In a sport headed by a self-evidently, almost comically corrupt officiating body; a sport so unscrupulous with the whims of private ownership that those owners who are mere wheeler dealers, porn barons or former gangsters seem cuddly in the collective stakes; a sport played by those who rarely shirk from insulting the integrity of their fans or fellow professionals, who will moronically put pen to any paper regardless of the fraud they incur as a result, who will back any organisational cause regardless of what ties it may have to slave labour, corruption, even extremism; you’d think in a sport like this, followers would have a great many legitimate targets if they felt gripped by pangs of hate. And yet the lightning rod of the vast majority of football’s disingenuous appeals to justice and righteousness is, as one might expect, the man at the bottom of the food chain of acclaimed value. It’s that lovable pillar of society, the man whose impossibility of a job epitomises football’s essential moral relativism, the silhouetted and vertically-striped Malcolm in the middle: the referee.
In the Brazilian north, a tale unfolded that has come to feel like a parable of the position referees hold in the esteem of the footballing public. On June 30th, 2013, a match was being played in Pio XII, Maranhão, between two amateur clubs; the official was 20-year-old Otavio Jordao da Silva Cantanhede*. Otavio showed Josemir Santos Abreu a red card; the 31-year-old contested the decision, and began to throw punches at the young referee. Otavio then drew a knife from his pocket and repeatedly stabbed Abreu, who incurred fatal injury as a result. The game, it would appear from reports, continued. When news percolated in due course back to the field of play that Abreu had died, his family, friends and assorted other supporters stormed the pitch. Otavio was at first stoned, then decapitated and quartered. His head was put on a stake in the middle of the pitch, with medical personnel left to piece the rest of his dismembered remains back to; those of accordingly grim mindset may consult a viral video of the operation, should they wish to find details of this process.
The story of Abreu and Otavio is breathtaking in its extremity, but there are other similar tales in which referees are far more fatally sinned against than sinning; witness the shooting dead of Cesar Flores in Argentina in 2016 for dismissing an amateur player. Of course, in a real sense these stories are far more illustrative of Latin America’s struggles with on-pitch violence than they are of a cosmic prejudice against officials; Otavio really had wronged the loved ones of Abreu, far more direly and unforgivably than any referee ever ‘wrongs’ those who love a player who said referee might call a decision against. Yet, these tales tell an exaggerated story of how distinctly football conceives of its rules and their enforcers compared to other sports. Apologists constantly attempt to ascribe some kind of post hoc honour to instances where the game’s rules are flagrantly broken for personal gain. Supporters do not generally have the guts to sully the legacy of Diego Armando Maradona, so instead of decrying his lack of professional integrity, they mythologise his cheating with notions of Buenos Airesian viveza criolla – “native cunning”, a patronising pat on the head for the ghetto kid. A 2009 piece in which Sid Lowe earmarked Dani Alves as perhaps the world’s then-second best player included the rightly esteemed Lowe’s recognition of Alves’ tendency to be a “sneaky little cheat” without anything approaching real disapproval. Laughing calls for the Premier League’s new anti-diving regulations to be christened the ‘Ashley Young Law’ aside, to gripe about the sport’s history of the allowance of dishonesty is seen to be either unfashionable, hypocritical-by-default, or even something of a desecration of the ‘joy’ of the game. The joy carpetbagged, one would have to presume, by the cheater from the cheated. In no other sport is cheating so strategically countenanced in a given tactical set-up; the game played on the grass can quite easily be as stacked, as festooned with the ‘dark arts’, as it very clearly is at board-level, and at the level of its international organisation.
It is not that referees are moulded or trained to allow this, or that they are avatars of the game’s indifference to real fairness, even though they are almost always the sole victims of the fallout when a given team comes a cropper of football’s judicial indifference. The referees are the sacrificial lambs, lone figures always stood both literally and figuratively in the very centre of the action; for all they serve to deflect attention from other elements of the game that need reform, they might as well paint targets on their chests each time they set out to the turf. Being put in this unenviable position, all but the most naturally incompetent or genuinely corrupt of referees deserve, at any given moment, not our scorn but our sympathy. The fundamental movements of football’s moral universe are enabled by the fact that it is almost impossible for a referee to perform a complete job in a given match. Questions will be asked of arbitro Iglesias Villanueva over the ghost goal he did not award to Lionel Messi in Barcelona’s recent clash with Valencia at the Mestalla, and scorn will be, literally or figuratively, put his way; but in a league that is the only one of Europe’s big four to have not adopted goal-line technology, in a league where linesmen are instructed to mete out preferential calls to sway the outcomes of clasicos, can Villanueva or his team be blamed?
There can be no job in the world that could justifiably list among its pre-requisites ‘the willingness to accept and be made target of undifferentiated hatred’. Yet, this is the price referees must pay to enforce the rules in a game they must love as much as the rest, and it is a price paid right down the divisions to the game’s nearest roots. In 2017, more than 2,000 referees in England went on strike over the abuse received by match officials, leading to masses of grassroots matches being cancelled. In a statistic that will shock many and surprise far, far fewer, some 94% of referees have admitted to being victim of on-pitch abuse, as per the outcome of a survey carried out by Ticketgum. 55% rated the scale of abuse received to be so intense that they felt threatened. The same report cites an anonymous grassroots referee as having said:
“I have been assaulted several times by youths and adults. The worst time was when I was punched unconscious and then kicked in the head. I do not remember the game at all and my memory is not as good as before. I am also permanently damaged in my right eye.”
Anecdotally, it is no surprise. Watching my godson’s under-11s play, I was privy to the sight of the opposition manager spitting at a referee for a perceivedly incorrect call. When he did it, his 10-year-old captain did likewise. When the oppo manager pursued the ref after the final whistle with further abuse, so did a gaggle of his players, at least three of them with untied laces.
And yet the most telling statistic in the Ticketgum report is that 62% of those referees polled feel that the FA is not doing enough to combat systemic on-pitch abuse of officials. It is here that the opprobrium of referees becomes unmistakable in its absurdity. Managers, those whose minds are presumably frazzled by their own being in constant flight from the often irrational dissatisfaction of football supporters, can often be seen leading the charge against a reffing performance; for all that Arsene Wenger may enjoy singling out the man in the middle for his day of decision (be those calls correct or incorrect), he can much more rarely be heard lamenting the lack of forthright assistance being afforded to these men to do their jobs properly. Football takes place at a more blistering pace than ever, with skills in simulation rising in accordance; VAR is now in its early throes of assimilation, a heartening development, to compliment the hawk-eye system Premier League referees have now enjoyed for several seasons. It takes not merely athletic pedigree but psychological fortitude to be the lone cool man in the cauldron; until the philosophy of sport technology expands to allow the rationality of stoppage-and-video-review, until players are convinced of the value of decorum and honour as equivalent to skill (and from the beginning), mistakes that occur by refs can only be excused, so often are they forced, so often is space for them deliberately allowed for the ‘right’ outcomes to be attained by those who have more than a £20 bet on a certain player being able to score and ring the headlines in next week’s game. As we have seen, those officials less adequately equipped can frequently resort to measures far less sanguine than can be seen exhibited multiple times weekly by the average top-flight ref, whenever he is confronted with belligerent players.
When the football is being played between two clubs from different leagues, the contention is often even more charged. The sagas of Anders Frisk and Tom Henning Ovrebo spring to mind; both of them refereed the Champions League knockout ties between Chelsea and Barcelona in 2005 and 2009 respectively, both of them subject to controversy. Frisk was accused by then-Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho of having gone to talk privately with Barcelona manager Frank Rijkaard at half-time in the latter’s Nou Camp dressing room; his dismissal of Didier Drogba for two bookable offences was considered imprudent. The result was a swarm of death-threats from Chelsea fans that prompted Frisk’s immediate retirement.
Ovrebo’s appointment was the presage of even more intense controversy. The fact remains that he refereed the Stamford Bridge leg of the 2009 UCL semi-final as woefully as a big match can memorably be said to have been refereed; in light of his decisions, which were at best bewildering, the in-game reactions of Chelsea’s players seem a mite more understandable than instances where officials have their faces screamed off on behalf of an incorrectly awarded throw-in. Yet, he cannot truly be blamed for this either; going beyond confutations of one another’s idea of what constitutes undue contact or whatever, Ovrebo’s appointment to the semi-final was even more remarkable for its randomness than what actually occurred in the match. A qualified psychologist, the Norway-born man’s only experience of a game approaching the intensity of a UCL semi-final prior to April 2009 was a pair of Euro 2008 group matches; hardly of the usual pedigree preferred in such ties. The rest of his experience had come in the Norwegian Premier League, which in its history has seen one of its teams reach European Cup knockout stages only three times.
The outcome of that semi-final would have suited UEFA down to the ground; the 2009 final thereby became the first instalment of the Messi-Ronaldo rivalry that has generated untold billions for the corporation in years since, and a repeat of the prior year’s fractious and alarmingly low-quality all-English final had been avoided. Ovrebo was—you may see the pattern emerging—the subject of abuse on the night, from players, in the days after from Chelsea fans, and as far as three years down the line, again from Chelsea fans. Of course, referees have received brown envelopes before; it is far from unimaginable that an organisation as murky as UEFA/FIFA would have stooped to offering Ovrebo a bribe. It is much easier to imagine, though, that a sacrificial lamb was found and appointed; any errors that Ovrebo committed could be parsed by his own inexperience, any blame apportioned by technicality, with some measure of ‘justice’, to him. Whatever the circumstances surrounding the appointment, Ovrebo was not given the requisite protection by higher officials who should have recognised his lack of requisite experience. Whatever the circumstances, the result was the same; all eyes were on the man in the middle.
An addendum in light of Mark Clattenburg
It should be taken into account that what follows was written some time after the main body of this article; its inclusion may be considered strange, since it appears to contradict the spirit of what precedes it, yet the events that spurred the following reflections were so striking, pertinent to the practice of modern refereeing, that they insisted upon their presence regardless. This addendum is named, in a touch that would no doubt delight the ego of the man himself, for the referee dubbed the best in the world at the 2016 Globe Soccer Awards. The 41-year-old Mark Clattenburg, now the Head of Refereeing for the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (a position we can assume was taken purely for professional prestige), is a native of County Durham, England, and as befits the prestige he has been accorded, his professional profile leaves the likes of Ovrebo and even Frisk in the dust. In 2016 alone, Clattenburg officiated the English FA Cup final, the Champions League final and the final of Euro 2016. Clattenburg was the year’s man in the centre, and the year itself was the apotheosis of the acclaimed “rock star referee” who, according to NBC’s recent Men in Blazers podcast, officiated nearly every clash between the Premier League’s ‘Big Six’ between 2011 and his retirement from Premier League duty in February of 2017. ‘According’ is used there owing to the fact that the notion of a Premier League ‘Big Six’ is an invention begotten of Manchester United’s 2014-2016 fall from its supposed rightful place in elite estimations; prior to this intrusion of marketing necessity over historic elitism, no one would have even bothered to scoff at the identity of clubs in England’s sub-top-4, Europa League spots before 2014.
Clattenburg’s depiction of himself as the ‘third team’ in these titanic footballing bouts—and no doubt he is as fondly remembered for his fundamental part in their dramatic geography as Allen Klein is as the ‘Sixth Rolling Stone’, or Mark Chapman as the ‘Fifth Beatle’—is telling as a cry of the self-aggrandising jobsworth, but one would be remiss to call it the most interesting part about the Men in Blazers podcast that he features in. The fascinating bit comes when he tunes his recall to the most recent debacle to be known as ‘The Battle of Stamford Bridge’; the Spurs vs. Chelsea derby that cap-ended the season of Leicester’s Premier League triumph. Chelsea, more sinned against than sinning (and, against stereotype, not for the first time), were besieged that night by the only team mathematically capable of giving Leicester a race to the post in what distance remained to run. Not legally, though; among Spurs’ personal highlights that evening were Erik Lamela’s diligent efforts to step on Cesc Fabregas’ planted hand, Kyle Walker kicking Pedro (having fouled him) and flicking mucus at Diego Costa, Eric Dier and Ryan Mason’s jaunty attempt to give Eden Hazard a mid-match colonoscopy, Danny Rose shoving the septuagenarian Guus Hiddink down the dugout steps, and, who could forget, Moussa Dembele gouging Diego Costa’s eye. Chelsea, regrettably, had few highlights that evening, bar Willian’s flaunting an abjectly defended champions crest to jeering opposition fans for whom the words ‘highest combined points tally’ were but a glint in the imagination, and Eden Hazard’s spectacular strike that sealed Leicester’s title for them.
Any viewer, including all but the most hawk-eyed of Spurs fans, tends to be aghast in response to the conduct of Spurs’ players, all of whom stayed on the pitch until the end of the 2-2 draw. There is nothing defensible in their conduct; one thinks to oneself, watching it again, that Dele Alli did admirably well in marshalling himself away from the repeated melees, so conspicuously absent is he, before remembering that he was serving a ban for punching West Bromwich Albion’s Claudio Yacob at the time. Just as conspicuous for his absence is referee Mark Clattenburg. Yet Clattenburg, reminiscing on that night, does something remarkable: although for all intents and purposes he was not there that night, he steals Spurs’ show. Which was, in his own words, exactly what he was determined not to do.
‘I allowed them [Spurs] to self-destruct so all the media, all the people in the world went: “Tottenham lost the title.”
‘If I sent three players off from Tottenham, what are the headlines? “Clattenburg cost Tottenham the title.” It was pure theatre that Tottenham self-destructed against Chelsea and Leicester won the title.
‘I helped the game. I certainly benefited the game by my style of refereeing.
‘Some referees would have played by the book; Tottenham would have been down to seven or eight players and probably lost and they would’ve been looking for an excuse.
‘But I didn’t give them an excuse, because my gameplan was: Let them lose the title.’
Perhaps only in football would so decorated and experienced a professional still be sufficiently moronic as to admit to what amounts to match fixing in public; not even politicians tend to be so dense. There’s impressive venality there, too; in statements that teem with self congratulation Clattenburg does not seem to think much beyond what impressions he has of his own impeccable judgement. Among the things he does not think of are of the rancour (and guiltiness of fixing) he would have incurred had Spurs managed to salvage a late-winner; that his actions imperiled the health and careers of the players who must have expected to have been playing underneath his protection (and lesser falls have killed or disabled men of equivalent age to Hiddink); that his words admit to a concession of both cowardice and incompetence; that his officiating must forthwith be viewed in retrospect as fundamentally without the integrity of the trade; and that the world of football fans now feels that it sits justified in the antipathy it generally and impulsively shows to referees.
Clattenburg’s testament was included in part here even though it weakens this piece’s earlier appeal to show clemency to officials relative to the difficulty of their job. It is included mainly to demonstrate how easily corruption may foul the integrity of sport if officials are allowed to be complicit in it.
*They asked: Why do so many Brazilians have the handle ‘Silva’ or ‘da Silva’ somewhere in their name? The name migrated with the colonising Portuguese, and was ascribed almost like an honorific to those who dwelt inland, ‘da Silva’ meaning ‘of the forest born’. Conversely, those who settled on the coast were given the ‘Costa’ handle. Its occurrence was multiplied even more by the prodigious enslaved classes in colonial Brazil; slaves were given the same last name as their owners, making an already common name all the more widespread.