One excellent innovation from Major League Soccer, the Premier League of North America, is a weekly video featuring a refereeing decision from the past weekend. It is presented by Paul Reger, formerly Manager of assistant referees on the Premier League but now Training and Development Manager of the Professional Referees Organisation of the MLS. I suspect that the videos are really to educate the American public on the Laws of this alien Game of soccer but something similar would not come amiss in this country, rather than the ill-informed views we get from our television pundits.
During last season Paul featured a game which involved Robbie Keane who previously played for clubs such as Tottenham in the Premier League. Keane’s team were awarded a free kick and the two teams lined up in the opposition penalty area. The camera showed Keane standing in an offside position before the kick was taken, when the ball was kicked and offside when he headed the ball into the goal. As Paul Reger said, he was never onside during the whole of the incident. That didn’t stop him screaming at the top of his voice as he charged over to the assistant who was standing with his flag aloft. Most of his team mates followed showing similar dissent of the official who had competently fulfilled his duty, The referee came over to protect his assistant and gradually ushered the irate players away although Keane was still hurling abuse over his shoulder as he went The referee was I thought over lenient in not showing a fully deserved yellow card to Keane and others for their prolonged dissent.
There was another incident, much lower key involving Keane later in the season. His team was awarded a throw-in and Keane decided to take it himself but as he threw the ball in, he lifted his right leg off the ground. A schoolboy error and had it been an under twelve match perhaps the referee might have ignored it but surely a seasoned professional should know that at a throw-in part of both feet must be on the ground, on or behind the touch line. The referee quite correctly awarded a foul throw and the throw reverted to the opposing team. Keane’s reaction was to throw a derogatory wave at the referee as if to say you don’t know what you are doing. Although this was quite clearly dissent by gesture, the referee ignored it.
My own feelings over this behaviour are of regret and shame. Many professionals in the twilight of their careers are making a good living in North America and I’m sure the intention of the clubs in employing them, is to create a greater enthusiasm for the game. Hopefully, this would be by illustrating the beautiful aspects of the game not its ugly side, and make no mistake, dissent is ugly. One American commentator said ‘It has always been puzzling why MLS referees let players scream into their face without a yellow. Surely, if each of these petulant actions were punished by a yellow, it would end it for good’.
I read therefore with great delight that the priorities set for the referees of the MLS for the new season just started, include tackling dissent. Peter Walton, former Premier League referee now General Manager of PRO says that instructions to their officials are that players who adopt an aggressive attitude and are clearly dissenting, either verbally or physically, must be dealt with by the letter of the law. I wish them well and hope if successful it could even be copied here. That might be difficult when we hear John Terry’s comment last week, ‘harassing the referee is part of the game,’ no doubt taken from the Jose Mourinho coaching manual. But the benefit to referees at every level of the game would be immense.