Reffing hell: stuck in the middle of a game gone wrong | Soccer

“No, he’s a shit ref!” the coach screams. He’s not actually yelling at me this time, he’s screaming at one of his own players, who’s just offered me his hand after the game and said, “Well reffed.” I’d sent the trainer off half an hour earlier for his seemingly addictive hysteria. Even after I’d sent him off, he kept on screaming: “You should fuck off back to England! Go anywhere, as long as it’s far away!” (Oh, my friend, you can’t imagine how far away from here I’d like to be right now.)

Now, after the game, he curses at me non-stop until I’ve disappeared into my changing room and shut the door. His team lost 5-1. It’s my fault, obviously. He isn’t the only member of the home side unhappy with my performance. One of his players has a predilection for using his hand to control the ball, which – as many of you will know — is contrary to the Laws of the Game. The first time’s right outside his own penalty area, and when I whistle, he yells, “Why don’t you just give a penalty and be done with it?” A highly curious suggestion, but I stick with the free-kick, which his opponents score from anyway.

Ten minutes later he does it again, this time to the left side of the penalty area. He loudly protests the decision once more, so I give him a yellow card. “I don’t give a shit!” he shouts. One minute later I’m standing next to him, after having actually awarded his team a free-kick. But he must be in a hurry to get somewhere, because he informs me: “Your refereeing’s a pile of shit today.” I show him a second yellow, then the red, and he walks off giving me the old hard stare and calling me a bum.

Meanwhile, up front there’s a 44-year-old striker who, like many of us, has seen better days but doesn’t want to admit that the only rectangular-shaped box he should be in is a wooden one with handles and a lid. Every time the young centre-back beats him to the ball, he moans that he was fouled. Eventually he moans so much that I card him too. When he misses an easy chance I consider asking him if that was my fucking fault too, but I cling on to the moral high ground and hold my tongue. I do, however, get to enjoy his sarcastic applause as he serenades me off the ground. He’s not stupid – he knows I can’t red-card him once we’ve left the pitch.

It all has to go in my disciplinary report. Because, after refereeing three games in less than 24 hours, there’s nothing I’d rather do than sit down at the computer to write up all these misdemeanours. Not just all of the above, but the fact that the club officials wouldn’t confirm the name of the coach to me, and one even lied that it hadn’t been the coach at all, just “some guy” who happened to be spontaneously coaching the team, and whose name he didn’t know. Is that right? I tell a whole crowd of people standing by the grill (I don’t get offered any food, even though that’s generally the custom) that the reason I’ve had to ref three games in 24 hours is because so many referees just can’t be arsed with the hassle any more.

We’re quitting and I can completely understand why. I get half shouted down, half laughed off the premises. “You all have a nice evening now,” I say as I cycle away. The previous afternoon, I’d refereed a boys’ U19 match. There was only one yellow card, and at the end both coaches said “thank you.” That’s pretty much all I ask for. Even if you really think I’ve been a shit ref who should fuck off back to England.

A few days later and I’m refereeing again. There’s uproar in the 70th minute. We’re waiting for the home team to take a corner kick when all of a sudden the defending lads – a boys’ U17 team who are seven goals down in a last-16 cup tie – erupt in outrage at “an insult” from one of their opponents. The only problem is – I didn’t hear it, and even if I had heard it, I wouldn’t have been sure which of the players had said it. Play on. This leaves the away team with a sense of injustice for the rest of the night, enough to sway focus away from the fact they took a hammering.

At the final whistle, a player makes a comment about my reffing, but I ignore him. Can’t be arsed with another red card and writing up a disciplinary report. Their coach comes over and says that though I had a good game, surely I’d heard The Insult. Everyone heard it, even over on the touchline. I tell him that what I didn’t see or hear, I can’t whistle. I make my favourite point about having no linesmen. I also tell him that I’m hard of hearing and wear hearing aids. He’s understanding about all of this and, for once, I part on good terms with a losing coach.

I mention the incident to the home coach and he says: “They always find something to moan about. Sometimes it’s best not to have heard something.” There could be something in this. I’ve been thinking a lot about the ‘fuck off back to England’ game last weekend and how I could have calmed things down. When the player in that game told me that my refereeing was shit, I could have laughed and said, “Well, mate, when you’re a shit player in a shit league, you’re gonna get a shit ref.” But I only thought of that later (though I’m still going to use it at some point). Alternatively, I could just have stared into space and ignored him. Officially, the red card was absolutely the correct course of action. Unofficially, I’m no longer so sure.

A recent article in the German magazine Der Spiegel highlighted the abuse that amateur refs have to put up with. In the city of Hamburg, more than half of new referees give up during their first two years because they can’t handle it, and they don’t get enough support and protection from the football authorities. “Who wants to get sworn at for a couple of Euros while doing their hobby?” asks Wilfried Diekert, chairman of the Hamburg Referees’ Committee, adding: “The old refs are hardened, they don’t hear it any more.”

In recent years, in both Hamburg and in Frankfurt, referee associations drew up codes of conduct that all clubs were asked to sign. In reality, that’s about as effective as a dozen stoned peaceniks in an empty field holding hands, closing their eyes and praying for an end to war. Clubs all agree on the record that, of course, all their players should respect the referee. Then once the game kicks off, all those beautifully crafted, well-intentioned words about sportsmanship are as relevant to football as a declaration of intent from the Fifa Ethics Committee.

Reffing Hell by Ian Plenderleith is out now. Illustration by Tim Bradford.
Reffing Hell is out now. Illustration by Tim Bradford.

In short, without the feeling that abusive players are going to be properly disciplined, referees are faced with three choices: 1. Pack it in. 2. Take the time and trouble to prosecute violent players via the legal system, given that football’s internal disciplinary system ranges from lenient to impotent. 3. Develop an even thicker skin. Option 1 is tempting, and often considered. Its time will surely come. Option 2 requires time, a tough constitution and a support network that’s rarely available. Option 3 is an ongoing process and tends to work with practice, while hardly enhancing any pleasure taken from the job. The longer I ref, the more often I’m forced to behave like the mean bastard ref of stereotypical repute. Still, some teams get the ref they deserve.

This is an extract from Ian Plenderleith’s book Reffing Hell (Halcyon Publishing) detailing what writer Harry Pearson calls Plenderleith’s “insightful, hilarious and hair-raising” experiences as a referee in the amateur leagues in Germany.

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