Despite the FA’s Respect campaign being nearly 5 years old, I don’t think many would argue the fact that football is still a long way behind other sports in terms of the respect shown to match officials. We still see players disputing virtually every decision and appearing outraged the instant a foul is committed. We still have players surrounding the referee and managers storming onto the pitch at full-time. And how often do TV cameras still catch players shouting profanity at the ref after a decision goes against them?
Of course there has been improvement, such as a significant decrease in the number of bookings for dissent, but the truth is that fundamentally players and managers still complain almost instinctively, usually before the ref has even had a chance to blow the whistle. Is it not embarrassing to see players cry out to the ref as though he’s committed war crimes when in fact he’s already in the process of giving the foul?
Watching the Six Nations recently highlighted just how well managed the disciplinary side of the game is in rugby union, and consequently emphasised how much more football has to do. The ref calls over the offending player and the captain, has a quick chat (which everyone can hear over the mic) and everyone gets on with it.
There is the odd question in reply but no pathetic whinging or mock despair and certainly no aggressive abuse. Players accept the decision, and potential punishment, maturely and with minimal fuss. Even for controversial decisions there is limited argument, due in part perhaps because the players have the sense to realise it is of no benefit, but is more likely to be detrimental if anything. There are sanctions such as the loss of 10 metres or the reversal of a penalty for excessive arguing.
Of course there are differences between sports, not everything is immediately transferable. The loss of 10 metres for example would have virtually no effect in football but can be very significant in rugby. The differences between officiating football and rugby, from the perspective of the referees themselves, was discussed in a group interview recently (it can be read here). A major point of discussion was the relationship between players and referee, which to me seems almost entirely absent in football and certainly a long way from the ideals set forth by the Respect campaign.
A while back Gary Neville wrote a piece about the futility of arguing with refs, which had taken him years to realise. Far from having even the slightest influence on a referee’s decision, constant complaints and aggressive behaviour proves much more likely to harden a ref’s resolve against you.
Have you ever seen a decision overturned because players complain or get in the official’s face? Why then does it continue? Players need to be better educated to this fact, managers need to do more to control them and all round the professionals need to set a better example. It’s completely in the culture and nothing is going to change while young players at the clubs and watching on TV see how their idols behave.
The Premier League has a Fair Play League table, in line with UEFA’s equivalent, and points are awarded not just for avoiding yellow/red cards but also for respect to referees, behaviour of team officials and even behaviour of the fans. The scoring system can be read here. Rewards are given out for such things but the reality is that a fairly insignificant cash prize isn’t much of an incentive to a Premiership club, so as long as they believe that pressuring referees enhances their chances, why would they ever change?