Why we should swear by the referee

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IF LIFE was but a game and God the referee, the sound of the whistle would reverberate around the world continuously. He would need a sin-bin as big as France and miscreants would trudge there from all corners of the globe and do so without protest because He doesn't miss a thing. Appeals and personal hearings . . . forget them. It would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a piece of video evidence to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Of course, as the immortal Bill Shankly once advanced, sport has an importance that life couldn't possibly match; a theory constantly supported by the number of infringements that so many of a villainous nature can get away with in life that would bring swift and stern justice in sport.

I refer not to murder, rape, arson or serious fraud - though their presence should not be discounted - but the deceits, the lies, the sly nudges, the artful elbows and downright skulduggery that would thrive within the arenas of sporting contest, as they do outside, were it not for the pedantic insistence of referees and umpires that the rules are strictly observed.

It is the means by which those rules are enforced that is causing a major problem at the moment. Professional players in most sports are unhappy at the way they are governed while in action. We cannot resist the double question of when were they ever and when will they ever be?

Perhaps they can be comforted by the thought that the perfect arbiter is waiting sometime in the future. All-seeing, all-hearing, all-knowing, omnipotent; he will be endowed with natural powers honed to perfection and supported by all the equipment that medical science can shove into his body:

A silicone video camera implanted in his breast and capable of transmitting immediate play-backs directly to his brain.

A view of anything happening behind his back will come from another video camera placed where he is often urged to put his whistle.

Sensitive electronic antennae grafted to his ears will improve his hearing to Jodrell Bank standard. From 100 yards he'll be able to pick up with pin-point accuracy the source of a whispered "Boss-eyed little bastard".

Extra-sensory perception units will be inserted into his cranium to enable him to receive the thought patterns from those around him. He'll know the moment the centre-half decides to kick someone. He'll be able to run past a player and quietly say: "Think that about me again and you're off."

You shouldn't need this glimpse of the future to realise that whatever the advantages of this hyper-visual age the ability to see deep into the heart of a game does not bring universal benefit. We should be very careful, therefore, before we bow to the increasing clamour to allow the video camera to play an immediate policing role.

For some time, our major games have made use of video recordings as a secondary disciplinary medium. Players receive letters reading: "Dear Sir, we're not very happy at the tackle you made 10 days ago ..." This is fair enough. It does players no harm to realise that their sins might find them out, that there is a judgment day beyond the final whistle.

However, once you start to introduce the video camera as an instrument of immediate adjudication the waters deepen considerably. Cricket is not a game of swiftly continuous action but if you allowed players to contest every close decision and call for the camera evidence it would become a damn sight less continuous. It was the South Africa team, in breach of the rules, who forced the video re-run that proved Graham Thorpe's run-out recently. The umpire was proved wrong and justice was served but as a precedent it was very dangerous.

Rugby league last week announced the official use of video cameras to arbitrate on try-scoring decisions when their summer league starts. But, knowing players, they'll dispute as many as they can. And will the replay settle the argument to everyone's satisfaction? Rory Underwood still swears he scored against France last weekend.

Those who call for the video to be an off-field referee, picking up on what the referee misses, are leading us towards chaos. American football tried it and dropped it. We shouldn't even consider it. Everyone talks about the inadequacy of referees but no one talks about the immorality of those who send out players to take every advantage, fair or unfair, who encourage them to clatter the more gifted of their opponents or wind up the more volatile.

There is a simple answer. Swear at the referee, call him what you like, but hammer it into the minds of players that the referee is always right. It is a not a goal, a foul, a corner or a penalty unless he says it is. It may not make for a perfect world but it works. Players can't re-take a shot at goal, have another go at hitting a pass or making a tackle, so why should we try to force a referee to reconsider?

The referee has to be respected as the absolute and final adjudicator. A bit like God, in fact.

EVER alive to the demands of modern marketing, the Football Association are targeting the sort of sophisticated young ladies not normally seen chic by jowl with the lads in the Wembley stands. The proportion of female fans has been rising impressively of late but the FA are anxious to increase the numbers when the European Championship finals arrive in June.

Readers of glossy women's magazines such as Elle and Cosmopolitan are being assailed by adverts encouraging them to take an interest in Euro 96. Since the general tone of such publications is not noted for its prudity, the ads have that essential touch of innuendo. "Lie back and think of England" is one of the sequence that not everyone thinks is a very clever way of promoting the game.

It's an encouraging piece of FA initiative to attempt to address the balance of the sexes. My only problem is the lack of consistency it betrays in the venerable old body. If they really want to court the ladies, especially those of independent mind, they might care to revise their attitude to those who want to play with the men rather than watch.

Stephanie Lockhart, for instance, is eight years of age and wants nothing more than to remain as the star player among the boys of Dosthill Colts in Tamworth, Staffordshire. Unfortunately, when the Colts join a local league in September, Stephanie will not be able to play under an archaic FA rule that forbids mixed teams over the age of eight playing in competitive games.

If there is a case for separating the sexes in adult football - and I don't necessarily agree with that as a principle either - it is ridiculous that boys and girls can't play together in school or junior club teams. I'm sure most parents wouldn't want Julian Dicks to tackle their daughter but if she wants to play football in a boys' team, and was as good as Stephanie is said to be, I'm sure they'd want her to be allowed to.

It is an appalling example of discrimination. I hope it will not escape the attention of the young and refined professional women now being sought after at great expense by the FA and I trust furthermore that it persuades them to drop their languid poise long enough to tell them what they can do with Euro 96.