Blame Culture Damages Football

In Football on July 21, 2010 at 11:46 pm

Referees are stuck in the middle and shown no respect

Distance has hopefully lent some much-needed perspective to the World Cup and its showpiece between Holland and Spain. It’s been over a week now since the furious fallout from that disappointing climax to what was, in many ways, a strange and somewhat underwhelming tournament.

In the aftermath, much of the media attention has focussed not on Spain’s often over-cautious tactics or the Oranje’s cynical approach, but on one of the few men on the pitch who I felt could justifiably hold his head high – Howard Webb.

I must admit, I have been no fan of the former policeman in times past. Sometimes, he has let himself down and left himself open to criticism in his handling of the big occasion. But in the sport’s biggest event, I feel he was given an impossible job. Nevertheless he acquitted himself admirably.

As they have openly stated in the aftermath, the Dutch knew they could get away with bad tackles early. In their own words, they knew they wouldn’t booked or sent off early on because of the occasion.

How did they know this? Simple. A referee will do as much as he can to avoid sending off a player on either side. Once again, it is due mainly to the lazy blame culture which thrives among certain sections of the game.

When a player has been dismissed early in the past (say Arsenal and Barcelona’s 2006 Champions League decider, fittingly for this example) the referee has been savaged for ‘spoiling the occasion’ or ‘not applying

Jens Lehmann sees red in 2006, a decision which was roundly criticised by many

common sense’.

These attacks inevitably lead to a climate of fear among referees.

To take another prominent problem in the game, diving, a similar paradox awaits our hapless card-bearer. We all want it cut out of the game, and get riled when an obvious dive goes unpunished. But then think back to all those occasions when an actual foul isn’t given, and then to compound it, up pops a yellow card! Once again, rather than the cheating players copping the flak, the brunt of our frustrations fall on the man in the middle.

The real root of the matter is that refereeing is hard. A lot harder than many of us give it credit for. We all watch a match in awe of the players, and think that refereeing is the one job we could all do. It’s not. I’m not gonna lie to you, it’s the best chance you’ve got to trod the Old Trafford or Nou Camp turf on match day, unless you fancy a streak. But it’s still a long hard road to the top.

People tend to forget how different watching a match on TV is to actually being on the pitch in a World Cup final. When Webb saw Nigel de Jong’s challenge on Xabi Alonso for instance, he saw it once, in full speed. His positioning is good, but even so, Mark van Bommel drifts right in front of the incident. It’s entirely possible that he didn’t get an unobstructed view, due to being, you know, on the pitch and everything.

Nonetheless, one prominent analyst on Irish channel RTE saw fit to label him a ‘clown’. The same analyst who regularly studies slow motion replays from countless angles and still consistently comes to ridiculous conclusions from his ivory tower.

In fact, the RTE pundits were unanimous that Webb left it far too long to book van Bommel and de Jong. But both of them had already been booked by the 25th minute, along with three others! He can’t card players for every foul, especially straight from kick-off. In reality, the stats show that for 28 fouls committed by the Dutch, they picked up 10 yellow cards (Heitinga’s 2 included).

That’s one yellow for every 3 fouls! I don’t think the problem was Webb being lenient, it was just how Holland were going to play. They were going to share the fouls around, and they did it with the ultimate professionalism. Hats off for that.

Read the papers in Holland though, and the headlines are labelling him a ‘chump’. Coach Bert van Marwijk and several of the team have openly complained of him ‘favouring’ the Spanish. Even Johan Cruyff has reluctantly piled on, due to Webb ‘creat(ing) in us a state of such indignation that it is necessary to comment’

Swedish referee Anders Frisk was forced into early retirement after receiving death threats

I would like to take the time to analyse the most controversial of Webb’s decisions, and, rather than join in the reckless character assassination of the man FIFA deemed the best of the best, actually make an attempt to rationalise these calls.

Cruyff believed Webb ‘looked the other way at times when he should have involved himself’. This is likely to be in reference to the incident where Puyol and Robben tangled just after the hour mark. This was a very contentious incident, but I felt Webb’s handling of it was perfectly reasonable. Remember that he’s about 35 yards from the incident, due to it being a quick break that left the whole Spanish team stranded.

With Robben overtaking the stumbling Puyol, the defender stuck a despairing arm across his chest as he crashed to the earth. As the contact had come outside the box with Robben still bearing down on goal, Webb played the advantage. Once he’s made that decision for an incident as significant as a one-on one, there can be no turning back.

Unfortunately for the Netherlands, Robben fluffed his gilt-edged chance, and that was that. True, Webb could have then booked Puyol after the fact. But that would have been just as contentious, if not more so. Remember, Heitinga’s first yellow came after he played advantage to the Spanish, and that has been used as yet another stick to beat the Englishman with.

Sadly, had Robben gone down when through on goal, Puyol would have been shampooing his glorious 80s barnet within seconds. So, the incentive is clearly there for the divers. To further illustrate the point, the difference between that incident and the one that resulted in Heitinga’s second yellow was clear; Andres Iniesta never got his one on one.

If Iniesta had stayed on his feet, as Robben had done, and gotten on the end of that ball only to miss, I don’t think Heitinga would have walked. There was enough contact to put Iniesta off his stride though, and once he’d

Heitinga is given his marching orders in the final, a decision which was harsh or overdue, depending on who you're listening to

drawn attention to that by going down the sending off was inevitable. Even the Everton man knew that immediately.

The truth is that so many of these decisions are open to interpretation that there’s no way to avoid making a target of yourself. When teams and fans have so much emotion and energy invested in these encounters, it’s almost impossible to see both sides. Make that encounter a World Cup final, at the end of a largely frustrating tournament and the distortion is magnified.

What’s needed is a level of sympathy, and an effort to understand. With the media looking for headlines and controversy though, the easiest target is the whistleblower. After nearly every match, you will hear some wally whinging about a key decision. The problem is usually not with the man in black though, but the childish refusal of well paid sportsmen to accept blame, and the blind willingness of fans and opinion-makers to follow suit.

Until respect is shown, the hardest job of all will be recognised as the poisoned chalice it is. The damage being done will only be seen in future generations, when standards continue to decline.


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