The Janitor in the Panopticon

On the lot of the football referee, omnipotentate sans omniscience.
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Press still from THE REFEREES

So I had a bit of a go at Eduardo Galeano's Football in Sun and Shadow last week. The reader is bound to be relieved to learn this time around that although I find the book infuriating in parts (why doesn't he agree with me, for God's sake?), it's charming in others. Galeano evokes the foreignness of a referee on a field otherwise full of competitors, "this interloper who pants in the ears of every player." The game is all around him, and it has to remain that way: he is tantalizingly close to it, but he must keep apart. "When the ball hits him by accident," Galeano writes, "the entire stadium curses his mother." I've never been a ref, but I have of course stood alongside the playing field, and it has something of the "sacred green space" about it, to use Galeano's words. You sometimes feel like Fr. Dougal in front of the big red button marked "DO NOT PRESS"—you have some deep urge to step onto it. But you know that to do so would be to trespass in some way, or to bring opprobrium upon yourself from everyone else present. Yet this is what the referee must do every game. A game is a kind of ceremony, but he is not the celebrant. He's an invader, a weed nobody has figured out how to banish from the garden. "He's absolutely right to cross himself when he first appears before the roaring crowd," says Galeano.

Thinking of this as the European Championships beckon (with the Official Beckoning Finger of UEFA Euro 2012™, no doubt) brings to mind, in one of those connections beloved of us writer types, the 2009 documentary film The Referees. The movie follows several referees through the 2008 European Championships. We see behind-the-scenes footage: from referees' locker rooms and hotels, from meetings with top UEFA bods, from their homes as their families watch anxiously on the TV. The filmmakers also train their cameras on the officials during the games, and we hear how they communicate with each other via their headsets. At times, it can seem like a comic version of Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait. In one scene, a linesman's flag flies off its handle as he signals for a throw-in. In another, fourth official Ivan Bebek decides that the match is the best time to inform referee Massimo Busacca that he has it on good authority that there's rain on the way. "What the fuck are you talking ... ?," wonders Busacca aloud. "It's not my problem. Shut up!"

But there's more to it than that. In a sense, The Referees doesn't tell us much about officials that anyone with a click of imagination wouldn't be able to figure out by themselves. Even if we've never heard a word from a ref, we could guess that they are pleased when a game goes well, and upset when they get a decision wrong; that refereeing teams possess an esprit de corps not unlike "real" teams, and that there is a sense of fraternity between all of the teams; that they get assessed, sometimes favourably and other times not, and that they react accordingly, but with restraint; that they like getting promoted and dislike getting demoted. Even so, it's still worthwhile actually seeing all this. In the group match between Poland and Austria, the English refereeing team allows a goal for Poland which should have been ruled out. When assistant Mike Mullarkey informs ref Howard Webb that it was probably offside, Webb winces. It's so brief you'd almost miss it, and it seems like such a small thing. But it in itself constitutes a tangible insight usually closed off to us.

Late in the same game—very late—Webb notices a shirt-tug by a Pole in the Austrian penalty area, and awards a spot kick, which is converted. This time, the call was perfect, but Poland's manager, Leo Beenhakker, flies into a rage that's impressively bratty for a 65-year-old. ("Fucking disgrace!," he rages, a year before Didier Drogba.) But that's only the start of it. Webb receives death threats. He is compared to Hilter. His family home in Yorkshire is besieged by angry Poles. The Polish prime minister says that he wanted to kill the referee. (Death threats are the must-have accessory for the jet-setting international referee. Kill the Referee was the original English title for this film.) Webb's father speaks of it with a mixture of deep pride in his son's achievements and anger at how anyone could respond to a referee's decision with such insensitive sensitivity. Webb himself—a policeman by occupation—takes it in his stride as much as anyone could, at least superficially. "It's all clear? They've got rid of the bombs and the cyanide and the anthrax?," he jokes before his next game.

"What we see doesn't matter—what's important are the allegations they make," says another ref, Roberto Rosetti, regarding the abuse of Webb. The referee is a parody of God. Nothing officially happens unless he deems it to have happened. But he and his assistants can only see so much. Why was this incident called a foul when that identical one was not? Because the ref saw this one, and not that one. The ball crossed the line: surely it's a goal? Ha! Your physics are puny next to the fact that the linesman's view was blocked. (How many miracles have happened this way?) All this power is given to one figure who cannot possibly exercise it fully. And he is mocked for it. Players manoeuvre their way into his blind spot and do dastardly deeds there. They themselves get manoeuvred and dastardized in their turn, and they beg the referee to answer their prayers. (During the final of Euro 2008, Michael Ballack runs up to the ref and screams in his face in complaint over a free kick Rosetti has awarded to Spain. When Rosetti looks away, Ballack slaps Carlos Marchena in the face.) There are so many terrible things in the world—war, famine, penalties given against your team, your thwarted will—for which, before now, you could only shake your fist at the sky. Now, you can have your revenge. The referee has the omnipotence without the omniscience, and for that he must pay.

Theoretically, we TV viewers have the omniscience (even if we don't always use it wisely, as Poland demonstrated). The demand for video assistance might be said to be an attempt to bridge the gap. It could well solve the problems of fouling and cheating, the way blanket CCTV has eliminated crime in our towns and cities. That is to say, it might help refereeing, but it's not an idea concerned with helping referees. They might be gods demoted to put-upon junior bureaucrats now, but if the techno-utopia were ever realised, they would end up as janitors in the Panopticon. In a game where players' fallibilities are tolerated and even indulged (barring outbursts of selective fastidiousness from the footballing public), officials' fallibilities are a disease. Perhaps this is behind the passionate plea at the end of the film by David Elleray, a former FIFA referee, not to introduce such aids. Why should the referee be squeezed out?

To which one might reasonably reply: why not? In any case, that day hasn't come yet, but if it does, The Referees may serve as a time capsule. It brings out a side of football which is worth paying attention to every so often. Simply by moving the camera a little that way, it reverses the normal perspective, putting the players in the background and the referee in the foreground. As I watched it, I jotted down a note that read: "The game is as much about the ref as about the players." This may be going a bit far, admittedly. But the officials are to a football game what tyres are to a car. Everyone's looking at the car's body, be it elegant or practical or obnoxious; but it's the tyres that are the car's only contact with the solid earth. (Also, it's the tyres that get a routine kicking.) The players are in the business of unreality, of making us believe that what they do matters like nothing ever has, and that their victories matter even more. The referee is in the business of reality; he sees things (or tries to see things) as they really are. The players' reward is ecstasy. The ref's is a quiet satisfaction, or just relief. It's not impossible to imagine the captain of a football team saying "We've fucking done it — we've done Euro 2008" to his colleagues as they were seconds away from elimination, as Howard Webb did. It's not impossible, but one can also imagine the response. The game may not be as much about the ref as about the players, not quite, but (the corrupt and the power-crazy aside) there's a fundamental dignity to the job. We can congratulate ourselves for getting drunk on the delirium, and fair enough. But somebody has to be sober. The game really would be chaos without the referee, even if he has to serve as chaos' punchbag to maintain order.

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