Chelsea, a refereeing crisis, conspiracy theories and the bonds that bind us together

Date published: Tuesday 16th August 2022 1:25 - Ian King

Anthony Taylor is at the centre of the current refereeing 'crisis', here booking Kai Havertz during Chelsea vs Spurs

This week it’s Chelsea and next week it’ll be someone else, but the ‘crisis in refereeing’ is actually something deeper and more worrying.

 

As with so many of the world’s problems, the most difficult question about the current perception of a ‘crisis’ in refereeing is ‘where does this all end?’ It’s a fair question. Not a single weekend goes by without another set of supporters claiming a ‘conspiracy’ against their club. Okay, fair enough. I’ll come back to that. But where does this all end?

To be absolutely clear, this isn’t really about Chelsea vs Spurs. It isn’t about Chelsea. The events of Sunday afternoon and the reaction to them are a symptom of a problem within the game rather than a cause, but this is a problem with potentially threatening consequences for the Premier League, a growing issue that they are going to have to grasp because the fundamental lack of trust that now seems to exist between the game’s stakeholders and those who watch – and by extension pay – is one of the fault lines that has the potential to destroy the golden goose that their product has become over the last three decades.

At its heart, professional football is a society and all societies depend on trust in order to function. This extends through every area of the game. We trust the owners of our football clubs with their custodianship, and to spend vast amounts of money to try and improve our teams. On match days, we trust that gathering tens of thousands of people into small areas will be stewarded and policed to ensure our safety. And we expect that matches will be won and lost fairly, adjudged by officials who are unbiased and refereed according to the laws of the game.

So, first things first, then. Is there a conspiracy against your team? No. Of course there isn’t. Don’t be so daft. After all, what exactly would the benefit be? The Premier League has grown fat off the back of carefully cultivated and marketed image. Would all concerned seriously risk all of that – because one of the things that may well destroy that carefully-guarded image would be a concrete revelation that all referees were meeting once a week like the Stonecutters in The Simpsons to decide who will win, lose or draw each round of matches – for… well, it’s difficult to say what benefit this even would serve, really.

Because Anthony Taylor ‘hates Chelsea’, or whatever? We’ve already reached the point at which so many people are claiming conspiracies against their teams that every fanbase seems to have one, and what would the benefit of a conspiracy against everyone be?

The answers to this question are usually necessarily vague, because they’re based entirely on the observations of the most one-eyed group within the game, the fans themselves. This can be seen in the fact that fans only ever complain about the decisions that go against their clubs.

This, to a point, has always been the case. Referees have been targeted by supporters for as long as matches have been played. There are stories of referees having to hide in changing rooms from angry mobs of fans going back to Victorian times.

But while the idea of there being a conspiracy against your club and your club alone is obviously absurd, the possibility that standards might have fallen is more plausible. There’s another conversation to be had about whether this is actually happening or not, but let’s indulge this argument for a moment and consider the ramifications, should this actually be the case.

There are two obvious reasons why this might be, but the irony is that one of these is probably driven by those frothing at the mouth over this perceived fall. Firstly, the pace of the game has increased to a point at which the human eye almost can’t keep up. This is hardly a new argument and there are flaws, not least of which is the fact that referees do make fewer mistakes during matches than most outsiders realise.

Secondly, it is already known that recruiting referees is becoming increasingly difficult, with scores having left the game in recent years, in no small part because of the abuse that they receive. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that relatively few people grow up wanting to be a referee. The pool of those persuaded to carry out football’s most thankless task is inherently small to start with.

But shrinking that available pool still further – through, say, years of abuse and slanderous comment about senior referees on social media – only makes it more likely that the quality of officials at the very top will diminish even further. If you think refereeing is bad now, just think how bad refereeing might be if 90% of those who might have been persuaded to get involved decided that it wasn’t worth the hassle. An increasing number already are.

VAR hasn’t brought the clarity that was implied with its introduction, either. The idea that it would somehow end all controversy surrounding refereeing decisions was always almost charmingly naive, but at this stage in the 21st century, fans are so tribal that referees could be completely replaced by automation and if decisions continued to go against their team, they would most likely just call the algorithm biased and plague whoever coded that instead.

But the ‘crisis in refereeing’ is most likely a reflection of something else, a more general societal crisis of authority. It’s been brewing for years. It’s now been almost two decades since Swiss referee Urs Meier was forced into hiding after taking charge of the England vs Portugal match at Euro 2004, and Meier’s comments holding the British tabloid press to blame for this ring as true now as they did then.

Because it should be pointed out that this culture isn’t unique to fans alone. The media does have a responsibility in this respect, and the extent to which match coverage often seems focussed on the refereeing – especially the ‘outrage for clicks’ aspect – remains troubling, in a world in which it often feels as though there are multiple pressures on everybody from all sides to feel angrier and angrier about just about everything.

This language of contempt is the lingua franca of modern football. Everyone has to be perceived to have an ‘agenda’, including F365.  But those who make these accusations seldom seem to acknowledge their own biases, which are usually as clear and obvious as any VAR decision could ever be.

All of which brings us back to that initial question. Where does this all end? With a referee being assaulted on the pitch? Worse? Because the abuse of officials has been a growing problem within the grassroots game for years, and we all assume that such things could never happen in the professional game until they do.

It probably results in more VAR, because that fundamental bond of trust – that referees are doing an extremely difficult job under circumstances that couldn’t be more high pressure – is breaking before our very eyes and the only solution that the game itself can only be more technology, if actual human beings aren’t being trusted anymore.

And those running the game itself really have more questions to answer than referees themselves, fans, or the media. The controversy will continue because it has become abundantly clear since the introduction of VAR it may be impossible to iron out all of football’s creases. Matches are won and lost (or, in the case of Chelsea vs Spurs, drawn) on the basis of these moments, and the governing bodies can’t make them as black and white as they’d clearly love because there will always be an exception.

But football’s governing bodies painted themselves into a corner from the moment they adopted VAR as policy. On the one hand, football is now deemed Too Important to get any big decisions wrong. But on the other, getting these decisions wrong has been part of the story of the game since it first started – consider, for example, the 1932 FA Cup final being won by a goal scored after the ball had clearly gone out of play – and the best efforts of those who run the game don’t seem to have improved anything much. Everyone’s faster and fitter. Players are well-versed in duping referees.

FIFA, UEFA, the Premier League or whoever could have maintained a line of ‘look, football is *different*, and you can either accept that there will always be grey areas and fuzzy decisions or perhaps this game isn’t for you’ when the seeds of this were being sewn, but they didn’t, for whatever reason – there are, of conspiracy theories as to why this might be – and now they’ll reap an increasingly angry but apparently perpetual whirlwind of vitriol for having done so.

And there is a striking irony to the fact that so many of these complaints come from the supporters of the biggest clubs at a time when they hold every advantage over all others. It seems very obvious that huge disparities in spending power make a greater difference to the composition of final league tables than a few shaky refereeing decisions over the course of an entire season, but conversations about ‘fairness’ seldom involve that golden elephant in the room.

None of this is to say that corruption in football is impossible. The Calciopoli scandal in Italy, which left Juventus in Serie B, is proof of that. But until such a time that there is more substantial evidence of corruption than a few decisions not going your team’s way, to describe it in such terms is unhelpful hyperbole.

If refereeing is in a state of crisis, the referees themselves are only a small component. But this deteriorating situation can only start to turn around at a point when everybody engaged in it is doing so in good faith, and that doesn’t seem likely to happen in the foreseeable future. Shouting ‘conspiracy’ won’t do any good until those doing so have more solid evidence than carefully cultivated compilations of video clips which prove nothing that isn’t circumstantial.

What is deteriorating is the fundamental bond of trust which holds the game together, and bonds of this sort aren’t just breaking in football, they’re breaking all over the place. But in football there are few signs that anything will improve.

It’s not about Chelsea. It’s not just about the Premier League. It may not only be about football. But there was a time when the referee’s word was final, and that evidently isn’t the case anymore. And since we don’t seem to have decided what will replace that former truism, the more and more unmanageable it will continue to feel.

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