The Rational Ref

Protect referees by hitting clubs where it hurts

The spate of violence against officials shows little is being done to promote respect for game

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 May, 2013, 3:32am

No one is bigger than the club. This commonly espoused mantra is easy to comprehend yet individuals with massive egos and an overdeveloped sense of grandeur do not get it. They are the ones who take the law into their own hands and as a result people have died.

What else could explain the actions of the 17-year-old player in Utah who, angry at being shown a yellow card, punched 46-year-old referee Ricardo Portillo in the face? Portillo collapsed, was taken to hospital where he became comatose from swelling in his brain and passed away.

What else explains the behaviour of three teenage players in the Netherlands last December who fatally attacked 41-year-old linesman Richard Nieuwenhuizen by hauling him to the ground and kicking him repeatedly in the head, neck and stomach?

It's not just badly behaved teenagers in recreation leagues. Experienced players in professional leagues exhibit this rage and egotistical behaviour, too. Last month Pieter Rumaropen, 29, a player in the Indonesian Super League, bloodied a referee's nose after the match official awarded a penalty to the opposing team.

In Italy, AC Milan's Sulley Muntari, 28, physically restrained the referee to prevent him from taking out a yellow card. For his insolence, Muntari was sent off. Only the week before, Muntari snatched a yellow card off the referee who was about to book teammate Mario Ballotelli. It virtually showed the vainglorious Ghanaian taking the law into his own hands.

These examples demonstrate the total lack of respect towards not just match officials but the game itself. These self-important individuals either do not understand there is a code of conduct for how people should behave on the soccer pitch as well as in society, or they choose to dismiss the game's regulatory system in favour of their own biased interpretation of justice.

Either way, the result is anarchy. What can be done? Aside from education, with responsible coaches playing a crucial role in instilling respect for the game, the answer is to have an effective disciplinary system to nip the problem in the bud. Yet time and again, Fifa, Uefa and other competition organisers have shown inconsistent and ineffective disciplinary outcomes that do little more than "slap the wrist" of naughty, misbehaving offenders and their clubs.

In principle the disciplinary system works. It just needs to be consistently and effectively applied. Bizarrely in Hong Kong, it is an amateur league that best demonstrates the effectiveness of hitting offenders where it hurts.

The Yau Yee League's disciplinary system has a stratified penalty system. Players are initially fined HK$500 for either a red card or for four accumulated yellow cards, as well as incurring standard match suspensions. With the accumulation of disciplinary points (one for a yellow, three for a red) surpassing certain thresholds, the clubs themselves are fined HK$1,000, HK$3,500 and HK$7,000, accordingly. For recreational clubs, the fear of being fined in excess of HK$11,500 hits home. It works because this season only two of the 50 YYL clubs exceeded the middle threshold.

This effective disciplinary system makes individuals accountable for their actions and clubs more attentive to serial offenders. It emphasises that no one is bigger than the club or the game. The YYL also has zero tolerance to anyone assaulting match officials.

In contrast, the game's official guardian, the Hong Kong Football Association, has an ineffective disciplinary system that is keenly felt in the lower divisions where there is no protection for match officials.

This impotency is highlighted by the incident where Rational Ref was assaulted this year during a second division match. The HKFA has not taken disciplinary action, either against the club (Sha Tin) or the assailant. The Sha Tin's coach played dumb, even though most people knew the assailant was associated with the club. Ideally, the HKFA should have requested Sha Tin to name the assailant or otherwise fine the club for bringing the game into disrepute. A month later, Rational Ref was appointed to referee Sha Tin again. During the pre-match check of registered players, Rational Ref saw the Sha Tin captain deliberately remove a photo ID from the official players' book.

Upon asking, the captain refused to replace the photo ID. This was obviously related to the assault incident, so Rational Ref reported this to the HKFA, suggesting the assailant was a registered Sha Tin player. However, the HKFA has still not taken any disciplinary action.

By sweeping such incidents under the carpet, impotent competition organisers are producing ticking time bombs on the soccer pitches, especially at the grass-roots level. Clubs and individuals registered under the HKFA know they can escape punishment and therefore do not respect the game, regulations or match officials.

Worryingly, by encouraging this mindset, the HKFA is giving licence for unruly behaviour that will ultimately lead to fatal confrontations similar to the Portillo and Nieuwenhuizen cases.

Agree or disagree? Contact Rational Ref at rationalref@gmail.com