The Rational Ref

Bad behaviour on the pitch deserves zero tolerance

Chelsea's complaint against referee Mark Clattenburg seems like a bad loser's attempt to find a scapegoat for its foibles

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 November, 2012, 3:00am

What exactly is "inappropriate language"? Players, coaches and supporters have difficulty defining this but match officials know the answer. It's their job to know.

In law, players are sent off for what match officials term "Offinabus" - that is, using offensive, insulting and abusive language and/or gestures. Since match officials are taught where to draw the line, it stands to reason they would not jeopardise their own credibility by using the very words and gestures they are trained to deal with when confronted by foul-mouthed players.

This is why the controversial case of Chelsea accusing EPL referee Mark Clattenburg of using racist and inappropriate language against some of their players is astonishing and absurd. This does not mean it didn't happen, but until the case is concluded the allegations will remain unconvincing.

Unfortunately, this has not prevented Clattenburg's image from being sullied. Due to the intense media spotlight, he has also been stood down from EPL matches.

The mitigating circumstances surrounding Chelsea's complaint against Clattenburg are two-fold.

First, Chelsea lost the match against Manchester United. It has become routine in soccer for the defeated team to be sore losers.

Second, the Chelsea player making the accusation apparently did not hear the alleged insult directly. Nigerian John Obi Mikel was told by his teammates, Spaniard Juan Mata and Brazilian Ramires, that they heard Clattenburg insulting him.

Clattenburg hails from Durham and apparently speaks with a heavy accent. It seems more likely that something was lost in translation and that there was a misunderstanding, particularly considering English is not the first language of either Mata or Ramires.

In the background is the John Terry case and his suspension and fine by the Football Association for making racist remarks against Anton Ferdinand.

Clattenburg appears to have been made the scapegoat for Chelsea's foibles. If Clattenburg did use offensive language, it would be professional suicide. Alex Ferguson has come out defending Clattenburg, and the integrity of match officials in general. "I have never heard a player come to me in the last 15 years and say a referee has sworn at them during a game, ever," he said.

Whether the FA finds Clattenburg guilty or not, it does not excuse players and coaches from regularly abusing match officials. Let's reverse the Chelsea situation. After every match, match officials could conceivably make an official complaint to the FA and to the police about players constantly being abusive and using "inappropriate language".

Sadly, somewhere along the way, by permitting players and coaches to use insulting language, EPL referees have "made their own bed". One only has to look at the way Wayne Rooney has developed during his 10 years in the profession. The fact that EPL referees in 2002 allowed a 16-year-old boy to wantonly and incessantly use the F- and C-words, without applying the correct sanction - a red card - demonstrates the overall devaluing of discipline.

There are now growing voices calling to stem the tide of abuse heard around stadiums and seen on TV. The solution is obvious and referees must lead the way. Just show a red card for Offinabus. Do this consistently and within a matter of weeks, clubs will have curbed the ill discipline of players and coaches. If the EPL, with its role-model responsibility, adopts this zero-tolerance strategy then it will become easier for everyone else around the world to adopt.

This strategy is extremely effective and rugby referees know this better than anyone. Whenever Rational Ref officiates in Australia, the soccer competitions where zero tolerance is endorsed are noticeably more focused on playing rather than complaining. Players politely call out "sir" or "referee" to get their attention, and players understand they must behave otherwise they will receive a card - a yellow for dissent and a red for Offinabus. Everyone has learned to mind their language and subsequently there is more enjoyment for everyone. For their own sakes, EPL referees must adopt zero tolerance.