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Overturning Collocini’s red card highlights football’s refereeing problems

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n football, we like to talk a lot about culture. Clubs, fanbases and even cities all seem to have a particular way of being, or an identity when it comes to the beautiful game. Many of these identities or ‘cultures’ are shared among the majority in the sport. They stretch across all ages, across all classes and all races. Whether it’s agreeing that diving/simulation is wrong, that a 4-4 draw is more entertaining than a goalless one or that by playing out of position in the sweeper role Manuel Neuer is without question the best goalkeeper in the world, we all get involved with snowballing opinions and whether you agree with all of them or not, strong cultures develop.

One such culture in football can be summed up with a chant heard from every terrace around every ground up and down the country: “The referee’s a w*****, the referee’s a w*****”. For now, let’s replace that last word with ‘wally’. The culture, in football, denotes that the referee is a wally. Whether he’s officiating Bayern Munich vs Real Madrid in the Champions League final or Pub Standard Liege vs The Rodallega Bombs on the only pitch that isn’t completely water-logged, the referee is still a wally.

Officials in football are treated with disrespect and contempt. No matter who he is or who’s playing, the ref is the enemy, a fool with more vanishing spray than brain cells who has somehow managed to put his boots on the right feet. Whether you’re playing or spectating, the result is the same, no one respects the ref.

That just seems to be how it is in football. Players treat the ref like schoolchildren treat their teachers. They know they can’t win, but they’ll still whine, moan and even storm off like they’ve just been sent to detention. Contrast this with the treatment of officials in rugby and it paints a vivid picture. In rugby, the referee is seen as more of a boss than a teacher. He has authority and he has control and while the players might not like it, they certainly respect it. So much so that they even refer to the referee as ‘Sir’.

Despite the recent furore surrounding the referee during Scotland’s quarter final loss to Australia, football could learn an awful lot from the way rugby players respect officials. Referees have complete authority and their decisions are final and uncontested. Because they have the ability to sin-bin any player who takes issue with a decision (or perhaps more potently, move the ball 10 yards further forward), arguing with the refs barely exists in rugby. The punishment is too great and you’re letting your team down if you do so. Contesting a decision is positively discouraged. It’s a fantastically efficient system, or ‘culture’, that football should seriously think about adopting. Give referees more authority and you will see their decisions respected. It would only take a few tiny rule changes and you’d see a huge shift in culture, but football prefers to remain in the dark ages when it comes to this.

Very rarely will you watch a post-match interview from a football manager who’s just lost where he won’t mention some sort of refereeing decision that cost his team in some way. Many managers, like José Mourinho, and Sir Alex Ferguson before him will put all blame on the match official when they lose. Other managers aren’t quite as blunt but frequently still take small pops, mentioning a penalty they feel they should’ve been given, or an offside they feel wasn’t spotted in the lead up to their opponent’s winning goal. It happens all the time. It’s embedded in the culture.

Until action is taken to try to change this, we will always have the same outcomes, with players, managers and fans all feeling a growing distance between themselves and the match officials. What we need in football is clear and concise rules to allow referees to run the game properly and smartly and a respectful attitude to match. What we don’t need is for referees to be undermined and to be made out like fools and invalids in the eyes of the watching nation. A few simple rule changes from the FA could sort this out in no time. Instead, they decide to make the issue worse.

The decision to overturn Coloccini’s red card has done exactly that. Referee Bobby Madley, who sent Coloccini off against Sunderland, is now the latest referee to be made to look like an idiot. The ‘independent panel’ set up by the FA decided that Madley had made an “obvious error” in sending Coloccini off, but while many Newcastle fans might hold that view, and while many others may have thought the decision was a bit harsh, was it an ‘obvious error’? Hardly.

An obvious error is sending Kieran Gibbs off when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in fact handled the ball on the line. It’s objective. But deciding that Fabricio Coloccini was not denying a clear goal-scoring opportunity is subjective! And that’s the key.

The FA have not only shown up one of their officials, they’ve also decided that the opinions of a three man independent panel is apparently stronger and more important than that of the match referee. But if the match referee’s opinion can be debunked, then why can’t the independent panel’s opinion be too? Can we appeal the decision of the appeals panel? Where does the cycle end? Who’s opinion is concrete?

The moment you start dealing with subjective issues you have a big problem. By overturning the red card, they’ve set an appalling and worrying precedent: that referees have very little authority and that almost any subjective decision can be overturned. What this will create is even more disdain for referees, even more of a feeling that they’re wrong all the time and respect for them will continue to drop.

The FA themselves have a ‘Respect’ campaign, but they’re shooting themselves in the foot with this awful decision to undermine Bobby Madley. The FA are the real wallys in this scenario. With respect in free-fall, matches will become harder to control as referees lose their authority, and ‘the referee’s a w*****’ culture becomes even more solidified.

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