Football: Red mist rises for men in black

Fifa's desire to remove violence from football has confused English referees
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The Independent Online
BY TRADITION, the Christmas football programme sorts out the contenders from the pretenders. This year it seems to have been operating to an entirely different agenda. If Philip Don, the Premier League referees' officer, had wanted to create an exercise with which to examine the way the English game is conducted by its officials, he could hardly have invented a more striking test. Half a dozen sendings-off appeared to confirm the view of English refereeing widely held abroad - in Italy, for example, where an official giving a lax or inconsistent performance is said to have conducted his arbitration all'inglese.

In Tuesday night's clash of potential champions at Stamford Bridge, Mike Riley seemed to change his mind over giving Franck Leboeuf a second yellow card for a 79th-minute foul on David Beckham, thus allowing the Chelsea captain to stay on the field and complete his side's goalless draw against Manchester United. Not surprisingly, Alex Ferguson, the United manager, thought he should have been sent off. More unexpectedly, Leboeuf and his coach, Gianluca Vialli, agreed.

Riley defended his decision yesterday, and was supported by Don, who had been stung by Ferguson's accusation that he had imposed ``his vision of football" on the Premier League's officials.

"I do not issue instructions to referees,'' Don said. ``Only Fifa and the FA can issue those instructions. At the beginning of the season all clubs are invited to send their manager to a meeting with me where we discuss the law changes and the interpretations. I shall leave you to draw your own conclusions as to whether or not Alex Ferguson attended.''

Not, presumably - although the man in charge of England's top referees perhaps ought to think again about the wisdom of using such elliptical formulations when delivering his views.

The Stamford Bridge incident followed several controversial expulsions over the weekend. At Blackburn on Saturday Dermot Gallagher listened to his linesman's advice and sent off Michael Oakes, the Aston Villa goalkeeper, for handling the ball outside his area. Later, having looked at the video, Gallagher announced that he would be asking the FA to quash the player's automatic one-match ban.

On Monday, four of the day's eight Premier League matches featured dismissals, all of them disputed. No one argued about the second yellow card for Dejan Stefanovic of Sheffield Wednesday against Aston Villa; both managers, however, questioned his first caution. Television suggested not merely that Patrick Vieira's red card for the use of an elbow against Neil Redfearn had been provoked by the Charlton player's illegitimate harrying, but also that its effect was exaggerated by Redfearn's play-acting. Paulo Wanchope's pugilistic reaction to Andy Townsend's vicious tackle was enough to see the Derby forward expelled, but not his Middlesbrough adversary.

Dietmar Hamann's case resembled Leboeuf's in that the German defender's first caution was triggered by a far worse offence - a damaging foul on Steve McManaman - than the one that brought a second yellow card for the Newcastle player.

It may be no more than a coincidence that all five men sent off for violent conduct - Stefanovic, Vieira, Wanchope, Hamann and Leboeuf - are foreign imports, although it supports the contention that such players are unfairly treated, a view voiced by Vialli after the recent Paolo di Canio affair.

More worrying, whatever the rights or wrongs of individual cases, is the impression of judicial inconsistency. Our officials no longer benefit from an assumption of British fair-play which meant that when Jack Taylor gave a penalty to West Germany in the first minute of the 1974 World Cup final, or Clive Thomas whistled for full-time as Zico's header zoomed towards the net eight seconds into injury time of Brazil v Sweden four years later, their objective judgement was not in question, although (in the latter case, at least) some may have wondered about their common sense.

Fifa's desire to remove the last vestiges of physical contact from football, inspired by the intention of its new president, Sepp Blatter, to make it safe for children and sponsors,appears to have confused the English - although, to judge from what one sees on television, virtually no one else seems in such a quandary. In Serie A, for instance, players argue with referees within a framework of common acceptance of the meaning and intention of the game's laws.

Philip Don believes that full-time salaried referees are the answer, and is a member of a four-man working party currently looking at the wider implications of his plan, which would see up to six such officials appointed in time for the start of next season. If the Premier League chairmen reject his proposal at their next meeting in March, he will suggest an increase in the referees' pounds 400 match fee and expenses, bringing them closer to the rate for the job in other major European leagues.

English football needs to take serious steps to fend off the growing demand for the use of a fourth official, with access to video replays during matches - a development that would do irreparable harm to the game. The standard of linesmen, which seems to have deteriorated markedly since they were rechristened "referees' assistants", demands particular attention.

To some extent, the problem has been created by television's desire to participate in the game it subsidises, and to make use of its evolving technology. But TV replays are never going to be subject to restriction. And again, the Italian example suggests that their influence need not be destructive. All it takes, in a game that will never be in a better position to throw money at a major problem, is a willingness to behave like professionals.

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