Football is a game played between two sides consisting of eleven players each. It is often easy to forget that the pitch is shared with at least one official – at the top level as many as six officials officiate – and it is these lonely figures whom I seek to defend.
Anger, sometimes even vitriolic hatred, is directed almost weekly at the man, or woman, in the middle with the whistle. Clad traditionally in black, executioner-like, a referee’s decisions can dictate the game to some extent. They must have a 100% hit rate. I write in the wake of Northern Ireland’s exit from the World Cup Qualifying campaign, an outcome largely attributed to Ovidiu Hategan, the match referee, who awarded opponents Switzerland a penalty for a handball that was not. Northern Ireland last qualified for a World Cup in 1986, and now will have to wait until, at the earliest, 2022, to participate again.
So why is this arbiter of the game, a crucial pawn in all iterations of sport, so maligned? It is wholly unfair.
The job of the official is pressured; thousands of spectators, with their own vested interests, all have their own opinions. Referees get but a split-second to make a judgement call often, as was the case with Romanian Hategan in the recent Northern Ireland fixture, with immense consequences. One could even suggest that a double standard exists: if a player misses a chance they are lambasted, but not long after support is all theirs. If a referee makes a mistake it will follow them around, like a chain around their neck for the rest of the contest. We must remember this. In the dying embers of football without the assistance of video referees, it should never be far from our minds as fans that we, the humble spectator absolved of all responsibility, are in a fortunate position vis a vis the ref. Yes, a referee may make a mistake, but it is not done out of spite, hate, or personal gain.
The professional game, however, is a different kettle of fish to the game as many Cambridge students know it. In the lower reaches of the Cambridge University Association Football League, the art of “self-reffing” is practiced by many a side. With substitutes sometimes reluctant to run the line, the appointed referee takes on a lot of responsibility. They must manage a potentially heated situation with no formal training. In these lower echelons of the footballing world, the standard is not always the same as that which is found in the Premier League, and this too must be carefully negotiated by the unlucky individual charged with the duties of refereeing. It is an unenviable task, especially when a college referee will likely be sourced from one side’s substitutes and must be as impartial as possible. Those who step up to the plate, often out of necessity, must be shown appreciation.
We are schooled, socialised, by the professional sporting world, by football managers, to take things out on the referee. When we lose, ourselves as players, or the team we follow, the blame is often not ours. Blaming the referee is a culture which must come to an end. It is symptomatic of our lack of ability to take responsibility for our actions, to be accountable. In 2009, Sir Alex Ferguson, then manager of Manchester United, questioned the fitness of referee Alan Wiley after an unsatisfying 2-2 with Sunderland. Arsene Wenger only this season branded the refereeing display of Michael Oliver “atrocious” after a 3-1 defeat by Manchester City. But to question the referee so regularly, to abuse as fans do, has no place in the beautiful game.
The culture of blaming the ref, of not appreciating the task that is at their door, is not one which belongs in football. We can no longer, at any level, stand for a practice that denigrates the sport known the world over as the beautiful game. They are not right 100 percent of the time, but neither should they be questioned in the manner in which referees are currently. At every level of football, from the World Cup final to Sunday league in the Fenlands, a referee is a part of football. It is high time that was remembered.