Football's Abuse Of Its Own Referees: Our Unrecognised Failure

Football has made its own referees suffer for such an extended period, it's not even recognised as wrong.

Countless stories of abuse at under-11 matches, tales of fractured skulls, broken bodies, FA charges and verbal and physical abuse make up the ugly aspect of the game that's rarely discussed - abuse of referees.

Former professional referee, Pierluigi Collina, told Sky Sports News earlier this year: "Unfortunately I see this in almost every country in the world. It's a worldwide problem that we need to consider, and we need to take [action] as soon as possible."

If different countries have the same problem, the issue isn't regional. It runs through the sport itself.

Here are some stories which highlight how globalised abuse of football's referees is.

In South America, Silvio Ruiz sent off an Atletico Quilmes player, before the offender hospitalised him. The local league's president said it was a 'miracle' the referee lived.

At an Ethiopian university, players and coaches of a team chased and then punched a referee on the ground after he awarded a goal against them.

Just last month, Spanish referee Fernando Lopes was beaten so badly at a game in North London, it was described by one reporter as: "the worst assault on a match official in Britain."

Physical violence happens so often, Ross Hawkes, a former referee who quit after being attacked twice in three years, warned football is: "a powder keg waiting to explode".

A study by the University of Alberta, USA, found referee abuse in football has risen in recent years. It's now cultural. Football dehumanises and vilifies its own officials and somehow it's OK. There is an unspoken agreement: if a referee makes the wrong call, abusing them is fair game.

We seem to accept poor treatment of officials, even though in any other environment it would be totally unacceptable.

On television, pundits criticise referees and brand decisions as 'appalling' or 'shameful', as though poor performance is a moral failing.

This culture trickles down into football's grassroots level, and so the cycle continues.

So just how has abuse of referees become so ingrained in football, it's a cultural norm?

Ali Perros, a 22-year-old who opted to work as a referee instead of a bar job to fund his time at university, said: "The reason why it's more common in football than other sports, is that a lot of laws are subjective - there's not a clear definition in a lot of case.

"Lots of managers constantly criticise the referee when things don't go their way. One striking factor I've seen is that managers very rarely praise the referee after a game. Again, referees arguably take the fall for mistakes and poor performances of managers and players," he explained.

"The abuse I've received has mainly been verbal.The worst example I can think of about happening to me was I reffed a game about three years ago. A team's captain accused me of not playing enough stoppage time and said something on the lines of: "You're lucky I'm not punching you, you cheating c**t". I sent him off after the final whistle.

"When I was getting changed, his teammate burst into the changing room, screaming abuse and threatening me. Luckily a colleague was on hand, otherwise it might've escalated."

There is the argument that, in a sport as intense as football, there should be space for a player to let off steam, an acceptable amount of abuse and shouting should go unchallenged, because it's a high-octane sport and emotions run high.

Ali Perros (left) took up refereeing to support himself at university
Ali Perros (left) took up refereeing to support himself at university

Then there are those who feel this supposed boundary should be eradicated, no room for complaints and moaning, the upmost respect for officials should be upheld at all times.

"Players should be allowed to vent as long as it is not abusive, personal or aggressive," Perro said. "It also helps because some players are not aware what the decision was given for and if they're allowed to speak to the ref and question the decision, the referee can let them know what the decision was for."

"But there has got to be a point where players have to stop complaining. They can't just complain or question every decision. I think - purely from a maintaining referee's authority point of view - there has to be a threshold because otherwise it just becomes ridiculous."

Paul Field, chairman of the Referee Association - a volunteer-run organisation formed to support referees - believes that arguing with referees is not acceptable at any level. He feels that heavy punishment is the best course of action to take to remove referee abuse out the game.

"We call on the central government to instruct courts to sentence those guilty of referee abuse to sentence at the highest possible threshold and issue football banning orders," he said.

Paul Field. Chairman of the Referee Association.
Paul Field. Chairman of the Referee Association.

"There is no line. When do you hear a manager say that he has a right to complain because his player missed an open goal, etc, they need to have a long hard at themselves."

There were 111 cases of confirmed referee abuse across the United Kingdom last season, according to a report by the Football Association.

But Martin Cassidy, founder of Referee Support, has stressed that the statistics don't show the whole picture.He said to the BBC: "On the face of it, the figure appears to be very low. However, it's the equivalent of over two per week, and if it's just during football season months it is over three.

"The figure does not include cases which were not proven, nor the hundreds of incidents where abuse was not reported."

Why aren't cases reported? In any other line of work - or volunteering - you wouldn't choose to ignore verbal and physical abuse aimed at you.

But when you consider that foul treatment and abuse of referees are commonplace and the done-thing, there would be no reason to report it. Could the problem be so entrenched that any other way seems bizarre, even to referees themselves?

Cassidy's charity, Ref Support, recognises this: "People adhere to social norms and change their conduct', the website says of extensive research done. The theory for Referee Support is if they can change the culture at the top, the rest will follow.

The charity also drew up a list of possible prevention methods on its website, the onus on referees wearing body-cams. They feel this could hold the key in changing the poisonous relationship between referees and the rest of football.

And prevention methods have been enforced by the FA, too. The organisation is doing its part. Joseph Larkin, a level four official, said that the standard of referees is: "at an all-time high", the FA launching their Centre of Refereeing Excellence, whilst issuing support to Referees Associations.

But sometimes the FA and other bodies and organisations have failed its officials and become part of the problem themselves: in Thailand, a referee was kicked and punched by fans of Satun United, but a panel banned the referee for six years for an 'unsatisfactory' performance.

15-year-old Max Ormesher said he was abused and intimidated by coaches during an under-11s friendly. The charges on the managers were later dropped, with the FA later described as ''failing' the teenager.


Credit: BBC. Ryan Hampson expresses his concern.
Credit: BBC. Ryan Hampson expresses his concern.

Ryan Hampson, a 19-year-old who claims he's been spat at and headbutted during his time as a referee, was charged by the FA for misconduct, after he protected a 15-year-old referee who had been verbally abused by three men at a game.

Today, you will find endless, brilliant causes in football.

It's a sport that, undoubtedly, still has its problems, but has evolved tremendously in recent years, becoming more diversified and approachable for people of all backgrounds, the way it should be.

But abuse of referees is ignored. Somewhere along the way, in our thorough concern for football and its social issues, we forgot an important component.

In our attempts to bring justice to the game, to create equality and effect change around many important issues, we have forgotten about referees.

The end isn't in sight, either.

If you want to learn more:

Ref Support.

Referee Association

SPORTbible's campaign More Than A Game tells the stories about football and its power beyond the pitch. Find out more here.

Jacque Talbot

Jacque Talbot is a journalist and sports writer at SPORTbible. He graduated from Manchester Metropolitan with a BA in English and Film. He is a football, snooker, and basketball enthusiast and has been published in the Daily Mail, The Guardian, The Set Pieces, Planet Football and the Morning Star. He’s the greatest thing to come out of Essex since Nick Frost.

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