Who’d be a referee, eh? That’s what we say when a referee is being vilified in the press, verbally assaulted by a player, smeared by a manager or physically attacked during a Sunday League fixture in London. Who in their right mind would be a referee?
The answer, one day in the not too distant future, will be nobody.
Referees are the bees of football. They can sometimes ruin your weekend, but they are crucial to the game's survival.
From the moment bees become extinct scientists predict that humans would survive a further four years. Without referees, football would cease to exist even quicker.
So why do we treat them with such disdain? Football’s collective attitude towards referees is one of a playground bully.
There was an outcry when FIFA announced no British referee would be going to the World Cup. No British referees? It had to be a joke. English fans were flabbergasted that referees from Uzbekistan, Zambia and El Salvador made the list ahead of our crop of whistle men.
The reaction was strange and incongruous to the narrative of contempt that gathers in clouds above the heads of our referees week in week out.
The reaction to FIFA’s announcement seemed to say that although they are the scourge of our game, killjoys, dream snatchers, at least they are ours.
This is by no means a compliment. We believe all referees are inherently incompetent. Ours are simply the best of a bad bunch by virtue of our arrogant opinion that they have the privilege of officiating in the best league in the world.
Indeed we should be grateful for the referees we have in England. In the lead-up to the World Cup, officials from Saudi Arabia and Kenya have both been accused of match-fixing. Mike Dean and Craig Pawson might make the odd mistake or sometimes let their egos get the better of them at times but at least they are not corrupt.
Yet we act in this country as if we have a genuine refereeing crisis. Pretty soon that will manifest in a dearth of referees.
The horrific incident of a referee being attacked in London is a true story. It happened during a cup final in the capital and was caught on camera. The video shows the referee literally running for his life as a baying mob of slack-jawed cretins chase him across the pitch. The referee is kicked to the ground and beaten.
Ref Support UK, a registered charity whose aims are to recruit, nurture and protect referees said it was the worse incident that they had seen on British soil. Indeed when I first saw the video I thought I was watching footage from another, less developed, less tolerant nation.
The attack added more weight to the argument that referees should wear body cameras. While unprecedented in terms of the level of violence, the London incident is by no means isolated. Body cams seem both ridiculous and a good idea.
It's a shame referees must consider resorting to such measures. It seems to me that wearing a body camera is an admission that referees are in danger. Are there not better ways to try to fix the problem?
When we talk about role models in football, we use the term loosely. We know the average footballer is incapable of being an adequate role model. It would be unfair of us to expect football players to go to soup kitchens or adopt doomed dogs in their hundreds. We can and should expect them to treat officials with respect so that the next generation of footballers won’t feel compelled to beat the living daylights out of a referee if he incorrectly awards a throw-in to the opposition.
Gianluigi Buffon was a great footballer and is a hero to many aspiring goalkeepers but his treatment of referee Michael Oliver was despicable.
Oliver awarded a last minute penalty to Real Madrid in the Champions League quarter-final against Buffon’s Juventus and sent the goalkeeper off in the ensuing kerfuffle. Both decisions were correct but that didn’t stop the Italian indulging in repeated character assassinations both immediately after the game and a few days later.
As well as his intimidation tactics on the pitch, which were reminiscent of the early stages of an midnight brawl outside a kebab house, Buffon also called Oliver an ‘animal’ and said that he had a ‘rubbish bin instead of a heart’.
The saddest thing about the whole incident is that Buffon’s legacy will not even be tarnished by his comments. It is considered reasonable that he made them about a referee, a sub-species undeserving of our compassion.
Force the players to treat the refs with respect and it will trickle down to the grassroots. The incident in London will live long in the memory of those few who care about the future of referees but will eventually become a cautionary tale, a grizzly chapter in the complex history of this great game. We need to start looking at other sports and learning lessons from how they treat their officials.
Few other sports tolerate the treatment we see dished out to referees in football, the jostling, the screaming in their faces, the intimidation. If you do that in cricket, you receive a hefty ban and a fine. In football perpetrators of such offences rarely receive a caution. I may sound like your dad, but if you start sending players off for swearing at referees, they will soon stop.
Unfortunately, the culture of referee-baiting won't abate. VAR is sure to trigger yet more abuse for the men in black. Referees are people, yet the derisive culture surrounding them is ingrained in football.
If bees die out, it will do no good to chase pesticide manufacturers through the streets. When no referees are left, though, I seriously doubt anyone will look in the mirror.