned above can easily suppress any – let’s face it, very human – degrees of bias in their professional lives is obviously a question that cannot ever be answered completely satisfactorily.
When, though, did this phenomenon begin? Although at the very least referee-baiting is as old as the game itself (and can be, when executed skilfully, a very noble art), it could be argued that the culture of the perceived slight has crept up on us slowly over a period of years, although on a couple of occasions – Paolo di Canio shoving referee Paul Alcock over at Hillsborough in 1998, for example – there has been an incident of a sufficiently high profile to warrant a few days worth of hand-wringing and sermonising before everything gets back to normal. The FAs Respect campaign, the highest-profile attempt to tackle the issue, is failing for two primary reasons. Firstly, it didn’t get to grips with what goes on during matches. Secondly, it was, to put not too fine a point on it, it was a case of locking the stable door some time after the horse had bolted. The culture of petulance and the bunker mentality had long since become part of the culture of our game. Small wonder that, especially at amateur level, referees are so hard to come by these days.
Some supporters are no better than the players or managers, of course. Every decision that a governing body makes is scrutinized through the most myopic of eyes, in the hunt for a conspiracy theory. No referee is allowed anything so mundane as human frailty, and all decisions made are ascribed to bias, including those that are found to be correctly called. The press is accused of bias if it has the temerity to be less than glowing in their reviews of the performance of clubs. Of course, there are imperfections in the system which accentuate this – governing bodies sometimes do make decisions which beggar belief, referees stay silent about decisions that they have made and there remain sections of the press – both in the mainstream media and on blogs – which do write inflammatory articles with the apparent sole intention of driving traffic to their websites using the medium of provoking outrage.
The possible resolutions to this culture would need to be extreme if they are to work. Technology is often cited as a panacea for all of the game’s logistical ills, but it seems unlikely that, short of the creation of a machine called Refbot 3000 which calls offside decisions correct to atomic levels, everyone would be satisfied, and even then the accusation that it had been coded by a Manchester United supporter would probably swiftly follow from somewhere. Alternatively, the FA could ban referees and have a home supporter referee all matches, with the club for matches at neutral venues decided by the toss of a coin, or FIFA could just do away with the laws of the game altogether and play matches out in the way that playground matches are, with those with the biggest, hardest looking players getting the lions share of free kicks.
The perceived slight is, however, about more than merely refereeing decisions. It lurks in every corner of the game, from Carlos Tevez sulking like a tired six year-old with outrage at the sheer temerity his manager asking him to work a little for his wages, through to Didier Drogba’s perma-sneer and Arsene Wenger’s temporary short-sightedness when it comes to fouls that his team may have committed, and no club is excused from accusations of this sort of behaviour. With the clubs themselves seemingly of the opinion that they have something to gain by playing a perpetual game of brinkmanship, the authorities apparently unable to act effectively over it and many supporters seeming to revel in the abuse that it allows them to hurl around, it doesn’t look as if it will be going anywhere soon.
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