Reading Prison closed its doors to wrongdoers for the last time last Friday, after 170 years. It was made famous of course, by Oscar Wilde and his Ballad of Reading Gaol. In its later years it became a young offenders institution. It had a five-a-side pitch in the grounds for the recreation of the inmates but there is little of course to connect the prison with refereeing or football. However a few years ago, I was asked to run a refereeing course for its young inmates with my fellow referee tutor Brian Wratten. The FA would not allow us to carry out the regular refereeing course, which meant I had to write one especially for Reading Prison. I started by asking the course members why they thought we had to have referees. The majority verdict was ‘to stop the cheating.’ It seemed that football was viewed as a sport where cheating was endemic and the referees job was to stop it.
When we talk about cheating in football most people think of diving, or as it says in the Laws of the Game “attempts to deceive the referee by feigning injury or pretending to have been fouled (simulation)”. Diving has become an art form. It’s not just falling to the ground; players leave a leg trailing so it makes contact with an opponent, or deliberately run across an opponent’s leg and go down. ‘But there was contact’, the commentators cry. I’m not saying that coaches tell players to dive but many have admitted telling them that if they feel contact, no matter how slight, to go down, particularly in the penalty area.
Another problem for referees is that many players feign injury or exaggerate the injury they have sustained. Often players will go down holding their head in order to get a referee to stop the play when it is favouring their opponents, or get their opponents a more serious punishment. I’m sure everyone has seen examples shown on television but it also happens in local football.
There are other forms of cheating. What about taking throw-ins several yards further along the line from where the ball went out, or taking free kicks much in advance of where the offence occurred? Increasingly, you hear players calling for goal kicks, corner kicks and throw-ins when they know perfectly well that it was last touched by them or a team mate. It’s all cheating. Then there are players who stand in front of the ball to prevent the free kick being taken. This is taught to players by coaches although it is against the Laws of the Game. Even locally you can hear coaches shout to players to stand on the ball.
When the kick is near to goal, defenders will try to make a ‘wall’. All defenders must be at least ten yards away, but the wall is usually no more than six and the referee has to step it out and usher them back. How often though do you see them cheating by shuffling forward once the referee moves away. Now a ‘magic’ spray that I have reported before being used in South America, may be coming this way. After pacing out the ten paces the referee sprays a white line on the ground. It fades after about a minute but in the meantime any defender who steps over the line before the ball is kicked is easily spotted and cautioned. Tested with favourable reports from referees in the U17 and U20 World Cups, FIFA are keen to extend its use.
I think it sad that young men, what ever their background, think of football as the cheating game and that we referees have to sort it out but they are not very far form the mark.