The Rational Ref

Education, not 'Olympic spirit', is solution to bad behaviour in soccer

The tribal nature of soccer means only campaigns to highlight what is acceptable will bring fair play, enjoyment and safety

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 August, 2012, 3:34am

As we transition to the new English Premier League season and approach the player-transfer deadline, another kind of transfer is flavour of the month. It's the transfer of Olympic ideals to the world of soccer. Managers, players, commentators and sports writers have all trumpeted the success of the London Olympics by promoting the essence of the "Olympic spirit" to soccer. But this lamentation makes no sense.

A team's home stadium is usually an intimidating and hostile environment for visitors, especially away supporters. Even ex-England striker Michael Owen said recently: "A football ground isn't the most pleasant of places in the world. I certainly wouldn't take my kids to watch a match". This is a simple truth. The vitriol that emanates from the terraces is XXX-rated.

In this territorial setting, it is an uphill battle to get fans to mask their tribal allegiance in favour of the Olympic spirit. The only time when tribal allegiances are forgotten is when a player suffers a horrific injury, like the one to Bolton Wanderers' Fabrice Muamba, who had a cardiac arrest on the pitch last season. Only then do fans show humility and humanity.

Dishonest behaviour is a direct consequence of soccer's competitive and commercial nature. It is rare to see genuine acts of sportsmanship because players, fed by the modern club's financial rewards that practically demand their blind allegiance, will always try to gain an advantage. When the ball goes out of play, gamesmanship usually trumps sportsmanship because players are taught or encouraged to claim it is their throw-in, goal kick or corner kick even when they clearly played the ball last.

Whenever a player challenges a referee's decision it undermines the respect campaign. During the pre-season Community Shield, when referee Kevin Friend correctly awarded a red card to Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic for his two-footed, studs-up challenge on Manchester City forward and fellow Serbian Aleksandar Kolarov, Chelsea players immediately surrounded and hounded him. Players do not have the right to challenge a referee's decision. When they do challenge, it is dissent; pure and simple. The problem with this player behaviour is it affects the grass roots where amateur and youth players mistakenly believe they have the right to constantly challenge referees' decisions simply because they see it happen at the professional level.

Managers are well aware of this, not because of enlightened moral principles but because of their own self-interest, which is to stop their players from getting "stupid bookings" - namely from dissent, inciting opposition supporters, or taking off shirts when celebrating a goal - which increase the likelihood of suspensions.

Managers are just as guilty of poor behaviour. Newcastle manager Alan Pardew was left red-faced last weekend after his spoilt and brattish behaviour. Pardew admitted telling his players to show "good behaviour in the best Olympian spirit", but then went against his own advice and physically shoved an assistant referee because he did not like a decision. Hopefully the Football Association will ban Pardew from the technical area for a lengthy period and fine him heavily to send a clear message this behaviour is unacceptable. In 1998, Sheffield Wednesday's feisty Italian Paolo Di Canio was banned for 11 matches and fined £10,000 (HK$122,500) after pushing referee Paul Alcock.

Let's not forget the Olympic spirit was not always on show in London. Although there were cases of Olympians who graciously accepted defeat, there were other instances where Olympians were disgusted at not getting a gold or any medal. Chinese officials led the dissenters, criticising decisions that went against their athletes in badminton, cycling, gymnastics, and track and field. The world's best athletes and their mentors exhibited just as many sour grapes as they did Olympic spirit. The Olympics wasn't as "sporting" as many people claimed.

Referees acknowledge the tribal nature of soccer, which is the reason why the Olympic spirit cannot be readily transferred to the pitch. The divisive characteristics of two essentially warring teams, together with the biased exploits of their fans and managers - such as the Buenos Aires clásico between Boca Juniors and River Plate in Argentina or the Glasgow derby of Celtic and Rangers in Scotland - is proof. Tribal mentality has existed ever since the very first match between two competitive teams.

The solution is not the pointless plea for Olympic ideals but rather increased education campaigns to highlight what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. Respect for match officials is imperative. This is because they are the ones who are trying to bring fair play, enjoyment and safety to everyone. Now isn't that the true essence of the Olympic spirit?

William Lai is a qualified referee in Hong Kong, an instructor and assessor, and has also officiated in England and Australia