The loneliest role in football

Jack Haugh

refereeAn icy breath of air escapes the gritted teeth of a solitary figure resting at the centre circle.  As friendly banter and eager chatter swarms around the beaten up pitch, players from opposing teams race through their warm ups whilst a small crowd, made up of angry coaches, pushy mums and bouncing dogs, gathers expectantly on the touchline.

As the clock rapidly approaches eleven, the referee, dressed head-to-toe in shiny black kit, glances at one of his many watches and gestures to the coaches. Ignoring his call at first, the budding Sir Alex Fergusons continue to offer one last inspirational speech to their distracted teams.  Players jostle for position, the throng of spectators clamour for the best view, and the lone figure puts the glistening whistle to his lips; in a moment, the game is underway.

This isn’t an unusual sight of a Sunday morning in the parks and fields of our fair country; across the land, teams gather and matches are played at varying levels of intensity. However, as this tumultuous affair rages on, there is often a forgotten man – or woman – who is perhaps more committed to the game than any other.

Referees are never far from the headlines, and barely a day goes by without news of another blunder or ill-judged decision filling column after column with barbarous comment.  In recent weeks, referees have failed to escape the spotlight once more as they are berated by both the media and players; in Spain, an all too familiar story emerged as Cesar Muniz Fernandez was accused of awarding Real Madrid an undeserved a stoppage-time penalty, from which they won the game against opponents Elche.

Now, whether or not Mr Fernandez was correct – which, incidentally, he wasn’t – is beside the point when every man, woman and child came out to say so.  Even Victoriano Sanchez Arminio, Chief of the Spanish Referees, commented that he was perhaps not in the right frame of mind to award such a decision. Fernandez continued to be attacked from all angles, with some of the Elche players having to be restrained from hurting the ref.

Meanwhile, AC Milan’s Mario Balotelli was given a three match ban after he threatened to kill the referee, Luca Banti, following being sent off in a game against Napoli in late September. This aggressive and childish behaviour left a lot to be desired from the player, with the referee only doing his job. For such a job that doesn’t involve bearing arms, referees certainly seem to come under fire.

But, not one to complain, Banti got on with the job and ensured that the heated match reached a conclusion, with AC Milan eventually losing 2-1. The majority of post-match comments focused on the behaviour of the superstar Balotelli and less so on the heroics of the referee; I found page after page discussing the life and times of Balotelli, but barely a word about Banti.

Herein lies the problem of the modern footballing world: it’s always looking for a scapegoat. Rarely, if ever, is the referee spoken of when he has an uneventful game. Instead, we find ourselves latching on to the smallest error and amplifying it to an almost apocalyptic disaster.

We are so quick to scrutinise and examine every detail of the referee’s performance that we often forget to properly value the role of the referee. When I think back to the football matches I have attended over the years, one question hits me: “What was the name of that ref?!”

And yet, week after week, game after game, season after season, these saviours of sport continue to play a vital role in quelling mid-match quarrels and enforcing the rules of the game with little reward other than a meagre payment which often barely covers the cost of petrol.  Why?  If the response of Jordan Rankin, of the Cumbernauld and Kilsyth League, is anything to go by, then it is purely for the love of the game.

Jordan Rankin received his SFA qualification in 2011, and has been busy working his way up the refereeing ladder in the hope of reaching the top, enabling him to referee Scottish Premiership and Scottish Cup matches.  However, one cannot begin to comprehend the hectic nature of his schedule. From training once a week, to liaising over one, two and sometimes even three matches in a single weekend, Rankin has been thrown well and truly into the deep end of Scottish football.

On recalling a time when he was told he would be refereeing two matches on a Sunday, in Kilsyth and East Kilbride respectively, it’s obvious how underappreciated referees often are. On the completion of the first, a mad dash through mid-Sunday traffic ensued, with Rankin arriving a mere five minutes before kick-off for the latter.  His reward?  A stream of abuse, booking and even having to send the manager to the ‘stands’- a particularly comical moment when the manager decided walking up and down the touchline was tantamount to removing himself from the pitch.

This is a regular occurrence in the life of a Sunday League referee. Time after time, petulant managers who should know better refuse handshakes, payment and even threaten reportage to the SFA.  Despite this, Rankin continues refereeing in the hope of reaching his goal: to ref in the Champions League Final as his idol Howard Webb did.

This sums up the dedication of a referee.  Most youngsters look to Ronaldo, Messi or Xavi as they try to emulate their skills and finesse in streets across the country. It’s rare that a person longs to pull on the distinguished black kit of the ref. Instead, players become referees not through a passion for the job, but instead out of an eternal love for the game.

On the surface, the referee is a completely different species of animal in the sporting world, bred out of necessity rather than pleasure. In reality, I believe the referee is the thoroughbred of football – just a misunderstood one at that.