By Tony Attwood
match officials in England are maybe seven times more likely to suffer verbal abuse than those in France and the Netherlands.
I say “appears” and “maybe” because although some who are quoting this research are giving that figure as a fact, the research in England has been conducted totally differently from that in Europe. The European research was funded by Uefa and involved interviews with 4,637 referees. The English research was conducted three years ago by the universities of Portsmouth, Loughborough and Edge Hill. With different organisations tackling the interviews it is hard to make exact comparisons, but even so the differences are striking.
And these research programmes are the first allow that allow some, although tentative, indirect comparisons between countries where totally different approaches to refereeing and referee organisation apply.
In the Netherland, 2.2% of referees said that they experienced verbal abuse at least every two games. The figure in France was 14.4% but in England it is 60%.
Just under 45% of officials in the Netherlands reported receiving no abuse and 30% in France, but only 6% in England.
Meanwhile the English charity Ref Support has said it is receiving a record number of calls to its helpline and reports of an ever growing number of games being abandoned because of the abuse of referees.
At the moment the knee jerk reaction is to consider points sanctions for clubs that repeatedly allow players to offend against referees and for body cameras for referees. What no one is considering (at least in any report I have seen) is how the behaviour of the ultra-secret PGMO is affecting fans’ views of referees at the top level. Nor how the difference in refereeing standards between the English leagues and continental leagues is affecting people’s views. Nor how the lunatic press releases of PGMO with their claims of reaching over 100% accuracy levels are affecting people’s views.
Nor, above all else, when many of us see bizarre and what appear to be biased performances by referees, how the abject silence of the media on the issue of professional refereeing is affecting people’s views. It used to be a topic of open debate on the media, but now there is no questioning of referees at all apart from the very occasional, “I think the ref may have got it wrong that time,” which of course implies they have got it right the rest of the time.
The FA of course will have none of this and are saying that matters are improving with a 45% reduction in assaults on referees in the past two years and that, only 0.01% of games involved a proven assault case.
The key word there is “proven” – because as we have seen, the number of cases taken to a tribunal is tiny, because the tribunals are not finding in the referees’ favour. That issue has been highlighted before, but sadly is now missing from current coverage of this issue.
Of course there are always social issues involved in such areas, and this may explain why rugby and cricket in England are also suffering from greater abuse levels, and it is being acknowledge that abuse is being under reported because the disciplinary processes are flawed.
England appears to me to be a country of increasing division and abuse and the opportunity for racists to vote for leaving the European Union in order to “get rid of the foreigners” may have had a significant effect on the lack of tolerance here by normalising abuse. (And to be clear I am not suggesting all or even a majority of people who voted leave have such a view, but rather that the referendum gave a chance to such people to express their views more openly and thus legitimise abusive behaviour).
The fact is that although there can’t be a direct comparison between England and elsewhere because the FA and Premier League don’t co-operate on refereeing research and decision making with others (as for example with the introduction of VAR this season) this is the only research we have, so it is all we have to go on.
What we do know is that in England the number of referees is declining (although again it is hard to say by how many) and of course we don’t know the cause. But also once again we are not getting comparative research undertaken in England and in European countries.
Indeed we are hardly getting reliable figures across England since each county in England (apart from Rutland which co-operates with Leicestershire) does its own thing in its own way, fiddling around while assaults of referees is increasing.
Yet at the same time FA statistics record a reduction in assaults on match officials and reductions in dissent, abusive language and threatening behaviour. But there are repeated suggestions that cases are not being reported because of the low chance of success when the matters are heard – not least because the procedures for hearing such cases are deeply flawed.
Keith Hackett does have a reason for promoting this issue now as he has a new book out, and maybe that is why the approach we are seeing is so biased. A fulsome review of what is going on with refereeing in England which incorporates issues such as the totally different way in which refereeing is organised in England from every other country, is needed needed. We need to investigate the effect of the independent county system of running local football which no other country has, and the ultra-secrecy around the running of professional referees by PGMO, which again no other country has.
Only then can we start working out why it is all going so wrong in England.
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