Why respect campaigns and policing player language only make refs' lives worse

Lionel Messi

A FIFA disciplinary committee dropped its hammer on Lionel Messi on Tuesday, serving him with a four-game ban in the hours before Argentina's game with Bolivia. Of course, Argentina lost. Labouring in the altitude of La Paz, they fell to a 2-0 defeat without their captain. Now the Albiceleste's involvement in the 2018 World Cup is under threat.

Understandably, the Argentine FA objected to the bungled procedure which led to Messi's suspension and were less than enthused with the selection rethink it forced just hours before an important qualifier. Barcelona's outrage, however, was more reflexive: “The club consider the four-game ban imposed upon the player unjust and totally disproportionate… (we) want to reiterate (our) support for Leo Messi, an exemplary sportsman for his behavior on and off the pitch.”

Being anything other than a Messi fundamentalist is a risky look in Catalonia and – yes, that's right – contract negotiations are ongoing. Still, the incident in Buenos Aires was opaque, and it's not too conspiratorial to suggest that this is an instance of a player being held to a higher standard because of the status he occupies.

There's nothing wrong with that; in fact, it's rather noble. But it does stand contrary to what is routinely tolerated. Despite the periodic initiatives designed to curb dissent shown towards match officials, the aesthetic remains largely unchanged. Referees make decisions, players retaliate with industrial language, and rarely is any action taken. Go to a game this weekend and, as sure as the sun rising in the morning, you will see a referee being asked to put his cards away and a linesman being invited to put his flag down.

Or words and actions to that effect.

New thinking, old ways

At the beginning of the current English season, the FA launched a new batch of "thou shalt nots" in an attempt to subdue referee abuse at all levels of the game. The expectations at professional level was for chaos; players have always been so assured of their right to tell an official where to go that any tightening of the law would surely result in an unmanageable flurry of red cards. It didn't, but only because – just like every other time a change in this area has been announced – the new code of conduct was applied for a few weeks in August and September before, inevitably, everything returned to normal.

And maybe that's how the game likes it? On the basis that winning the favour of a referee is beneficial to a player – or that swearing loudly in his face is detrimental to that cause – the disdain a lot of players hold for officials seems somewhat contrary. But perhaps this relates less to behavioral standards and more to the cultural role of the official? That is to say, who he is within the grand scheme of the sport.

Referees have been scrutinised and hated for as long as the sport has been codified, but they are also fun-spoilers who are expected to apply the laws of the game equally and fairly – just not in a way which impinges upon the contest

Often, football is compared with both codes of rugby. There is a visible difference between the way the two sets of players respond to officials, so the tempting conclusion to draw is that one is of stronger moral fibre than the other. But that's not really true; or, at least, that's not the reason for the difference. In rugby, or any other sport involving a referee or umpire, the official is God. Empowered by more rigid laws and emboldened by the derived self-worth, he bristles with importance and authority. More pertinently, any attempt to challenge that carries consequences: code violations in tennis, yardage penalties and sin bins in rugby, ejections in most American sports.

By contrast, it's expected in football. In fact, overly-judicious referees are often disliked for applying the laws too rigidly. As recently as two weeks ago, Michael Oliver drew heavy criticism for sending off Manchester United’s Ander Herrera in the FA Cup quarter-final against Chelsea. He'd warned Chris Smalling, United's captain, about his team's conduct in the first half and promised that the next foul would, on a cumulative basis, earn a yellow card. Moments later, Herrera ran through the back of Eden Hazard and Oliver made good on his promise, dismissing the Spanish midfielder shortly before half-time.

In that moment, in the reaction it created, it was possible to see right to the heart of the problem. Oliver was seen to be "ruining the game" and "making it all about him.” Referees have been scrutinised and hated for as long as the sport has been codified, but now, in an age where football is as much about entertainment as it is competition, they are also fun-spoilers who are expected to apply the laws of the game equally and fairly - just not in a way which impinges upon the contest.

Give a little 

According to cliché, a good referee is one who nobody notices, one who reacts to the game rather than shapes it. Consider then, how that truism can coexist with the on-field policing of fouls or abusive language, or any other incident which isn't visible or audible to those in the ground.

Those who dream up Respect initiatives may be well intentioned, but they are essentially inviting referees – who by convention are already whipped dogs and hollow men – to make their own jobs far harder. After all, is it preferable to dodge a few isolated expletives from a player, or to perform under the pulsing acrimony of 50,000 people? The temptation to turn a blind eye for the sake of an easier afternoon must be overwhelming, even if it does help perpetuate a problem which the game could well do without.



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The Messi case actually provides a pertinent example. It was an incident which occurred after the final whistle and so could never really have provided a striking, anti-abuse image. Still, the decision to punish him was apparently reached in a smoke-filled room full of bureaucrats, all of whom enjoy the benefit of anonymity.

The effect? Nothing beyond inconvenience and conspiracy theory. Irrespective of the veracity of the assistant referee's report, no visible stand has actually been taken, and no useful precedent has really been set. In fact, it’s quite the reverse. Because of the hesitation in announcing Messi's punishment, the impression is of a governing body afraid to strike against the world's most visible player.

And, even in isolation, isn't that rather reflective of the slanted relationship between those who play the game and those who are supposed to rule it? The ratios of powers shifted a long time ago, and now the game is here, stuck at a point where any retaliation against player behaviour seems unorthodox and wrong. Worse, it actually appears subversive and somehow contrary to the spirit of the game.

Needless to say, that isn't a terribly healthy position to be in.

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Seb Stafford-Bloor is a football writer at Tifo Football and member of the Football Writers' Association. He was formerly a regularly columnist for the FourFourTwo website, covering all aspects of the game, including tactical analysis, reaction pieces, longer-term trends and critiquing the increasingly shady business of football's financial side and authorities' decision-making.