The Ship Be Sinking

Mouth Almighty

In Defense Of Ref-Bitching

Apparently Sralyx Ferguson and Shrek are in varying degrees of trouble for their comments about the refereeing during Manchester United and Chelsea this weekend. As a semi-neutral in the sense that I hope both teams are swallowed up by Apophis the soul-drinker, let me half-assedly defend them.

First, I take it for granted that had the game had a final scoreline going the other way that Carlo Ancelotti and John Terry would be the ones complaining, about the kung-fu kick on Drogba and a thousand other things. They would be equally justified (or not); and therein lies one of the two reasons I give teams a pass on the behavior in a game like this: there’s basically nothing separating them. You could run United vs. Chelsea a thousand times and I strongly suspect you’d get something close to 33% wins for each team and 33% draws, with home field advantage as the only strongly predictive variable and few goal totals higher than 3 combined. Any given game between the two sides is going to be decided or not by the slimmest of margins and the slightest of factors, and that very much does include refereeing. Both managers and players are incentivised to do anything they can to manipulate referees for the future (or to view any calls that go against them as having been manipulated) by the reality that one or two calls either way absolutely can make the difference. This tends to be encouraged even more by the structure of football leagues: there’s never more than 4-5 serious teams per major European league and fewer than 40 games per domestic season, so each matchup between the major sides becomes an enormous event built up to for weeks and having enormous financial and sporting ramifications. People’s entire careers can turn on one or two results, which themselves may be the result of one or two calls; for incredibly competitive people to be under that kind of strain and to feel their futures partly defined by factors beyond their control is intensely frustrating.

The second major factor is the unbelievably shit quality of the officiating edifice in most leagues of most sports worldwide. This is probably clearest in North American sports leagues like the NBA and NHL, but the Premier League isn’t much better at all- and they combine a generally low and often biased cadre of referees with the political habit of virtually always denying any possibility that any of their crew might have gotten something wrong. Once in a very long while something particularly egregious may get an official skipped or sent to the lower leagues for a time, but for the most part there’s simply zero responsibility for turning in a shamefully inept performance most weeks. Now, the referee for United and Chelsea this week was not shameful (though he was bad, lost control of the game and had a very odd bias against attacking play); but if I’m a player or manager and I know someone has to be a 9/10 in incompetence to even get a reprimand, and the official in my incredibly important game was a 6/10 and is likely to get away with a standard of performance I wouldn’t accept from my most incompetent backup, it’s going to piss me off. If I’m already incentivised to try to manipulate referees by the competitive structure of the league, AND I have good reason to believe I’m correct because the actual referee’s performance was dismal, is there any reason not to speak out?

Bottom line is, a lot of this bitching is an unavoidable and often not even unjustified result of the structure of the sport and the league. The best way to take the edge off of it and reduce the frequency of it isn’t to fine players and managers who are already insanely wealthy and probably think rightly that it’s worth the price if they can complain a few calls their way next time, but to take seriously the need to improve referees and give them proper tools in the future. This means no more defending biased hacks like Mike Riley, and it means giving the good referees more assistants and eyes to help them out, video replays of goal line decisions and perhaps penalty decisions, and whatever else comes up as a useful technical or technological aid. You’re certainly not going too get any more respect for referees by the very proper equivalent of shouting “SHUT UP BECAUSE I SAID SO THAT’S WHY.”

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November 9, 2009 - Posted by | Other Soccer

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