Without respect, no football

A product of its time, it has since dominated the discourse. Six minutes into a Saturday evening game against VVV Venlo, Groningen winger Leandro Bacuna is sent off – and everything comes to a head in a supercharged moment that says ‘enough is enough’. Some saw it as breaking through a glass ceiling, while others thought it trivialised one of the biggest issues in football.

Something of a journeyman player and coach, Robert Maaskant has hardly caught the eye since taking over at Groningen this summer – but that changed on Saturday. Clearly unimpressed by Bacuna's red card, Maaskant made his displeasure known to the fourth official, as managers frequently do. But in a new initiative since the tragic death of linesman Richard Nieuwenhuizen after an amateur football game in Almere, the Dutch FA (KNVB) have clamped down on gesticulation and rebellion against the referee’s leadership.

A memorial march for Nieuwenhuizen carries the message

"These are volunteers that we build our sport on, that we cannot do without," said KNVB director Bert van Oostveen after Nieuwenhuizen's death. "Without respect, no football." That phrase – "Zonder respect, geen voetbal" – has now been embraced by a majority across the land, one directive the KNVB promised will be adhered to.

Bright young referee Serdar Gözübüyük certainly hopes so: "Every week I give presentations in schools about respect and sportsmanship." So when at Groningen last Saturday he was called over by his fourth official Rutger Bekebrede, after Maaskant protested a foul on Genero Zeefuik near the hour mark, he made his statement. As he walked towards Maaskant's technical area, Gözübüyük dug into his pocket and pulled out a 'respect' armband – adorned by captains the round of games following Nieuwenhuizen's passing – and displayed it to a bewildered Maaskant.

To Gözübüyük it was justified, as the Groningen boss fell silent. One of the brightest young officials in the Netherlands, the 27-year-old referee – who made his debut in 2006 – was last season voted the Eredivisie's best referee, winning the 'Golden Card'. He was also honest enough, after watching TV replays of Bacuna's indiscretion, to concede that it might have been a yellow card (indeed, the KNVB rescinded the red card). But by that time, the referee's reaction was the bigger news.

"Let's be clear," insisted Maaskant after the match, "I am respectful – especially after what recently happened." He described his reaction as a "football emotion" before arguing that Gözübüyük's behaviour was a premeditated "charade". "Football is an emotional sport. It must remain that way. I think he's an excellent referee so this is a pity." Groningen CEO Hans Nijland sided with his manager. "He didn't use any abusive language, there was no violent reaction and respect was shown. It’s inconceivable in football if there’s no room for emotions."

Gözübüyük refuted Maaskant’s allegation that it was a play to the gallery, instead calling it a "personal statement". The KNVB's Oostveen, although not supporting Gözübüyük's actions, believed the referee had "good intentions" – a line shared by former referee Dick van Egmond: "We are convinced his actions meant well, but referees shouldn't take this matter into their own hands.” On the other hand, sports minister Edith Schippers backed Gözübüyük: "It's about respect. Adults should set an example for young people who are still learning."

Gözübüyük was unrepentant, telling daily newspaper Algemeen Dagblad "If you saw it as a charade, then you've forgotten what happened recently." Other referees agreed and gave their support. "Before the game there is respect, but it's quickly forgotten once it starts, that bothers me," said Ruud Bossen. "Serdar wanted to make a clear gesture." Kevin Blom agreed: "It was commendable. Serdar did it because of his feelings. It was a statement from the heart."

Similarly, managers rallied around Maaskant, the most prominent voice coming from arguably the most candid manager. "It was a ridiculous action of the referee," said Gertjan Verbeek, who rarely minces his words. "Disrespectful. You should never ask for respect. I stand with Maaskant." Jan Wouters chose the same position. "I have trouble with this action of the referee. Emotions are part of football; as coaches, we usually know where the boundary lies." Ronald Koeman and Frank de Boer both felt Gözübüyük exploited the newfound emphasis on respect and Maaskant was within his rights to protest as long as it didn't cross the line.

Gözübüyük: Man in the middle

Media reaction has been mixed, many commentators believing Gözübüyük was right to air his feelings but wrong in his methods – despite an Algemeen Dagblad poll finding 62% of readers praising the referee's approach. De Volkskrant's Jan Beuving felt that the well-intentioned but naive Gözübüyük "can't single-handedly change the world" or unilaterally "decide how the whole footballing community should henceforth behave"; if Maaskant crossed the line, he could have sent him off. Hugo Borst, although suspicious that Gözübüyük’s behaviour was premeditated, nonetheless argued how nothing had been learned from the week before when Dutch football as a whole came together.

Gözübüyük's omission from this weekend’s fixtures (the last before the winter break) had many feeling he was somewhat punished, although it was countered by the KNVB. “We have 18 games every weekend, and we have more than 18 referees,” adding that Gözübüyük's involvement in the KNVB Beker tie between FC Dordrecht and AZ meant it wouldn’t be fair on another official who had a free midweek.

The hope is that this becomes a watershed moment. With referees facing such a difficult task that more are quitting than signing up, recent events should change attitudes. Officials do their utmost but are human and are prone to mistakes, like managers and players; both should have the right to question decisions but in a dignified manner and remembering at all times the referee's word is final. Respect goes both ways, but as the KNVB put it, "respect is more than a word". It's time everyone realised that and made good on it.

Topics