The Return of the Gentleman’s Game to English Football

Photo by Leslie Millman-Manchesterunitedman1

Born in England, football has always been considered by purists as a gentleman’s game. But lately the notion seems reserved for nostalgic old-timers, pining fuddy-duddies ignorant of the modern game’s evolution.

The growth of the sport in the last decade, particularly in its founding nation, has shifted the emphasis from sport to business. Money is too rife, and it must be made at all costs; usually at the expense of respect for the game’s tradition.

In the Premier League especially, the relationship between footballers and referees is one of shameless bullying. On any given weekend teammates surround referees, shouting incomprehensible, general negativity, in the shameless hope to viscerally intimidate a referee into an immediate and emotional —or a later and subconscious— game-changing decision.

These same illicitly rich players will then oversell fouls, blatantly simulate, exaggerate any knock in hope of gaining a competitive advantage.

But why shouldn’t they? The risk of being disciplined is nearly non-existent while the reward for winning a penalty or getting someone sent off is ostensibly match-deciding.

It’s hard to fault the players. They’re products of a new-wave footballing culture that promotes trickery over teamwork, the flashes of skill ending up on YouTube and propagating an individual’s Twitter audience. It’s a culture that demands results over play, the monetary reward generally too great to risk playing honestly and honorably.

The FA had tried to curb such misbehavior from England’s shores with the Respect campaign. But referees didn’t have the backbone to enforce it, not for long, and now it’s used as a butt of jokes to mock the Association and its confused bureaucracy.

After all, respect is earned, not advertised for. It is demanded, not begged for. And now it’s clear that walking children out before games to hold banners and sing folk songs is obviously not trailblazing a paradigm shift in England’s footballing culture.

But comments Thursday from the chief executive of the Premier League, Richard Scudamore, refreshingly reflect a desire — rooted in necessity — to clean up the game’s application with an increased emphasis on disciplining petulant behavior from players.

“I think we do need to concentrate on the player and manager relationship with the referee this time, as every one of us knows that there have been elements of unacceptable behavior,” Scudamore told the BBC Thursday.

“As to what we think is unacceptable; it’s vitriolic abuse towards match officials and that has on occasions gone unpunished; the surrounding of referees is unacceptable; the goading of referees into trying to get opponents sanctioned we think is unacceptable; and also the undue criticism, where it spills over into questioning the referee’s integrity or his honesty is also unacceptable.”

Scudamore indicated that all Premiership clubs are on-board with the initiative that, starting next season, will look to pick up where the FA’s Respect campaign left off. And the Associations will be wielding their most trusted ally: confused bureaucracy.

“It needs cooperation from everybody,” he said. “The first thing we do is an education program, and a consultation program working with the FA, PFA, and LMA. Then, obviously working with the PGMO, asking for their advice as to how the refereeing fraternity can help us manage that. And ultimately, sadly, a disciplinary process needs to be there to back up what is deemed to be unacceptable behavior as a last resort.”

Unfortunately the Premier League’s best intentions don’t absolve match officials from the ultimate responsibility to help eradicate plight from pitches across England. The Professional Game Match Officials association and its body already have the power to enforce needed change. Meanwhile they’re the only ones who aren’t profiting from the behavior!

Therefore, referees are already the most culpable.

They have every right to brief footballers before a game that team captains are the only players that can argue calls. They have every right already to enforce it. More so, referees must be less reticent to book players for both dissent and simulation.

Setting a precedent early and being consistent would eradicate so much blight from an otherwise pure game. Players are intelligent creatures when running in primal mode, geeked on adrenaline. Any sense that swearing, arguing, and gesticulating is counter-productive to the inherent, competitive drive would see it eradicated from their behavior by their own will to win.

Simply, officials brandishing yellow cards for any diving (no matter how blatant), abuse, and “two-finger” implores would immediately turn what is now an evil tide of dishonor from players.

Initiatives like what Scudamore and the Premier League plan for next season may make a new era palatable to fans and footballers but actual change will be ushered in on the sweaty backs of referees who must demand the respect they and the game deserves.

After all, it’s not disrespect that is ingrained in footballers. The knowledge that it is effective —and that they can get away with it— are what perpetuate the current culture.

And while it’s definitely not the first time the FA or the Premier League have tried to improve player behavior, any self-respecting purveyor of what was once a gentleman’s game should hope that it’s the last required.

After all, the game itself, in an idealistic form, will exist long after its current superstar and superclub practitioners in England; a relationship that is not reciprocal.


  1. Steven April 3, 2011
  2. Jake April 3, 2011
  3. CTBlues April 3, 2011
  4. vinnie April 3, 2011
    • well April 4, 2011
  5. Dave B. April 4, 2011
  6. R2Dad April 4, 2011

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