Rugby an example to football, in every respect

Chelsea midfielder Nemanja Matic had to be restrained by his team-mates after being shown a red card by referee Martin Atkinson during their match against Burnley last month. It is incumbent on players at the highest level to give referees the level of respect they deserve.

YOU might, in a fit of bravery, agree to be Andy Murray's adviser on avoiding angst, England's penalty coach, Zlatan Ibrahimovic's personal assistant or even the fellow who follows the defeated, dehyrated athlete to the loo for a drug test and then exits triumphantly holding a urine beaker.

But football referee? Of all sporting jobs, not this. A job of no glory, no applause but only highlighted error.

A job with which comes spittle, abuse and occasionally death. Last week, after all, a Detroit amateur player was jailed for punching and killing a referee.

There was, insists Fifa.com, a time when fouls were considered ungentlemanly and captains settled disputes.

Like the dodo, this quietly passed. Later, two umpires were put to work - their job was to consider appeals from players.

The referee, at the touchline, intervened when the umpires failed to agree. In 1891, referees began to send off players without listening to appeals.

Problem is, it hasn't stopped the players from stating their case at full volume.

Put on the TV and there they are, the howling, diving, indignant packs, who want the referee to enforce the rules when they themselves feel no need to follow them.

In 1878, a referee first used a whistle, in this century it will soon be pepper spray if you go by Chelsea's suffocating swarm.

Theatre, which is fun, has been confused by footballers with histrionics.

In their defence it is said they are passionate people in chase of noble prizes.

Apparently the higher the stakes in sport, the lower the respect to be shown.

Of course, protesting against decisions - "We wuz robbed" shouted boxing promoter Joe Jacobs famously in 1932 - is balm for the defeated soul.

Of course, referees make errors, turn games, are arrogant, often inconsistent, and they must be open to criticism but not objects of ridicule.

Else who will want to referee, at any level, whereupon the worse the quality of referees the more dreadful the sport will become.

Sport is presumed to extricate the best of us, but officials, in all sport, at all levels, may not agree.

One 1994 survey to which 782 softball and baseball umpires responded revealed that 84 had been assaulted by fans, families of athletes, coaches and players.

Another survey of basketball referees in 1998 found that 98 of 721 had a similar experience.

In 2013, a BBC story stated that in England and Wales there were 491 assaults on football officials in 2012-13.

On it goes, everything percolating downwards, from major league to minor league, from foaming manager to frothing player to enraged, TV-watching parent to impressionable child.

To the point where kids don't quite know what sport stands for, because adults forget to show them. It is pitiful that at junior playing fields, we sometimes find this sign, addressed to parents and coaches:

These are kids

This is a game

The coaches volunteer

The umpires are human

Football managers should know better, but are busy tussling on the sidelines. Captains must intercede but evidently that armband is only a fashion accessory.

Respect cannot be induced only through rules and fines, but through the players' initiative.

For $200,000 a week, they must do more than score or save a goal.

Rugby, less burdened by football's flimflam, carries itself with a finer dignity, somehow marrying brutality with etiquette.

The sight of two captains, standing obediently like mute hulks, listening to a referee, is to remember someone has to run the game.

Rugby, ironically, is now being gently infected by football's diving and as Jonathan Leow, a vice-president of the Singapore Rugby Union, says: "Football is so prevalent in the modern culture that its attitudes seep into other sports".

But it is rugby's response that is instructive and inspiring.

In January, Christian Day, a current player and chairman of the Rugby Players' Association, was quoted thus in the Telegraph: "What we want to avoid is going towards the football mentality of players shouting at referees, constantly questioning decisions and play-acting, which I think is coming into the game more and more. It is pretty commonly rolled out that we are different to football because of the respect shown to referees and it would be a real shame if that was lost."

Rugby is tussling, as all sport must, to maintain identity and retain its soul. Amid the understandable giving in to marketing glitter, a sport's essence cannot be lost. Every small gesture matters and it is worthy that in football's S-League we find one.

After a match, players must shake not just each other's hands but also the referee's. You can see it as empty symbolism or as an act of inclusion. You, sir, belong to this game, too.

rohitb@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on March 17, 2015.
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