Horrid acts are no laughing matter
Match officials should not be so reviled by fans, especially when they are injured during the course of their duty on the pitch
When something unpleasant happens to match officials fans go wild with delight and reporters have a field day writing about the misfortune inflicted on the man in the middle.
This happened last weekend when EPL referee Chris Foy was knocked out for a few seconds by a ball hitting him flush in the face in the first minute of the Newcastle and Swansea match. After the Newcastle medic checked him, he continued for 30 minutes, but something was not right, so stand-in referee Anthony Taylor replaced the dazed and confused Foy. The feelings of schadenfreude espoused by everyone watching revealed just how hated match officials are. Does this antipathy tell us anything about soccer lovers and the society we live in?
In other sports, officials are not as intensely loathed. Those in tennis, snooker and golf are not regularly mocked, jeered and abused by players and spectators when they make decisions.
Seriously, contrast the crowd's pleasure at seeing referee Foy being hit in the head and concussed to the reaction of shock over the death of a keeper in Gabon after an opponent stepped on his head. Did anyone laugh? Keeper Sylvain Azougoui suffered serious head injuries that ultimately proved fatal.
Recall last season, when Swansea City's Ashley Williams deliberately kicked the ball with full force from close range at the head of Manchester United's Robin van Persie. Then United manager Alex Ferguson said Van Persie "could have been killed". "[It] was the most dangerous thing I've seen on a football field for many years. It was absolutely deliberate. The whistle has gone, the game has stopped and he has done that right in front of the referee… It was a disgraceful act," said Ferguson.
The FA did not take action against Williams, using the feeble excuse that referee Michael Oliver had cautioned both players, which meant the FA was "powerless" to take retrospective action on grounds of "re-refereeing" an incident.
Had Van Persie suffered a broken neck or even worse, it is certain action would have been taken against Williams, regardless of whether the referee had already "dealt with the incident".
A recent study showed that heading the ball is associated with clear risks of brain injuries, mainly because it increases the odds of head collisions with other players. Referees are trained to treat any impact to the head as a serious injury.
Players who deliberately kick, or attempt to kick at, opponents' heads must also be severely punished retrospectively by competition organisers.
Two years ago Mario Balotelli, then of Manchester City, was retrospectively sanctioned for his intentional stamp that narrowly missed the head of Scott Parker, who was playing for Tottenham Hotspur.
At the time, Balotelli, still immature at 21, denied he did anything malicious and referee Howard Webb had missed the incident. The FA suspended Balotelli for four matches and Manchester City did not bother to appeal against the charge of violent conduct, which spoke volumes.
Although it is impossible to know the intent of players, referees use a clever test.
They ask themselves would the offender have acted in the same uncontrolled manner towards his teammate or even a family member. Although by no means foolproof, this is how experienced officials try to make sense of seemingly "innocent" incidents.
But they also need support in terms of retrospective action since referees cannot always see everything that happens on the pitch.
A blow to the head should be treated seriously. It is no laughing matter.
- A final note: Fifa once again showed its technophobic paranoia when it pulled the plug on Australia's experiment in miking up A-League referees for its current end-of-season finals, which would have been a world first. The idea was that at key moments, the audio from the referee and linesmen would have been aired by broadcaster Fox Sports. This would have brought soccer in line with other codes such as rugby league, union and Aussie Rules.
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