“Barcelona are protected. When you play against them you realise that they are a very powerful club,” Luis said. “You realise the fear when Barcelona could get knocked out. It would hurt Uefa a lot. I don’t know what they have to do for someone to send one of them off.”
It is an interesting statement in many ways. One because it gives a rationale for why Barceolna might get special treatment, without, of course, giving any proof of it. The other because it contrasts so mightily with the way the Premier League is covered in the media in the UK. And I don’t have to go searching for examples. Just this morning we have, “Leicester cast as freedom fighters against Premier League era’s iniquities” as the headline in the Guardian over an article by Paul Wilson.
The Telegraph did a bit of digging in this issue – in the way that it and the rest of the UK press would never do if a Premier League club was involved. It found that only two Barcelona players have been sent off in all competitions this season and both for foul language. Interestingly when Gerard Pique was “dismissed for yelling in the face of an assistant referee” in the Spanish Super Cup second leg against Athletic Bilbao back in mid-August, Barcelona went on to lose the cup round 5-1 on aggregate.
Javier Mascherano was sent off for shouting a rather rude commentary about the female members of the family of the assistant referee in their 3-1 home win. La Liga top dog Javier Tebas defended the midfielder saying the commentary was “not a terrible insult”. In the interim 12 players were sent off in nine matches playing against Barcelona.
Barcelona and Real Mad have only had 53 and 54 yellow cards respectively in 31 games – half the level of Granada. “Even in European competition they have seen more red cards handed out to their opponents (30) than any other team with Bayern Munich next with only 20 red cards issued to opposition,” the Telegraph tells us helpfully.
It continued, “Lionel Messi undertook a “brutal and rugby like tackle to wipe out Real defender Pepe…. Messi walked away without even a cosy chat from the ref.” Something those of us who watch Arsenal know a fair amount about.
But an article like this about English teams? No. Instead we have Leicester as freedom fighters! While the English media will chat about dubious doings regarding refs in Spain, they won’t entertain the subject in England.
That raises the question, should they? Why investigate something that isn’t there? one might ask. And this is the key point of my little piece today.
The reason that we do goes back to Einstein. He’s oft quoted both by commentators here and elsewhere as saying the definition of madness is doing something, getting it wrong and doing it over and over again. He didn’t say that, nor anything like that. But instead he did give us the notion of the “thought experiment” and a very powerful notion it has turned out to be.
A thought experiment involves a scientist looking at a situation and asking questions such as, “is what I am seeing actually real, or just a phantom of my imagination?” and “if it is real, what could be the cause?” and finally, “OK, how can I prove this is real and that is the cause?” That’s what I want to try and do with the issue of whether there is bias in Premier League refereeing.
Now that first question (“is what I am seeing real?”) is often very troublesome in science as often it deals with things we can’t really see – such as what goes on inside people’s minds, what happens in the depths of space, what happens inside the nucleus of an atom…
So when people have written to Untold before telling us that if we don’t have recordings of a man from one club telling a ref that the holiday home in Italy is at his family’s disposal this summer if he does the right thing, we have no case, I disagree. My question is different – it is “is referee bias on a large scale possible?” and that question takes us back to Calciopoli the Italian match fixing scandal that was revealed in 2006 but which had been going on for years. In that scandal not only were referees being bought, but so were TV companies so that their coverage of a match didn’t reveal the way in which decisions were being manipulated.
Thus we know that match fixing can happen on a very large scale and be covered up for years. But Calciopoli also revealed that the old notion of match fixing – the type that was seen in England in 1915 when Man U and Liverpool players agreed to fix a result so that Chelsea would be relegated – had been replaced by something quite different. Something in which referees could be bribed to affect the result of games involving the near-rivals of a team, rather than of the team doing the fixing.
So if Chelsea, for example, were worried that Arsenal might be a rival in the coming season, and if they were prone to match fixing, they might bribe refs to “do what they could” to see Arsenal got draws instead of wins, defeats instead of draws. It is a subtle approach because if Arsenal were playing Palace and took a three goal lead early on, the ref would clearly not bother to help the club in that game, and thus would appear to be refereeing in a totally above board manner. But if Southampton v Arsenal were 0-0 the ref might ignore all sorts of fouls by Southampton players to help unnerve Arsenal and give Southampton a chance of a draw, in order to help one of the other teams near the top of the table. We’ve called this Type III Match Fixing.
Our little thought experiment and knowledge of history reveals that such an approach has happened elsewhere – but this is not to say it does happen in England. However our thought experiment would also suggest that given this the knowledge that it could happen and had happened in Italy, matters should be put in place at once to ensure it never happens here.
One way to do this would be to have lots of referees so that no referee got a team more than twice during a season (thus limiting the effect of any bent ref). We might also set up an organisation to monitor and employ referees which was separate from the clubs, and which was utterly open and transparent in all its dealings, publishing detailed accounts of the referees performances, which could be checked against video records. What students of political systems call “checks and balances”.
We know of course that we don’t get any of this – we have a tiny number of refs, the same refs doing the same teams over and over, discrepancies between the number of errors we observe each week and the number the referees’ association sees, and an utterly secret society running the Premier League’s refereeing rather than an utterly open organisation.
Thus we have unexplained issues: the small number of refs, the secrecy, the discrepancies, the difference between the PL refereeing system and the systems in top leagues in the rest of the world since Calciopoli – and (and this will be the subject of a separate article) the issue of why the media won’t take up the issue.
In science this is the starting point of investigation. Some people are left handed, but most are right handed. Why? Observation of supernovae show us that the universe is expanding at an ever faster rate. Why?
Such questions don’t prove anything. They are just questions, and we never know what the answers are and where they will lead us until we ask the questions and start poking around. Scientists could (and indeed did) say “the universe can’t be expanding at an ever faster rate, it doesn’t make sense” and add new made up factors to remove the anomaly, but mostly they push and prod to explain rather than assume.
In football however, few people want to do this.
There are of course multiple reasons for strange results, and for odd sequences in football. Chance must be part of it, so must randomness, in addition to skill A fraction of difference to the way a ball is kicked by a player with only a fraction of a second to decide what to do can turn a goal into a ball hitting the post. The goal could elate the player, the miss deflate the player and affect the player’s performance.
Injuries must play a part, so must psychology – the player missing the goal might be deflated, but could also be ever more determined. Skill is self-evidently a major factor, as is the ability of a manager to motivate, spot young up and coming players etc.
But because there is no investigation into refereeing, no openness, no academic analyses in the way that clubs now analyse potential recruits through their teams of video scouts, we don’t know.
And this is the first major point. It is such an obvious factor that if there were to be something wrong with some referees, Type III match fixing would be easy to implement, that there ought to be constant monitoring and openness. And the fact that we have the exact opposite is a cause for nervousness.
One is left asking why? Why, with an industry that turns over muti-billions of pounds in England alone, is a question such as this not investigated at all?
To pull my points together, it is not the evidence of wrong-doing that should mean that we put in place the normal safeguards that we see in other leagues – openness of refereeing actions, video checks of referee performance (not just video refs), large numbers of refs so each club only gets each ref twice and never more, geographic balance of refs etc – it is the fact that football is important in British society and in the British economy.
What is wholly suspicious is that there is no such openness and no such checking, and the question now becomes: why is there no openness in the action of refereeing in the Premier League. We live in a society that endlessly cries out for more openness. We welcome the Panama Papers so we can investigate what our leaders are doing. We point the finger at China for not fully revealing the details, and at Russia for just brushing the revelations off as Putin Phobia. We want corruption investigated – especially if all that means is a little more openness.
For goodness sake, most of us don’t trust our political leaders and the journalists that report on them. So why on earth should we trust the leaders of an utterly secret society that runs refereeing, and the journalists who (when it relates to England) won’t comment on them?
The fact is that knowing that Premier League football is all above board and there is no referee fixing is so important, it should not need any evidence of wrong doing to have checks and balances in place. But there is evidence in Calciopoli. We know corruption on an industrial scale is possible.
So why is it just Untold, and a couple of other sites fighting this battle?
I’ll answer that, and look at the implications in a later article. If you have been, thanks for reading.
Untold Arsenal has published five books on Arsenal – all are available as paperback and three are now available on Kindle. The books are
- The Arsenal Yankee by Danny Karbassiyoon with a foreword by Arsene Wenger.
- Arsenal: the long sleep 1953 – 1970; a view from the terrace. By John Sowman with an introduction by Bob Wilson.
- Woolwich Arsenal: The club that changed football. By Tony Attwood, Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews.
- Making the Arsenal: a novel by Tony Attwood.
- The Crowd at Woolwich Arsenal by Mark Andrews.
You can find details of all five on our new Arsenal Books page
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