Football: Those who dissent must be told to shut up

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The Independent Online
IN THE light of recent events, there are two things worth knowing about professional footballers generally. With rare exceptions they could not punch their way out of a chinese lantern and are now in the wearisome habit of having rather too much to say for themselves.

While there is plenty of sympathy here with the view that much of today's frustration with referees results from quite unnecessary interpretative meddling, it does not justify the upsurge in dissent.

If Paolo Di Canio's violent reaction when sent off at Hillsborough last week by Paul Alcock needs to be considered in the context of his excitable nature, there has been enough this season to suggest that it was an incident waiting to happen. Even allowing for understandable irritation with Fifa's prissy rulings, it does not seem to me a good thing that footballers and coaches should feel the right to dispute many of the decisions given against them.

A good question, perhaps the most important in English football at present, is why are the authorities not concentrating more on this than an apparent attempt to take legitimate physical confrontation out of the game?

To law-loving and worthy people, it must seem strange that very little is being done to deal with an example that causes many referees at junior level to fear for their safety.

As for the players, they should have learned by now that in today's climate it is easy enough to get sent off without engaging in playground scuffles.

One thing leads to another. Close examination of last week's outburst at Hillsborough shows that it involved eventually a number of players from both Sheffield Wednesday and Arsenal, none of whom would have remained on their feet for more than a few seconds against a half-decent amateur lightweight.

Many years ago, I inquired facetiously of one of two players who had waded into each other why they were sent off. "You must have seen it, for fighting," he said. "Fighting?" I replied. "Some fight. Not one of the punches landed."

That is often as true today as it has always been, but to suppose that nothing much changes amounts to loose thinking. Time was when shirt pulling, a practice alien to concepts of manliness and fair play, raised indignation and scorn when encountered against overseas opposition. A blight on the recent World Cup finals, it is now endemic in English football and, along with blatant body-checking at corners and free-kicks, seldom brings down retribution.

No wonder that the elder statesman among Premier League managers, Jim Smith of Derby County, expressed concern three weeks ago following a victory at Charlton that saw the defender Igor Stimac booked for the third match in succession. "The way things are going, all these yellow cards, I find it worrying," Smith said.

Fairly placid by nature, the Blackburn Rovers manager Roy Hodgson reacted angrily to a sending-off against Chelsea last week, his wrath soon matched by that of Liverpool's co-manager, Roy Evans, when Manchester United were awarded a dubious penalty.

A pool of full-time referees will not solve any of this, nor will it placate the Premier League manager who suspects that there is a group eager for confrontation.

If the relationship has acquired a new sense of uncertainty, it may be no less than an admission that it will never reach a point of mutual satisfaction.

Thinking again about the thorny issue of dissent, nobody dealt with it more effectively than a famously egotistical Dutch referee, Leo Horn, during the 1962 European Cup final between Benfica and Real Madrid in Amsterdam.

Following Real's 5-3 defeat, it leaked out that the object their great Hungarian inside-forward, Ferenc Puskas, had cast into the crowd when arguing for a penalty was Horn's gold-plated presentation whistle.

A powerfully built man with qualifications in judo, Horn had some explaining to do. "First, you must remember that Puskas was spitting," he said. "He wasn't being violent, just rude. So I threw my whistle at him, a good shot, right in the ear."