Let us be discreet on dissent

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The Independent Online
SOME years ago, I had the privilege of meeting the world's best football referee. At least he claimed he was.

A burly textile merchant from Amsterdam, a World War II resistance fighter who hunted with royals and took great pride in his prowess at judo, Leo Horn probably held the opinion that there wasn't a player in the game who didn't bow to him as an institution.

It was never in Horn's mind that anyone could declare him to be in error but came the night when his reputation for stern authority appeared seriously at risk.

Towards the end of a remarkable European Cup final at the Olympic stadium in Amsterdam in 1962, when Benfica defeated Real Madrid 5-3, Horn fell into furious conflict with the Spanish champions after refusing them a penalty kick that conceivably could have altered the course of the game. Before peace was restored, I later discovered, Ferenc Puskas had somehow gained possession of Horn's whistle, a gold-plated job awarded by the Royal Netherlands Football Association, and hurled it into the crowd.

Baffled by Horn's uncharacteristic benevolence in this matter, I raised it with him the next day. 'You do not understand,' he said. 'It was impossible for me to send off or even caution Puskas because when he spat into the air I threw my whistle at him.'

As probably you can imagine, that admission did not endear Horn to the authorities, who had it clear in mind that footballers should be seen and not heard.

What I have in mind is that while no case can be made for blatant dissent, the pernicious commercial influences of modern sport place an inordinate strain on today's performers, making it increasingly difficult for them to honour a resurgence of puritanism.

It is not only absurd, it is unjust to expect people who earn a living at a game and frequently are called upon to fulfil national as well as local expectations in the glare of television, to comply with a nonchalant code of behaviour that was drawn up for privileged amateurs.

Is it not possible that if Michael Atherton had smilingly vacated the crease against South Africa at The Oval last week instead of incurring a fine for mildly resenting the decision that saw him out first ball, questions would have been asked about his commitment?

If the difference between winning and losing turns on an umpire's perception, a referee's interpretation, a linesman's call, it takes considerable character not to blow up.

The great Celtic manager, Jock Stein, impressed the advice that there was nothing to be gained from falling out with referees. 'The mistakes even out - so if a decision goes against you, get on with it,' he said. Stein correctly figured that referees are prone to the same ailments that afflict humans.

It is still too early in the current football season to know whether the campaign against dissent will lead to a record number of dismissals. To my mind, a certain amount of discretion is called for. This is not a defence of bad manners. It is a plea for tolerance entered in the hope that our heroes will get, and accept, a chance to grow up.

There has to be something seriously wrong with sport if officials get bigger headlines than performers. The space devoted to refereeing decisions in this summer's World Cup suggested a sorry sense of proportion and lends an element of justice to current apprehensions.

When dealing with mild dissent, the best referees were merely contemptuous. 'That was a terrible decision,' complained a player to Alf Bond, a much respected figure from the past. 'No worse than that shot you sent over the bar,' he replied.

Publicly berating Bond for an honest statement of opinion was something else. Then he could be as severe as they come.