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Do all refs respond to swear words in the same way?

Untold Arsenal

Making the Arsenal

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By Tony Attwood

A team of Austrian scientists have undertaken a study to find out if swear words have predictable effects on football referee.  The work which has been undertaken within the University of Austria has been published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine.

Fifa’s law 12 (Fouls and Misconduct), section 81 says, “A player who is guilty of using offensive, insulting or abusive language or gestures must be sent off.”  The question is, does this happen.

The researchers team began by drawing up a list of 100 swear words before recruiting 13 German-speaking residents of Austria.  Each one evaluated the words rating both its degree of insult.  The analysis also aimed to see if the swear word concern the person’s power of judgement (such as calling the ref blind), intelligence (calling the ref an idiot), appearance (such as suggesting the ref is overweight), sexual orientation, or personal attributes.

The researchers then went to 113 referees, and put this point to them…

During a stoppage in play, one team’s captain comes up to you and suggests you make a particular ruling. You decline. “Hereupon the team captain says … (the selected swear word) and then walked away.  Do you, the referee, respond by issuing (1) a red card or (2) a yellow card or (3) an admonition, or do you (4) do nothing at all?

The referee was asked this for each of the 28 swear words.

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The result shows that “Analysing all swear words independent of their offensive nature, it was found that 55.7% of the swear words would have received a red card, although law 12 would have prescribed a red card in all cases.” Only a very few officials would always, automatically, eject the player

The conclusion is that “referees would have issued a red card for sexually inclined words or phrases rather than for terms insulting one’s appearance”.

There is a general point here.  Fifa makes millions, maybe billions of pounds of year, and has the job of running the game.  It is the arbiter of rules, and has the power within its committees to change the rules.  It can also instruct all refs, and most particularly its Fifa refs, to obey a certain rule.  Having rules that are not applied simply brings that rule, and by implication all rules, into disrepute.

Worse, because this sort of “ignore these rules, they don’t matter” approach seems to me (as a non-ref) to be widespread, there must be a general growth in confusion among players as to what they can get away with.  One week they tell a ref that he’s queer and get away with it, next week they do the same thing, and get sent off.  You can see why players get annoyed.

If Fifa were some tin  pot little operation just on the make for itself and its own officials then we could understand this “who cares?” attitude.  But here we have a universally loved organisation that…

Oh, hang on.


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23 comments to Do all refs respond to swear words in the same way?

  • Dec

    I wonder how that works in the modern EPL with umpteen different languages spoken by the myriad of nationalities. I’d feel a bit smug telling Howard, Mark or Mike or any of their buddies what I thought of them in my native Gaelic (Irish to those of you unfortunate enough to be born offshore), content in the knowledge that they may not be totally fluent in the language.

  • walter

    A very interesting topic for me. And I could get started and probably never stop until Tony puts a new article on the site. 🙂
    One of the problems is that there are no clear instructions how to apply this rule. Oh, but maybe Busacca will start working on this? In fact I remember the question being asked at the people from our FA and they said: “well it is up to you to decide if it too offensive, abusive or insulting.”
    So in fact they say to the refs: just do as you like. And consistency is, once again, far away.
    So one week you get a ref who will send someone off for saying something insulting, the other week they will get nothing. The nightmare of each player AND ref. So giving a list with the absolutely forbidden words might be a solution. But as I am a person who wants the maximum freedom of speech for everyone I feel a bit uncomfortable. I would say draw a list with the words they can say but that will be rewarded with a red card. I hope you get the difference. 😉

  • As a referee, as far as I am concerned, it depends on the words used. An insulting word to one person is not insulting to another. The FA do not provide a list of words that cannot be used. Until the law was modified a few years ago the wording was “Foul & Abusive language” which made it much simpler. In practice anything directed at me results in a red card. Swearing amongst players usually results in a warning, followed by red card 2nd offence.

  • Walter, you beat me to it!

  • Dark Prince

    I think this is a more of psychological issue. How a referee reacts to an abuse is more of how mentally strong he is. Its a very subjective matter. Also it could also involve personal likes and dislikes towards a player, so it could be an objective matter as well. Also it could depend on the mood of a ref, and his tiredness, and/or many factors. These same factors can also come into play during bookings due to fouls or bad tackles.

    Yes, they do have the power, but being as human as the players, the refs too are given the power to judge an action in what they seem fit. Cant expect them to work like machines.

    Also, has anyone playd fifa 11 over here, bcoz in that game you can select a referee on the basis of strictness and leniency. Wierd, eh?

  • walter

    Speaking for me personally on the field I use the following rules to decide if it has to be a red card (and this is not just for me but also when players shout names to other players)
    – threatening with violence (Eg: I punch you on your face, ..)=red
    – diseases (hope you get cancer,…)= red
    – racist/xenophobic insults (I will not give examples or Tony will show me the red card) = red
    – sexual insults = red
    – Insulting wife/children/family = red

    And a final category I can come up with and which will disappoint Dec is that when a player comes to me and shouts something against me in a language I don’t understand, then he will walk with a red card.

    And like I said when a hear a players saying such things against another player he also will walk on my field. But most of the time they say such things without me hearing it.. or they should be very stupid.

  • walter

    My God Dark Prince, fifa 11 is just the real thing. 🙂 LOL

  • walter

    But I must say that most of the times players are rather correct with me. But I must say that I also try to be very correct and polite when I speak to them.
    When I have to put the wall to the right distance I will always first ask them and name them sirs (well in Dutch of course). I will not start barking like a dog at first. And I feel that when you speak to the players and show respect they will move faster than when you bark at them. And I always thank them when they have taken the right distance also.

    It goes a bit like: okay gentleman could you step a bit further to here please….step step step…okay gentleman just a little bit further still…step…okay thank you and remember don’t run forward till the ball is kicked or I have it retaken. Thanks

    I really believe that prevention is the best solution for a ref. Show respect and understanding and you will get respect and understanding.

  • walter

    I think I actually got started… 😉

  • Stevie E

    Sorry guys, way off topic but finally, a positive article about Arsenal!!! Probably ripped directly off these fair paged but still, it came up in google news so will hopefully silence a couple of critics –

    Nice! 🙂

  • sahil

    Thanks for the link Stevie E. At last we come across a positive article!!!Everyone should read this. Good!:)

  • Lanz

    Thanks Stevie. Nice, balanced article. To my mind, what some fans want Wenger to do is the very thing that landed several Western nations into the present economic situation. AW is not perfect but has proved himself a wise investor.

  • RedGooner

    They should have done a survey in the EPL because the ammount of times I have seen players swear at a REF and absoloutely nothing happen is incredible.
    Wayne rooney and a few of the chelsea players would miss half of each season if the rule was applied on the field.

  • Dec

    Ah Walter! Please don’t tell me you could send off somebody because YOU didn’t have the ability to understand what hew said? He might very well be complementing you on your performance/dashing good looks/outstanding and well recorded parentage or just expressing his happieness at partaking in the beautiful game. And along comes the ref and shows a red? No, No, No.
    On a serious note, surley it’s a matter of penalising the communication not the word. There are many ways to communicate menace/hatred/threat/insult and not all are verbal. There are certainly a small number of ‘international’ phrases that show disrespect or threat and by all means these can outlawed, everyone knows them and should know not to use them, but these are indeed a small few. As long as no bad example is given to kids (unlikely as they usually don’t hear what’s said), no credible threat is made against an opponent or official or their nearest and dearest (must be credible) and the communication does not undermine the authority of the referee and crew (any decent ref will know he/she’s in charge and not be worried about silly name calling), then ignore the verbals and get on with the game. Likely as not it will not then get the headlines that a red card would attract and so not be copied by youngsters or promoted in the sensationalist media. Gestures can be even more provocative than words, as they can reach a far greater viewing public. A red card for a finger salute? A yellow for a ‘you’re nuts’ sign? Is there a list of banned gestures or tones as well?

    Roll on August until we can talk about some real football. 🙂

  • if it was me i’d probably end up punching rooney if he was swearing and moaning all match, full respect to refs for the job they do

  • Julius

    In Mirror reporter John Cross’ latest update from Kuala Lumpur, Arsenal stars kick off in a nightclub. But it’s not what you think…


    Theo Walcott needs to forget all about moving into football management after finishing his playing career.

    Somewhere, there lies an opening for him as a diplomat.

    Answering difficult questions, being charming to screaming fans and smiling at every camera, Walcott is a PR dream.

    And during the second day of events on Arsenal’s Far East tour, Walcott had everyone at the Midvalley Exhibition Centre in Kuala Kumpur eating out of his hand.

    Wojciech Szczesny, Jack Wilshere and Alex Song also took part in a Q&A session for supporters, sports retailers and local journalists.

    Then, all four had a kick-about in what can only be described as a five-a-side pitch in the middle of a nightclub – complete with pumping dance music.

    My Scouse companion said: “Close your eyes and you could be in Cream.”

    And, having made myself sound really old, I do know what Cream is. It’s a Liverpool nightclub.

    Not that I’ve ever been there, you understand.

    Thank God Arsene Wenger didn’t come along, too.

    You can’t imagine this would be his bag.

    Plus, it came on top of tough training sessions in 30 degree heat and incredible humidity.

    The players looked tired, but did their bit and charmed the locals.

    And it’s definitely working.

    Liverpool and Manchester United already have strongholds in Asia, but the popularity and clamour for Arsenal is really mind blowing and impressive.

    Chelsea have tried – and arguably failed – to crack America in the past. But it will be interesting to see if the levels of excitement are the same for when they come to this Malaysian metropolis next week.

    Arsenal staged their gig courtesy of Nike, and Chelsea’s kit sponsors adidas have a shop in the same mall.

    Chelsea may have finished above Arsenal in the Premier League, but will they come out on top in marketing terms?

    It’s reckoned that this tour could be worth £15m to Arsenal.

    How on earth the club finance chiefs calculate that is anyone’s guess. But they are drumming up great interest.

    Around 6,000 fans were believed to have greeted the players like Hollywood movie stars.

    They were “papped” as they arrived and then the biggest screams were reserved for when the game took place.

    Walcott did his charm offensive, Szczesny always has a smile on his face (and anyone who follows me on Twitter is alright by me – he’s also the answer to Arsenal’s goalkeeping problems. Their best keeper since Jens Lehmann in his heyday).

    Song was on good form and Wilshere is improving with every public appearance.

    But much more importantly, Wilshere promises to be the best English midfielder of his generation. That’s enough of a selling point.

    Arsenal are managing this tour well.

    Pre-season is about training, and yet the personal appearances are leaving a lasting impression on the fans.

  • walter

    don’t worry I do warn them before kick off.;-)
    I usually see when there a foreign players in the team and if there are I ask the person of that team if they speak and understand Dutch. If they speak and understand they must speak to me in Dutch. If they inform me they only speak English or French I tell them they can speak to me in those languages as I understand them (German speaking persons is also not a problem). But if they only speak let us say Swahili I tell them to tell him that he must keep his mouth shut against me.

    But this is only happening when they have foreign passports that I have to do this. I also ask this when I do national youth teams over here as we then sometimes have teams from the French speaking part and I want to know if there is someone who speaks Dutch or if they only speak French. It is just a part of my preparation of the game. I want to know who is on my field.

  • Laundyender

    These are the obligations of the Referee in accordance to the Laws of the game; they are sanctioned by Sepp Blatter himself.

    It does amaze me that more questions are not asked by journalists as to why so much of this list is simply ignored, making the laws a matter of interpretation, or convenience. But as it is in print law 5 the Referee, atually on second thoughts it is totally predictable that it is a matter of convenience!!

    The authority of the referee

    Each match is controlled by a referee who has full authority to enforce the Laws of the Game in connection with the match to which he has been appointed.

    Powers and duties

    The Referee:

    • enforces the Laws of the Game

    • controls the match in cooperation with the assistant referees and, where applicable, with the fourth official

    • ensures that any ball used meets the requirements of Law 2

    • ensures that the players’ equipment meets the requirements of Law 4

    • acts as timekeeper and keeps a record of the match

    • stops, suspends or abandons the match, at his discretion, for any infringements of the Laws

    • stops, suspends or abandons the match because of outside
    Interference of any kind

    • stops the match if, in his opinion, a player is seriously injured and ensures that he is removed from the field of play. An injured player may only return to the field of play after the match has restarted

    • allows play to continue until the ball is out of play if a player is, in his opinion, only slightly injured

    • ensures that any player bleeding from a wound leaves the field of play. The player may only return on receiving a signal from the referee, who must be satisfied that the bleeding has stopped

    • allows play to continue when the team against which an offence has been committed will benefit from such an advantage and penalises the original offence if the anticipated advantage does not ensue at that time

    • punishes the more serious offence when a player commits more than one offence at the same time

    • takes disciplinary action against players guilty of cautionable and sending-off offences. He is not obliged to take this action immediately but must do so when the ball next goes out of play

    • takes action against team officials who fail to conduct themselves in a responsible manner and may, at his discretion, expel them from the field of play and its immediate surrounds

    • acts on the advice of the assistant referees regarding incidents that he has not seen

    • ensures that no unauthorised persons enter the field of play

    • indicates the restart of the match after it has been stopped

    • provides the appropriate authorities with a match report, which includes information on any disciplinary action taken against players and/or team officials and any other incidents that occurred before, during or after the match

    let’s send a copy to Lineker, Shearer et al so their punditry can be more informed next season

  • Dec

    Played in a match many years ago in which the referee was deaf. The players thought they had free reign to say what they liked. They didn’t know he could lip read, sent 2 off in the first 10 minutes, 1 for calling him a deaf b£%£”rd, the second for laughing at the first one.
    Things ran smoothly after that.

  • Laundyender

    @Dec I have done exactly the opposite
    Once reffed a game between a team from the local church group and a team of deaf players, i have told the story many times of me having to wave a flag and blow a whistle at the same time.
    Was truly very different, the church team were a bunch of whinging wankers, and the deaf team were real players and a bit physical, i laughed all the way through the game as my flag waving became more exaggerated, and the deaf team played blind as well. I just admired the guys so much, I went with the flow, the church team were aghast!!
    Happy days!!
    Apologies to Tony for going off track, however i guess it shows just how each game is different and takes on an character all of its own

  • bob

    When you send the commandments on to Linker and the rest, please consider sending them along to he who sanctioned the rules – that is, to Septic Bladder – for he truly does not run an operation that strictly abides by that (the rules) which he sanctions. In fact, he and the stable of refs should be made to take a first or surely a refresher course with video replays to illustrate what it means to keep or fail to enforce each of the rules you list.

  • bob

    Stevie E,
    Alright then! The analyst/writer’s name is Iain Macintosh. We could do well to hold his fairness as a measure against which to evaluate other so-called jorno’s going forward. So we’ve finally broke into the victory column this summer – time to break out the champagne (if that’s not too french). Btw, anything juicy on links between Metro and LeGrove? Happy commuting…

  • Domhuaille MacMathghamhna

    While Law 12,sec.81 is very clear about the use of offensive, foul or abusive language or gestures before,during or after the game, it leaves the decision of what constitutes the above to the referee. There HAS to be a certain degree of flexibility today since almost every second word that comes out of many professional players’ mouths is vulgar, sacrilegious or both. The ¨F¨word is a case in point.
    I remember officiating a game in the ASL where one particular famous has-been was constantly berating his teammates with some very choice and crude references to their heritage and parentage. I pulled him aside at the halftime whistle and asked him to tone down his tirades so my virgin ears would be given a break. He enjoyed my humour and did make an honest effort to curb his gutter tongue.
    Another time, I awarded a penalty kick and was greeted by the goalkeeper’s vitriolic and abusive rant about my personal and professional merits as a referee. I cautioned him and during the process had a little chat about his manner of expressions and protests, with his captain present. That calmed him down, as did his captain, and we avoided an almost certain dismissal for continued infringement of Law 12.
    There are some here who say that the Law MUST be applied regardless of the circumstances but I say that the Law was written in the spirit of the game, so that the match can be played well and with all players safely and securely finishing 90 minutes. To me violent conduct or persistent and extremely dangerous/reckless fouls merit dismissals far more often than a bad word(s)uttered in the heat of the moment.Law 12 gives us that latitude.