The Rational Ref

Abuse of soccer officials needs to end

By taking action against bullies looking to get their way, we can end this unsavoury scourge

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 February, 2013, 4:17am

Crystal Palace boss Ian Holloway was clear last week about his intimidatory, insensitive and inappropriate intentions towards match officials.

"I think it's vital we make [Selhurst Park] a horrible place to come for any referee. It should be almost impossible to get a decision without you moaning like mad at the referee. We've got to try to make our place where it's almost impossible to give something against us," said Holloway.

It doesn't take a crystal ball to foresee it is individuals like "Horrible Holloway" who contribute to the nasty side of the game. Such hostile treatment towards match officials inevitably spreads to all levels where ticking time bombs are effectively being seeded. The death of linesman Richard Nieuwenhuizen in Holland last December when he was attacked for doing his job is the extreme, but real, outcome in the hostility stakes. Tellingly, in their attempt to influence referees, it is usually losing teams and those expecting to win who complain the loudest. Of the four teams participating in this year's Lunar New Year Cup, competition losers Muangthong United were noticeably the most hostile.

In the first match after losing his only two recognised goalkeepers, Muangthong United coach Slavisa Jokanovic delayed proceedings because he was incredulous at the decision to send off his reserve keeper who had just replaced his injured counterpart. Jokanovic called in his players to give the impression he was unwilling to continue. It took at least five minutes for Muangthong to eventually choose a replacement keeper.

Three days later, Jokanovic was hostile to another referee, again showing his anger at decisions going against his team. Muangthong midfielder Mario Gjurovski was cautioned for pushing the referee and his contemptuous coach was asked to leave the technical area. "He didn't respect me and my team and I didn't respect him," said Jokanovic. "In the heat of the moment I might have said something and it was my mistake."

With 4,000 spectators and several TV cameras turned on Jokanovic, he acted like a spoilt child. During high-profile matches the Hong Kong Football Association, which is the competition organiser, has many duty officers and security people to help prevent unsavoury incidents from escalating further. However, at lower levels, with the lack of security and official video coverage, safety becomes more significant as highlighted by the fatal Nieuwenhuizen case.

Last Sunday, Rational Ref was thrust into an unsavoury altercation during a HKFA Second Division league match between HKFC and Sha Tin. With HKFC leading 3-1, an unidentified person entered the HKFC pitch to protest against what he perceived to be poor decisions against Sha Tin. He managed to delay the match for 10 minutes.

When Rational Ref asked him to leave the pitch, the man became aggressive and entered my personal space, standing on both my feet. Instinctively, I put out my hands to stop him, but he used this as a signal to forcibly push me with both hands.

It would have been easy to fall down and feign injury as many players and ball boys have learned to do. Instead, I stood up to the bully and he eventually left the pitch. However, he still remained within earshot, hurling obscenities. The Sha Tin team knew who this individual was, but they played dumb and refused to help identify him.

At the time, Rational Ref felt the incident did not warrant abandoning the match, which was probably the motive since Sha Tin were losing. Safety is the most important issue and, with hindsight, Rational Ref was fortunate the intruder had not been carrying an object that could be used as a weapon.

A report has been sent to the HKFA, but there is little competition organisers can do unless the assailant is identified.

Everyone has cameras these days but HKFA's duty officers hesitate to do anything innovative like taking pictures or video for evidence. HKFA could force Sha Tin to name the intruder or otherwise fine the team, which is what happens in other countries like Australia.

The HKFA could also invite HKFC to identify the intruder, since at the time some players claimed they knew him. In the past these incidents have been swept under the carpet in the false hope this will defuse the ticking timebombs. But not now.

The majority of people in Hong Kong's soccer community are decent, fair and sporting individuals, where everyone knows each other or knows someone who knows someone. But there are also some unsavoury characters who spoil things for the rest.

Instead of hiding behind a wall of inaction, we should work together in identifying the hostiles who ruin the game for everyone else. Only then may we enjoy soccer in a clearer and more enlightened way.