It’s hard not to be a hypocrite as a football fan. For instance, last Sunday it would have been so easy for me to just enjoy the Chelsea-United game, revel in the action, and ignore or even support the refs role in it.
Arsenal was effectively helped, slightly, in our own pursuit of fourth by the ref’s actions (most notably declining to give yellows for the harder whacks in the back when he could have easily done so) and, no getting around it, there’s some theatre in watching an underdog team rough up a better footballing side, and use every trick in book to try get a result. It can be seriously absorbing, especially when the temperature rises in a game.
It’s as though everything was set up nicely for me to just shut up and enjoy the show and especially the end result. It included that part of me which is distinctly British (tricky subject) raised watching all levels of the British game from childhood to middle years, listening to British pundits and their attitudes the whole time.
Heart, Grit, Character versus Quality
The attitude underpinning it all is something along the lines of heart, grit, character, desire, fight can compensate for any gap in quality, should be displayed when that gap exists, and can overcome that gap. This sounds quite reasonable, until you ask what exactly is meant by those things, and the honest answer, almost every time, is extra aggression including foul play.
That leads very directly to the question of referees, who stand squarely between any attempt to close the gap through the foul play part of extra aggression. They are there to say ‘good try, but no’. Whatever their temperament, the answer should always be ‘no’ to any attempt to use foul play to gain an advantage. However, in some but not all prem games the answer absolutely seems to be ‘yes’.
It seems possible this could be a result of those referees being a product of the same soil/culture as the attitude itself. They themselves believe in the primacy of heart, grit, fortitude, fight, etc, etc. It’s plausible that these refs identify with and relate to this effort to ‘test’ the guts of the better footballing side, and see a nobility in using passion, aggression, physicality, doggedness and, yes, dirt, to upset and thwart a better opponent. Even that there is pleasure in the thing.
‘I/we, might not be the fanciest, most sophisticated or skillful, but by God that won’t stop me/us from trying to beat you any way I/we can’. Again, that sounds alright, except in reality it almost always means through fouls; hard tackles, pushes, whacks in air, etc. That attitude almost never stops there. It also comes with time wasting, and other distinctly unsporting acts, to include diving, pretending to be hurt, and hassling referees constantly.
Dark pleasure in kicking the fancy pants
There’s dark pleasure alright in testing out the fancy pants and prima donnas by giving them a bloody nose and seeing what they are made of. There’s also, you have to say, drama, serious drama, and therefore entertainment for which people are willing to pay.
People pay more for premier league entertainment than for any other football competition, by a very large distance. Here is one of the diminishing number of fields where we can say Britain or England is number one: how much people are willing to pay for the drama and entertainment of our league. Everyone who matters in our football here is highly motivated to keep this as it is.
Role of the referees in the USP
From a business standpoint, how could anyone consider any significant changes to the product while the going is this good? Like any good business surely the PL has a clear understanding of their product including whatever is the Unique Selling Proposition (USP).
It would seem to me that the referees are part of this mix. The attitude, style, application of laws etc of refs being central to how a game unfolds, there must be a justifiable belief that whatever was being done last year, or between the last mega deal and the next, bigger one, is the right way to play it.
One likely consequence is that you can’t just have anyone taking on this responsibility. You need real specialists. It’s not enough to understand the globally established laws of the game; one must possess the special, esoteric gift of understanding how to do premier league games. Logically, it should be harder to acquire that skill-set than mastering one which more closely matches an official rule book. How do you know when and where the leniency ends? Where are the red lines? Are all matches the same? Etc etc.
The perennial failure to get close to the original target for premier league officials suggests this is the case, as does the related issue of a small core of refs being overused each season, including regularly doing an inadvisable number of games with individual teams, sometimes as high as 7 or 8, meaning an enormous percentage of a team’s games.
But hey, business is good, and if it aint broke…
Aggression and foul play
The tricks and the sights of a team looking to use aggression, foul play and an anything-to-win mentality are all ultra familiar to me, and the only big question is to what extent it is universal to football or more a British football/ culture thing. I don’t watch enough of other leagues to be sure, but I don’t recall seeing much like it elsewhere either. Closest would be particularly dirty La Liga game or very feisty clash from South America.
The time wasting, yes, and even the attempts to rile an opponent or make late challenges on them, rushing in hard on opponents as they receive the ball, leaving something on them, contact from behind as player receives ball in air or on ground…all things you will see around the globe… but the refs acting as though their role is to keep the temperature high, or add to it, sometimes even as though traps are being laid for any player who reacts to the dirtier team,…I can’t imagine that.
The final thing to address is whether this more lenient refereeing style, and this effort to try keep a game’s temperature high and this support, effectively, of underdog teams is surely a stark warning to any incoming fancy pants; adapt or go away. Squads are built, tactics shaped, players developed, clear expectations formed with these facts in mind.
There is a cost, of course, with certain types of players hampered and penalized, and others benefiting. It hurts in other ways too, including the national team, our clubs in European competition, and our referees in other competitions.
The fact there is limited evidence of most of this at present, and indeed there is contrary evidence (national team doing well, domestic clubs doing well in Europe, a couple of our refs doing very well in other competitions in recent past), well, it threatens to sink the whole damn theory.
VAR is a threat
I suppose the final, final thing one should be asking is where VAR fits into the picture. My belief is that it doesn’t, or at least not well at all. Remember the contention ‘if it aint broke…’ From a business perspective surely there ought to be reluctance to making major changes while the going is so good. The seemingly bizarre decision to stand alone in not using on-field reviews, via a pitch-side monitor, surely makes more sense with that in mind. Likewise the oft stated and clearly demonstrated desire in the trials to use VAR as little as is feasible. VAR is a threat to keeping things as they are, but there must be ways to limit or work around that threat, and there might even be ways to use it to enhance that all important USP.
At last it’s beginning to make sense.