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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.

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  1. R2Dad

    April 4, 2011 at 3:31 pm

    1) The FA should design Referee Metrics which are meaningful and public so when they 2) determine referees for specific matches that process is public and rational. 3) Consistency of calls is what makes an excellent referee. Consistency among referees is what makes an excellent league. The English FA is not an excellent association because of the standard deviation of calls/non-calls among their referees. 4) The FA can point their finger at the referees, but the Association review of cards/player-manager behavior/suspensions is opaque and thus suspect. Manager touchline ban? Isn’t it time for the FA to at least catch up to the 20th century?
    On a side note, Scudamore’s is modeling the FA after another useless organization, the UN. Needs cooperation from everybody? Only if you’re a weenie bureaucrat who is afraid to make a decision. It works like this: Change the laws. Explain the new laws, the consequences to the players, referees and managers. Tell them the rules will be reviewed and revised every year. If the new system is noticeably better, Scudamore is a hero and gets a big bonus. If the new system sucks, he gets the sack and the next guy gets a chance. It shouldn’t matter what his title is, where he went to school, or how blue his blood is. Focus on results and all is possible. On second thought, this is too difficult for English society to do properly. Hire Boston or Bain and they will fix it over the summer.

  2. Dave B.

    April 4, 2011 at 12:29 pm

    Honestly I think the game is so wide open and fast paced the referee doesn’t stand a chance in hell. Not when he needs to be moving around the pitch hoping he’s in the best position when a call needs to be made, while his assistants are half a field away (and also trying to call offsides while helping out).

    I just look at American Football. Same number of players on a field roughly the same size. With the bulk of play and players in a relatively small area around the line of scrimmage. And football has 7 officials (not counting the guys up watching reviews from the press box).

    If you apply the same kind of system to soccer I think you solve a lot of problems. First change is of mentality – its a team of officials trying to get the calls right. Not a referee and his peons. Stress taking advantage of the extra sets of eyes and encourage officials to use those headsets to make sure they get crucial decisions right.

    Then take the Europa League officials and charge them with monitoring the box at all times. They are there not only to determine if a ball goes over the line, but also to help with penalty calls and watch for simulation.

    Now add two additional linesmen opposite their current counterparts. Have them share offside duty, while also freeing them to look for other fouls and doing so not from a mile away.

  3. vinnie

    April 3, 2011 at 11:27 pm

    sorry, can’t read this rather long article @ work now but in regards to having two referees, football is a contact sports and the fairness of the contact is very subjective. what will happen if both referees have their own versions of physicality v dirty playing? in fact, it involves more than this, a lot of decisions are based on referees interpretation, ie. talking back to referee, time wasting, handball/ ball-to-hand, diving v penalty the list goes on. how can we make sure that the consistencies from both referees are identical? who has the final say, who’s in control of the match, if shit hits the fan, which of those 2 referees are responsible? does making one referee the subordinate of the other undermine the referee’s credibility? does that affect the fairness during different halves?

    btw, these are the best referees the country has and where else are you suppose to look for referees? it’s not the most glamorous jobs around and they get a lot of shit from both sides of the teams, managers, and fans. referees only have themselves to back them up

    • well

      April 4, 2011 at 3:06 am

      The NHL uses two officials. Each one calls the penalties they see in a lead/follow situation. One official is the lead on one end of the ice and the other stays near center ice to watch the backside of the play. As the play shifts to the other end of the ice the official who was at center ice shifts closer to the other goal. If they see a penalty, they call it. There’s no “final say” because they both have final say. If they disagree as to how each other call a game, then they discuss it off ice and/or with league officials.

      Lack of consistency is an issue with a single referee as well. Are they going to warn a player before a yellow, or go straight to yellow? Might they warn a player and then go straight to red? Maybe they’ll warn a player on one team and card a player on the other team.

  4. CTBlues

    April 3, 2011 at 5:29 pm

    I don’t understand why soccer only uses one ref look at every other sports league they have several refs or umpires on the field to make calls. The more eyes you have with equal say can only better the credibility of the sport.

  5. Jake

    April 3, 2011 at 1:24 pm

    The pace is so frentic in the EPL that it would be better to have two referees on the field, one in each half. Maybe that will cut back on all the terrible decisions. Referees have to run just as much as the players and that tiredness will affect their judgment.

  6. Steven

    April 3, 2011 at 10:28 am

    One of the biggest problems is that the referees in England are terrible. Every weekend you see inconsistent officiating and blown calls. More so than in any other top European league.

    First, the FA needs to make sure that their referees are competent. Then make sure that the rules are enforced equally by all referees. Different referees should not have a different interpretation of the laws. Then only can you expect to have a respect campaign.

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