Monday, February 14, 2005

The Beautiful Game

I have long suspected Kevin Mitchell of the Observer to be an apologist for rugby. Yesterday he nailed his colours firmly to the mast with his articles Among the Thugs and Rugby Points the Way for Football. The basic premise of the two pieces is that the abuse of officials by players and managers is a cancer on football that does not affect rugby. Now, at that basic level, there can be no argument that the officials in football - at all levels - are subjected to a disgraceful level of vitriol regularly (though I would argue not routinely). It is nasty and unacceptable and it is a wonder that these men and women are prepared to put up with it at all. Similarly it is true that rugby just does not suffer from the same afflictions. Does that mean, however, that rugby is some kind of ideal for football to aspire to? Does it even mean that the articles as penned are completely accurate?

The first part of the former article tells an anecdotal tale of a gun being pulled on a referee at an obscure Sunday League game. Now the implication is very clear - this is a result of bad discipline and lack of respect for officials throughout the game. It is not. A man bringing a deadly weapon to a football match is a crime that could and should be punished with a jail sentence. How can any sporting authority attempt to deal with such an incident, or any incident of assault. The people mentioned in the non-League anecdotes clearly don't reserve such behaviour for the football field - there is obviously a social issue in evidence, of which criminal behaviour on the football pitch is only one symptom.

Almost immediately afterwards Mitchell quotes Alan Wilkie, a former Premiership referee as saying "One of the causes [of abuse], undoubtedly, is that some players have an arrogance towards officials stemming from the fact that they earn so much. It is very common." Even accepting that to be the case, how does it then explain the malaise at all levels of the game that Mitchell has chosen to highlight. Is he suggesting that the root cause is really as simplistic as Sunday Leaguers aping what they see Premiership stars do? Isn't it far more likely that the what Mitchell describes as "For every nutter with a gun, there are thousands with short tempers and vile tongues, spitting invective at referees and linesmen and forcing many of these officials out of football" is part of a society-wide malaise that sees the same sort of agonising over, for example, a binge-drinking culture.

The second article is far more annoying - the lazy (always unfavourable) comparisons with rugby. Now I could suggest that players having respect for officials is slightly undermined by the violence rugby players seem quite prepared to inflict on their opponents. However it may be better to take the arguments as they're presented. Early on Mitchell reminds the reader how "a century ago, beyond all our recollections admittedly, teams such as Corinthians wouldn't even take a penalty, because they thought it unsportsmanlike." Clearly the day of the gentleman footballer has passed, except the often pilloried Robbie Fowler tried to do the same much more recently (and was prevented from doing so by a pig-headed referee, incidentally).

However the reason I find the piece galling is not the principle that rugby players show far more respect to officials than footballers, but because comparing the two is not comparing like with like. Mitchell brushes across the point late in the piece but doesn't explore it at all (wilfully, I wonder?). The first and most obvious is that, in rugby, there is a ten yard penalty for dissent. In a sport where territorial advantage is everything, that ten yards can make a crucial difference. Rugby players are taught from a very young age to keep their mouths shut, not out of respect, but so as not to make the team suffer because of a loose tongue. What would be an equivalent in football? I can't think of one certainly.

A second crucial difference is that rugby is played at a far slower pace than football. The referees are always right on top of the action and are often way better placed to see an infringement than any player and, in fact, are in a position to talk constantly to the players, to virtually remind them of the rules or give a slap on the wrist as the play is progressing. Such a situation means contentious decisions are far less likely and, again, there is no direct comparison with football. Also, due to both the higher scoring nature of the sport, and TV replays to confirm legitimate scores, result-altering contentious decisions are very rare. Lastly, considering the many potentially contentious, match-altering calls football officials do have to make, (and the consequences of a mistake being made) is it really so surprising that adrenalin (or stress) fuelled players and managers can boil over?

A goal disallowed for offside, a last minute cup-tie winning penalty awarded, a player red-carded for a perceived late challenge... the list goes on and there simply is no equivalent in rugby. Football needs to clean up its behaviour and there are a lot of things that need looking at as Mitchell alludes to. However rugby isn't one of them.
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