Stop cheating – get better decisions

One of the highlights of the summer for me was the annual National Referees Conference, as indeed it is most years. This year however, was a little special in that since last year’s conference, an English referee and his two English assistants were appointed to take control of the World Cup Final, the peak of any referee’s career. At this conference, Howard Webb and his assistants, Mike Mullarkey and Darren Cann, gave an enlightening, entertaining and at times hilarious report on their experiences in South Africa. As you probably expect, they received a rapturous standing ovation from the 420 referees present. Incidentally, if you wish to see what it is like behind the scenes for referees at large tournaments, there is a film in the cinemas at present called The Referees. It follows not only Howard Webb and his assistants but two other international referees at the Euro 2008 tournament. I saw it just after it was made when it was called Death to the Referee. An unfortunate title which has rightly been changed but the reason was the death threats to Howard Webb after he had awarded apenalty against Poland, not least of all, quite dreadfully, by the Polish prime Minister. One recent incident involving Howard Webb received comparatively little publicity and that was his plea to professional footballers, particularly in the Premier League, to cut out diving. The benefit to them, he said, was that they would get better decisions. It may at first seem a peculiar thing to say but he is quite correct. Players who have a propensity to dive can have wrong decisions given against them because of their previous form. Spectators may think it is easy to tell the difference between a trip and a dive but believe me it isn’t. It’s not a case of was there contact or not, because players will deliberately run into an opponent or when they are going down will leave a trailing leg to make contact. Then there is the situation of players who receive a slight nudge but go down with arms flailing. If the referee gives the foul, the opposing team claim he’s been conned. There was an alleged diving incident on the very first day of the Premier League season, in the game between Arsenal and Newcastle. Gervinho of Arsenal went down in the Newcastle penalty area but Peter Walton, the referee, having seen him fall to the ground a number of times already, waved away his appeal and followed the ball upfield. Joey Barton of Newcastle however, incensed at what he considered a dive to gain a penalty, grabbed Gervinho by the neck and hauled him to his feet. In the ensuing mêlée Gervinho gave Barton a slap that wouldn’t have brought tears to the eyes of a five year old but Barton went down as if pole-axed. He later rose to his feet indicating that he had been violently punched in the face. By now the referee had returned to the scene and sent off Gervinho for striking and yellow carded Barton. Barton was quite wrong to take matters into his own hands and not just because the television replay showed that both he and the referee had made a mistake, for Gervinho had been caught by the outstretched foot of Cheick Tiote. It does show however, how much antagonism diving arouses amongst players but I wonder if Barton realises the irony of his play acting. It was of course exactly the same offence of which he accused Gervinho. Nowhere in the Laws of the Game does it mention diving but what the book does list under cautionable offences (unsporting behaviour) is attempts to deceive the referee by feigning injury or pretending to be fouled i.e. simulation. I completely support Howard Webb’s sentiments but I fear we a have a long way to go.

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