S.League referees must be firm, but not rulebook robots

After the Community Shield red cards fiasco, let's hope the season won't be ruined by excessive whistle-blowing, writes Neil Humphreys...

Life thrives on controversy.

The Oscars will not be remembered for the first Muslim winner in Mahershala Ali, but for the monumental cock-up in reading out the wrong movie title for best film.

The crowds cheered. The organisation was decent ... but only a re-taken penalty and three red cards will be remembered

That’s how we roll, wallowing in the blunders of others. To err is human. But to bitch about it is divine.

The S.League, as ever, is yet to learn that lesson.

Like the Oscars, almost everything about the season-opener was overwhelmingly positive. Almost 16,000 people turned out for the Community Shield between Albirex Niigata and Tampines Rovers thanks to a positive ticketing strategy and obvious community engagement.

They literally brought in busloads from the various Community Development Councils and the move worked a treat.

The crowds cheered. The National Stadium organisation was decent and the footballers competed in the dusky heat until a lack of early-season fitness took its toll.

Albirex's silverware will be overshadowed by the referee

But none of that really matters now. Only a re-taken penalty and three red cards will be remembered.

Those stats will feed those eager to dismiss the S.League as kampong football masquerading as professional sport. And that would be desperately unfair.

Both teams acquitted themselves in the heat and the Stags battled gamely with unfamiliar – and older – personnel, until the Swans’ superior fitness made the difference.

Tampines were not violent, just less fit than their Japanese counterparts.

As the game wore on, their tackles became ragged, certainly, but rarely nasty.

Tampines coach Juergen Raab pointed out that the game came a couple of weeks too soon for his club. The revolving door in the dressing room has only just stopped spinning.

The Stags are still grasping for consistency and full fitness.  

Sadly the Oscars will be remembered for this moment. Photo: Variety

Teams that finish with eight players have typically lost their heads, the plot and any sense of reason. Not Tampines. They were just too tired.

It’s a subtle, but clear, distinction that is not always accurately interpreted.

An irritating aspect of watching Singapore football regularly can be the literal interpretation of the game’s laws

The Community Shield was played in mostly benign conditions, but was marred by the frustrating whistle-blowing that can handicap S.League matches.

An irritating aspect of watching Singapore football regularly can be the literal interpretation of the game’s laws. Minimal contact is so often penalised and tough tackles earn cards as the local game ends up doing a decent impression of basketball.

It’s as if that textbook, black and white, KPI culture that can straitjacket creative endeavour in wider society is being applied to the fluid, malleable sport of professional football.

For example, going by the book, a penalty would probably be re-taken in almost every match across the world.

Dzoni reacts to the whistle after his first penalty attempt

Going by the book, a free-kick would be awarded near the by-line whenever a full-back bundled a winger into the advertising hoardings. Going by the book, red cards would be handed out for dissent constantly if referees failed to recognise the unique psychological circumstances behind each outburst.

Going by the book, most games would be drowned out by the exasperated boos that rang out around Kallang after an otherwise decent contest.

But they do not, largely because there’s a general consensus that football officiating isn’t National Service or stat board management. The job requires a degree of nuance, reasoning, empathy and improvisation; qualities not always associated with a Singaporean workplace.

Thanks to an enthusiastic daughter attending her first S.League game, I have clear iPhone footage of Tampines’ penalty.

More than a dozen viewings haven’t really found the gross infringement that forced Ivan Dzoni to re-take his spot-kick.

Even then, the benefit of the doubt should still be given to officials with a better view inside the box.

Raab will be working on his side's fitness

However, three red cards and a re-taken penalty can hint at the kind of literal inflexibility that has adversely affected S.League games in the past.

Again, this isn’t a lazy, finger-pointing exercise. Being a referee is a thankless task at the best of times and perhaps even more so for an S.League official, as he must also deal with a nation’s indifference towards the competition.

The laws of the game should be sacrosanct – on paper. On a pitch, however, an instinctive ability to judge the ebb and flow of a game, along with the occasion, the setting, the time of day, the playing surface and even the weather, help the best officials to interpret those laws.

Singapore’s educational set-up (and even its regimented political climate) can be guilty of producing too many literal thinkers. But sport, by its definition, thrives on lateral thought and the ability to conjure, improvise and adapt.

The Stags were not entirely blameless as bodies tired and nerves frayed in the final exchanges. And the rulebook might argue that the Community Shield was a game that warranted three red cards and a re-taken penalty.

But common sense suggested that it almost certainly wasn’t.

What those red cards and penalties do, however, is play into the hands of the jaded cynic who gleefully suggests the S.League remains an unruly competition played by headless chickens and run by robots.

But that would be a gross misrepresentation of events at the National Stadium.

The entertaining, atmospheric game didn’t deserve to be lumbered with those old stereotypes.

And the S.League season, if it’s going to have any hope of success, really doesn’t need them either.

Photos: Weixiang Lim/FourFourTwo unless stated