Keith Duggan: Abuse of referees a troubling indictment of our sporting nation

Recent decision by two juvenile leagues to ban games over a weekend shows just how serious the situation has become

The problem is not  confined to soccer. Gaelic games has had numerous instances of referees leaving the field feeling threatened by a crowd that has turned feral, convinced that the referee has it in for their team. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

The problem is not confined to soccer. Gaelic games has had numerous instances of referees leaving the field feeling threatened by a crowd that has turned feral, convinced that the referee has it in for their team. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

The world is divided into two specific groups of people: those who cannot referee and those who can.

Thankfully, the vast majority of us belong to the ranks who instinctively know that we have no business presenting ourselves as the keepers of order in the structured anarchy of a sports contest.

Deep down, most of us realise that we could ‘referee’ a charity soccer game featuring teams made up of pacifists, hippies and Benedictine nuns and before half-time the entire scene would resemble the storming of the Capitol. Often, the very best sports people make the very worst referees. And to most of us, the tribe who are attracted to refereeing are a mystery.

But their reason is often simple and basic. It’s because they love the game. They want to be involved. And they have a sense that officiating might be suited to their temperament.

We’d be lost without them.

The most that any referee can hope for is that nobody really notices him or her. They arrive for a game which may have in attendance six or 60,000. The crowd numbers are irrelevant: the fewer spectators, the clearer the voices and insults. The referee knows that nobody is there to see them. They are, in an ideal world, the invisible participants in a pageant for the others: coaches, players, parents, fans and the occasional dog walker who just happens on a game and stops to look – as Liverpool boss Jürgen Klopp did a few years ago.

To put yourself forward as a referee is to believe that you can in some way help to conduct, in the orchestral sense, the flow of movement around you: that you can direct the combined energies and frustrations and adrenaline of the 10 or 22 or 30 combatants in a cohesive and positive direction, asserting just enough authority to maintain control while allowing sufficient leeway for a sometimes brilliant game to break out.

The satisfaction is almost entirely private; the stars on the field rightly get the plaudits after a gripping game but the referees know that they are the secret source of what has been enjoyed.

Weekend morning football games are an integral part of the energy of any city. The recent decision by two Irish juvenile football league groups, the North Dublin Schoolboys and Schoolgirls League and the Metropolitan Girls League, to suspend play for a full weekend, brought about the cancellation of 550 games.

It’s a staggering number: you think about the thousands of people – young players and their parents, siblings, friends – whose weekends revolve around those matches and, of course, the 550 referees who turn up to make the games possible.

As was heard at the Oireachtas this week, the intimidation directed at referees across widely played sports like Gaelic games, soccer and rugby is frightening, with verbal and physical abuse and violence threatened. The FAI loses over half of its referees within two years of completing the beginner’s course.

“All sorts of names I can’t use on tape,” said Sean Slattery, the vice president of Irish Soccer Referees Society, on RTÉ, speaking about the abuse slung at referees.

The words aren’t hard to guess. And it’s not the juvenile players on the pitches who are the problem. It’s the people watching on – parents mostly, adults mostly. The issue must have become pretty grim for officials to have withdrawn their services.

Fair game

For decades, referees have been fair game in soccer. Flick on Match of the Day tonight and within minutes you’ll hear some crowd in some corner of England baying for the official over a bad call, a missed call, a controversial card.

Scroll through the archives of the 1980s and 1990s and you’ll see the game’s leading figures snarling at referees, bodying up and glowering and signalling to the home crowd – the tens of thousands they have at their back – that they should focus their energy, their hate, at this one person. Soccer players complain and gripe and protest decisions all the time; it’s part of the culture of the game.

It is only now, at the elite level, that the stars are beginning to accept that there is a line you cannot cross. But the tradition of baiting and hating the referee when a game is not going your way runs deep and is instinctive and is to be found on the sidelines of under-age football games.

The problem is hardly confined to soccer. Gaelic games has had numerous instances of referees leaving the field feeling threatened by a crowd that has turned feral, convinced that the referee has it in for their team.

In Gaelic football, where the rules are subject to the leniency and interpretation of a given referee, games can turn dark quickly. Even the most experienced referees run the risk of losing control of the game – or more accurately, the co-operation of the participants.

The only good news about the recent mass cancellation of soccer games is that the players themselves are not the problem. The importance of sport in young lives has been illuminated by the pandemic restrictions, when players were necessarily robbed of entire seasons. They need the escape and release of games.

The recent suspension of those games meant frustrated young players throwing meaningful looks of resentment and disappointment at sheepish fathers and mothers who indulge themselves by turning mouthy and childish when watching their children play sport. They do not mean to but they do.

Referees are a bit like a protected species. They should be safeguarded and nurtured. It may take further league-wide suspensions, across a variety of sports, before the penny drops. There’s no game without them. Thousands of young Irish soccer players will tell you that.

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