Starting with the man in the middle

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By Henry Edwards, Sport Editor and third year History student

VAR cannot come to the English league soon enough. Not necessarily because it will eradicate errors, or make the game fairer by forensically determining whether a few strands of hair may be offside.

Debates like these are comparatively unimportant when you consider the potentially vital transformation that VAR may well provide the catalyst for. I am talking about improvements in the treatment of referees. Walk into any pub or living room during match-day, and you will likely be greeted by resentment towards the match officials at some stage. This can vary from minor grumbles, to full-blown tirades of rage.

Football in particular has a rich history of tolerating this kind of thing. The zenith of football hooliganism of course involved resentment towards the man in charge. However, we live in a more sanitized sporting climate nowadays; the majority of us consume the sport on our devices, and enjoy highlights at the click of a button. Stadiums are increasingly becoming family friendly – just take a trip to Ashton Gate – which has led to certain self-proclaimed ‘football purists’ to mourn the dwindling force of ardent tribalism.

So why does such vehement disrespect towards the referee persist? The Guardian reported in April last year that a survey of over 17,000 referees discovered that ‘87% of respondents said that they had suffered from verbal abuse.’ Astonishingly, around one from seven stated that they had been physically assaulted on match day.

A similar BBC article from November gave numerous accounts of amateur referee experiences of abuse. One respondent, Thomas, wished to highlight the lack of respect for grassroots referees, ‘whether that be from spectators, players or managers.’

The behaviour of parents is certainly a deplorable area of concern. Speaking to the Guardian, a referee working in Minnesota revealed that her ‘under-10 matches are the worst. Those parents are the absolute worst.’ Growing up playing football for my town involved numerous instances in which parents and the junior players barked their disapproval at refereeing decisions; often these people were volunteers, giving up their Sunday afternoons so that children could enjoy the game they love.

However, I would hold that much more pertinent is the influence of professionals appearing on TV. Undermining the referee is a popular pursuit for fans, players and managers who appear on Match of the Day. The earlier mentioned Thomas specifically pinpointed this: ‘this is something that is seen week in and week out in the Premier League, yet the referees do not sanction any of the behaviour. Grassroots players, therefore, see this as acceptable.’

Tune into sporting news and you’ll casually see indignant managers lazily blaming match officials for their side’s most recent failure. Pochettino has recently been handed a touchline ban for failing to control himself after Spurs’ title hopes slipped away at Turf Moor. Roma’s Edin Dzeko inexplicably spat at the referee during his side’s hammering against Fiorentina. After calling out the officials after seemingly every match of 2019, Klopp was forced to change it up following a Merseyside stalemate. His most recent scapegoat? The wind.

Whether Troy Deeney likes it or not, footballers and managers are role models. Their behaviour is watched and emulated by thousands. How they confront and refer to match officials will inevitably have an impact on football fans, young and old, across the world.

Pundits, players and managers should accept accountability for their failings in this area. In the meantime, hopefully VAR will bring about a greater level of accuracy and shared responsibility to the extent that the practice of lambasting the man in the middle dwindles.

Featured Image: Flickr/ Ronnie Macdonald


Do you think the introduction of VAR will help to reduce abuse directed at referees? Let us know your thoughts!

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