The Ref - Existing At The Vortex Of Blame

Poor refereeing decisions might make you want to scream and shout, but the man in black is the innocent victim of Premier League football's swelling self-importance...

Last Updated: 09/11/12 at 14:18 Post Comment

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We need to talk about the referee. More specifically, we need to talk about who and what the referee has become. Leaving aside the heart-sinking allegations laid by Chelsea against Mark Clattenburg, there is a wider problem, a current of chirruping that needs to be addressed before the game snaps in half completely.

Who is the modern top-level referee? If we listen to the loudest voices - and we have to, because they're the loudest, and the world hates us that way - then he's the public manifestation of a dark and shadowy conspiracy. The slightly less shrill (but significantly more numerous) wouldn't go so far as to claim any particular conspiracy as such, but, well, when you consider this carefully picked list of significant precedents alongside these carefully decontextualised and weighted statistics, then it's certainly suggestive, no? Plus there was that time he sent so-and-so off, but didn't send so-and-so off the following week. And then this, and that, and the other, and on and on until the seas rise and claim us all.

In truth, elite referees are the innocent victims of Premier League football's swelling self-importance. This is not to say that they are necessarily all brilliant at their jobs, or that they get everything right, but they exist at a convenient vortex of blame. Managers use them to distract from their own failings, because the price of their own failure is so high and the punishment so hasty. Fans use them because the narrative of theft is more comforting than the narrative of failure or misfortune; it's easier to point a finger at the oddball in the middle. Add to that the unprecedented level of scrutiny that comes with a game that increasingly defines itself through the televised experience, and you've got a perfect storm of blame.

Forgotten in all this are two essential truths. Firstly, a referee's job is impossible. Not impossible in the traditional sense of "oh, what a difficult job, you poor sod"; impossible in the sense that the perfect refereeing performance would require such superhuman powers of observation, cognition, prediction and comprehension as to defy the capabilities of even the most able of persons. Nobody gets everything right: just look at the footballers they're attempting to officiate. Misplaced passes, underhit shots, overhit crosses; referees are surrounded at all times by twenty-odd living, breathing, spitting, swearing reminders that doing difficult things is difficult and failing to do difficult things is the human condition - yet this is ignored. If we're going to have referees, we're going to have refereeing errors.

Secondly, a fair assessment of their job is impossible. Or at least, it is if you're watching on television (in the stands, every decision is automatically judged along partisan lines, which is a perfectly healthy delusion that nobody can really complain about). As soon as you see one replay, you've got more information than the referee; once you've seen sixteen, from five different angles, two in super slow-motion, one magnified, then you're in such a ridiculously privileged position as to render the whole exercise essentially meaningless. To criticise somebody for not knowing something they couldn't possibly have known is not only supremely unfair, but it's also worryingly irrational.

(As an aside, the position of referee originated as a neutral arbiter between two 'umpires', one appointed by each side. Can. You. Imagine.)

Referees, bless them, are frequently very peculiar and very annoying people. It's a very peculiar and annoying job - part schoolteacher, part lawyer, part athlete, part cat-herder - and every decision has to go against somebody. After Liverpool's 2-2 draw with Everton, and after Luis Suárez's on-side winner was disallowed, Steven Gerrard let it be known that he had grave concerns: "If every decision in this league is based on 'we think so' then we're in trouble". Unfortunately for him, that's all referees have got: they see what happens, then they make a call based on what they think they saw. That's all people have got most of the time; you could try to prove that Fernando Torres didn't dive using syntactic logic if you like, but you'd probably end up behind the run of play.

This is not to deny the existence of refereeing imbalance in any degree, whether that be to specific teams or players, or as a result of a hostile atmosphere, or stemming from the relative strength and reputation of the teams involved. People is people, after all, and they just ain't no good. But there's a bizarre egoism at the centre of any conspiratorial leaning, a presumption that the fundamental character of the world is determined by one's own affections and preferences: Five minutes of injury time? Why, the universe must have reconfigured itself in a variety of illegal and elaborate ways to ensure that my football team will lose this game! The alternative is that I confront my fundamental irrelevance, and the fundamental irrelevance of this game I care so much about, and that would never do! BOOOOOOOOO!

Naturally, this piece is going to look very stupid indeed if a giant web of dubious payments unravels over the next few years, proving once and for all that Alex Ferguson really is running the whole thing. Still, if Manchester United really did attempt to buy the title last season, then one hopes for the Glazers' sake that they held onto the receipt. And until there's some actual proof - no, that chart plotting Arsenal's yellow-cards against the phases of the moon doesn't count - can we all agree to lay off the referees a little bit? Let mistakes be mistakes: lamentable, irritating, unfortunate, and understandable. Because without the ref, zero.

Andi Thomas

Andi also writes for SB Nation and The Score, and is on Twitter. He also contributed to the Surreal Football Magazine #1, which is out now, and available here.

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