There’s a man going around taking names
And he decides who to free and who to blame
Everybody won’t be treated all the same
There will be a golden ladder reaching down
When the man comes around”
Johnny Cash – The Man Comes Around
A toast to Tofik Bahramov, Clive Thomas, Charles Corver, Ali Bin Nasser, Karl-Josef Assenmacher, Byron Moreno, Jorge Larrionda. And now to Yuichi Nishamura. Or to collectively name them, Ref. Or the more colloquially known ‘Fucking Hell Ref’. They’re homers, dodgy, on the take, visually impaired, a product of an unmarried union and occasionally more anatomical than that.
Most referees at international level have remained anonymous. They are merely ‘Ref’, representative of the laws of the game on the field of play. Unbiased, rigorous and committed, they are a dispenser of cards (and latterly, vanishing sprays), taker of names and blower of whistles. The highest praise they can receive is that they ‘let the game flow’, as if they are responsible for the tactical discipline and incision of the opposing sides. Or that they’ve not impressed themselves on the game, as though their mere presence has ensured a quality display from both teams.
Usually, if you know a referee’s name, it’s because they’re biased, obviously, against your side. Or they’ve dropped a clanger of such weight that it would shatter an ITV pundit box window. With the obvious exception.
But even the mighty Collina is an indication of the shifting role of the man in black, who is also now the man in red, green, blue, fluorescent yellow and most likely, trouble. Celebrity referees are the staple of Sports Entertainments like Wrestling, a product or commodity for furthering the ongoing narrative. I mean, it’s not like football has become just as packaged and plasticised as WWE, is it? An event designed for television, rather than the live event. A show, with advert breaks when financially agreeable.
The ‘speed of the game’ is the reason we’re given for goal line technology, for extra official on the lines – but only up at the very highest, the televised, levels. In the midst of all of this marches the referee, completely helpless to slow motion replays, reverse angles and the toolbox of the tiresome Tyldesleys and creaking ex-pros of the world. And while vanishing spray is seen as a welcome addition, it speaks of a decline in the respect for the official, the pacing of the 10 and the players willingness to do absolutely anything, anything at all, to gain an advantage. It also looks good on telly.
Football is the last great holdout against video replays, but the clamour grows ever louder with every pained post-match interview. The oft held example, in the UK at least, is rugby. Referees are miked up and the television viewer can hear the entire conversation, as can supporters through on-sale earpieces. But the replay option, once vaunted as a solution to messy line decisions, has come to bring groans from supporters as the game is stopped and restarted again and again and again. But while it’s almost infallible, it again relies on the referee requesting the service (except in the case of this year’s Rugby Premiership final, where the TMO intervened unbidden, an interesting and disturbing shift of power). And yet decisions are still missed, infringements unpunished, howls of dismay from both sets of supporters, bullet headed managers ‘refusing to criticise the officials’.
Mistakes are not a new thing, as the litany of referees made human by error at the beginning of this piece indicates. Referees, technology or otherwise, will always get some decisions wrong to the neutral, they will certainly get things wrong regardless according to opposing supporters. Tackles that were definitely a foul, an offside flag raised when he’s clearly five yards onside (says the man in the stand 100 yards away) and how was that not a yellow? Fucking hell ref.
But that’s the beauty of it, that hidden element of chaos inside every match official. That within the human incarnation of the cold, impassive rules there lies a spark of unpredictability as game changing as any Neymar. That there’s the fallibility of humanity at the heart of the game. It’s a mirror to their charges, the players. Ah players, unpredictable, inspirational, yet forced into rigid tactics (yes, even the Brazilians, playing with a smile) in order to win the game using the skills they have earned or have been gifted. All under the intense pressure of expectation from their supporters. Spare a thought though, for four officials under pressure from both sets of supporters, both teams, both dugouts, FIFA and a worldwide television audience.
Let them be wrong. Let them wear black again and be intimidating, respected presences on the pitch. And instead of trying to support them by slicing away their authority with cameras, sprays, replays, microphones, goal line technology, just make it simple. When they get it wrong, give them the authoritative power of a simple statement, “I’m the ref, you’re not. Now fuck off”.
Posted by Dutton Peabody