The Rational Ref

Ingredients of violence still a risk at junior soccer tournaments

Little has changed since a 10-year-old kicked an opponent a year ago in an incident that led to 2.5 million YouTube hits

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 April, 2013, 3:38am

It has been a year since Hong Kong's infamous head-kick incident when a 10-year-old boy kicked his opponent in the face. Its YouTube video went viral - amassing around two and a half million views - and generated a huge amount of interest and concern globally. But locally, has organised youth soccer improved?

From observations of the HKFA youth competitions and other junior tournaments, Rational Ref reckons there has been little improvement. Go to any youth match on any given weekend and the components that caused last season's head-kick incident are still present in and around the pitch, waiting for another spark to ignite the touch paper.

These are the troublesome trio of over-competitive coaches, overprotective parents and underqualified referees. As authority figures, they are important role models to young, impressionable players.

The over-competitive coach simply wants to do better than the rest, and win. What they overlook is that competition is secondary and the children only wish to enjoy themselves.

This coach does not represent the majority of youth coaches in Hong Kong, many of whom are passionate about their work and genuinely care about the development of their young charges. But they do exist and there are two general types.

One is demonstrably loud, overeager and abusive. This type exhibits excessive rage that is directed at young players and match officials.

The other is the passive-aggressive, devious coach. This type instructs youth players in the dark arts, usually without the children being aware.

Rational Ref has come across coaches who instruct their players on unsporting behaviour such as feigning injury. In one competition, a team were winning and the coach wanted to waste as much time as possible. The coach told one of his 10-year-old players to fall down and then, without the referee's permission, ran onto the pitch to "treat" the player and thereby disrupt the other team's attacking move. After the coach slowly "treated" his player, the referee told them to leave the pitch and wait for permission to return.

But as soon as play restarted the coach simply told his player to run back on with the full knowledge they were breaking the rules. The coach, a former Division One player, abused the situation for his own benefit. An adult who knows the rules and deliberately instructs an innocent child to break them is totally irresponsible.

In fact, this sneaky type is worse than the discernibly abusive coach whose actions are obvious to all. Nonetheless, both are problematic.

Over-protective parents overreact to the slightest physical contact made on their children. Also, at every game, parents stand right on the pitch lines in the mistaken belief that increased proximity will shield their children from harm.

For some reason, spectators are hypnotically drawn to white lines. No matter how many times match officials tell people to move at least two yards from the line, within moments they will be standing on the lines again, obscuring the view of the linesmen.

The over-protective parent must understand that soccer is a contact sport. Children will inevitably bump into one another as they learn to develop their general co-ordination with their emerging skills.

If parents cannot bear to see their children experience the game's physical nature then they are better off making them take knitting lessons. This is the same advice Rational Ref gives to adult players who complain about the slightest knocks they receive and always expect a free kick. Nevertheless, Rational Ref can appreciate that some parents may not wish to entrust the safety of their children to incompetent match officials who are underqualified.

Underqualified referees are those with no experience in managing children and lack experience in refereeing. They are usually young, "green" referees, who are students themselves. But there are also adults who are unqualified.

In Hong Kong, it seems anyone can put on a uniform and, with cards in pocket and whistle in hand, automatically assume authority over a match. The concern is whether to allow and entrust these referees to manage young players, excitable coaches and anxious parents.

Ultimately, the danger is that all three components will contribute to another flare-up similar to the head-kick incident.

There is a solution … but we'll discuss that next week.