Football is not something to die for

This is a column that I have deliberately delaying in writing and I think that if you read on you will probably understand why. The footballing worlds of England and Wales were shocked by the seemingly unexplainable death of Gary Speed. A relatively young man with a successful footballing career behind him, everything to live for and already making a successful start in international footballing management with Wales, something seemingly beyond previous, more experienced managers. There were great expectations that he might lead a Welsh side into a major tournament, for the first time in decades. Even now, after last week’s Coroner’s inquest, there seemed to be little to suggest a possible cause. I wonder if there is something to be learnt from two other attempted suicides. Round about the same time as Speed’s tragic death, there were two other suicide attempts on consecutive weekends in high level football. These were however, both referees and both in continental Europe. I can’t remember seeing any reports of these attempts in the British press, in fact I learnt about them from the unlikely source of the New York Times on-line edition. Both incidents occurred just prior to their games and both men were saved by the timely concern of the fellow match officials. There was no apparent connection between the two, one was 41 year German who as well as being a banker, had refereed on the Bundesliga for six years and was in fact a FIFA referee. The other, a 37 year old, was found in the bath room of the stadium where he was due to run the line at a second division game in Belgium. The Bundesliga referee was discovered by his assistants some forty minutes before he was due to referee Cologne v Mainz. He had failed to appear and his assistants found him in the bath with slit wrists. He had been receiving a lot of criticism in the German press particularly from one newspaper who kept a league table of referees and called him the worst referee on the Bundesliga. After recovering from his suicide attempt, the referee made a statement through his lawyer. He stated that ‘the pressure to perform, the scrutiny from the media and the constant fear of making mistakes had resulted in depression that he could no longer deal with’. The newspapers in Germany reacted immediately, reducing their constant criticism of referees and his particular newspaper detractor abandoned its weekly league table of referees’ performances. After Speed’s death, the FA apparently sent letters to players advising them to get counselling if they suffered from depression, although there was no evidence that this was the cause of his death. However, seemingly oblivious to the suicide attempts on the continent, they made no such recommendation to referees. Yet let’s face it, no one receives more scrutiny than a top referee, an assessor and match delegate at every match reporting on his performance, together with being marked by the clubs. And then there is the ‘trial by television’ where pundits who often display a complete misunderstanding of the laws and haven’t got a clue what they are talking about, seemingly take great joy in criticising their decisions after having watched several slow motion replays. Look at the BBC’s Match of the Day, which is often introduced with comments such as ‘and more contentious decisions’ as if this was a big selling point. I am not suggesting that the top referees in this country are depressed to the state that they may consider suicide, all the ones on the Premier and Football Leagues that I’ve met seem pretty robust guys but the media in this country should realise that referees have feelings too. Their expectation that referees should be perfect and never make mistakes is unrealistic and their relentless criticism of them does not benefit the game.

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