By Tony Attwood
In our society there are many things that one doesn’t talk about. Notions that are considered so awful that they simply can’t be debated – at least not in public. Notions that, if we had the Thought Police actively working on the streets, would lead to instant arrest just for thinking about it.
Indeed so awful are these ideas that I am finding it hard to think of them and write them down. But to give you an idea of what I am trying to say, consider just very briefly, the notion of legalising child sex abuse. Or legalising and actively encouring rape.
Of course not every “we do not talk about” concept quite as horrific – I don’t think there are many debates on getting rid of democracy in the UK and replacing it with a fascist dictatorship. Indeed neo-Nazi organisations get proscribed in my country – but we don’t much debate whether we should do this or not.
In thinking about this it took me only a minute to come up with a list of 20 or so things that we do not debate in the UK simply because they are considered undebateable – we are simply not going there so we (by which I mean the massively overwhelming majority of people, and most of our politicians) do not even consider the issue. We are not going to bring back hanging or cut the school leaving age to 11, so there is nothing to discuss.
And then it struck me that tucked into this “do not discuss” list, is the notion that referees might be corrupted.
Now I know that is a huge leap from the appalling concepts I have mentioned or hinted at above to the issue of referees – but the notion is the same. The possibility that some top referees can be bought is not a topic. And I want to emphasise, I am not even saying that some have been bought, but just the notion that they might have been.
Two things lead me down this line of thought today. One is Walter’s reporting of the finding in Belgium that player agents are involved in match fixing, and that there is enough evidence for phone taps to have been implemented. And the other is the finding via Andrew’s analysis of the huge difference between the number of fouls committed by different teams, before a card is issued.
Of course neither of these topics means that there is anything wrong with refereeing in the Premier League. Corruption in Belgium does not imply corruption in England. And maybe the fouls committed by teams that don’t get yellow cards reveal a return to “rotational fouling” – a system Untold was alone in reporting ten years ago and which is designed specifically to avoid yellow cards. (Although when I created the phrase “rotationl fouling” I had no idea it could exist on the scale that Andrew’s figures suggest).
But then if that is the case one might have thought that the eagle eyed journalists, with their special boxes at grounds, their computers, their additional research teams, their replays, their own personal entrance to the ground and so forth, might have noticed. After all, each journalist at Arsenal Stadium takes up about three times as much space as each paying spectator and with all that space they ought to be noticing stuff like this. And now I start to wonder: why have they not noticed how many fouls Arsenal have to commit to get a yellow, compared with some other teams? Even if they have an explanation, surely it is worth mentioning.
However it seems this topic is not to be discussed – just as we don’t discuss the option of removing the rights and privileges of religions in the UK. Not at issue, not to be talked about, don’t say a word.
But why is this? Of course I know why we don’t debate reducing taxation on cigarettes – the population at large is paying, through the NHS, for the treatment of people who get the diseases that smoking can bring. But why don’t our newspapers and broadcasters discuss the accuracy of referee decision making? Or come to that the way refereeing is set up in the Premier League?
And I think of this yet again at the start of 2019 because of Andrew’s recent report and the notion of Type III match fixing*.
In the simplest terms it goes like this. Imagine Club A where the chairman or top shareholder who maybe craves grandeur, or simply wants to sell his shares at a profit. This person of great power and influence, not to mention wealth, believes that referees can be influenced by inducements. So via a range of people (and the Belgium report shows we ought to add player agents to this list of such intermediaries) the chairman or owner approaches a few referees and offers inducements for match fixing.
But being clever he does not ask for his own team to win matches it might otherwise use, that would be too obvious. Instead he asks that when the referee is overseeing a game involving various rivals, he does anything he can to make sure that team draws or loses.
This might be the award of a dubious penalty, or of yellow cards for fouls which in other cases might just get a free kick. Yellows are a particularly potent force here since it can make some players much more cautious in their tackling (and thus less effective) after getting the yellow, can result in a manager having to substitute the player to prevent the second yellow, and can mount up so that important players get suspended.
Because the referee is doing this to hinder a variety of teams, and will not be doing it in every game, it is hard to spot. But, and this takes me back to my opening point, it would still be spotted if journalists reported the quirk in the statistics that Andrew pointed out, or the behaviour of agents in Belgium that Walter reported, and thus started to question referee behaviour.
But they don’t. Such statistics as we do get, don’t focus at all on referees, except to note in match previews how many yellow and red cards they have given out. This makes it look like the preview is considering the ref, but a Type III match fixer doesn’t give out that many more cards overall – he gives out more cards against certain teams – and that is a figure that we never get given.
I’m not saying something is wrong with refereeing in the Premier League because the media don’t talk about Type III match fixing, but rather that because they don’t do any sort of analyses of referees and don’t consider the possibility that something is wrong, the assumption is that everything is ok with match referees. The media does conider the possibility that something might be wrong with our police force, our politicians at local and national level, our fire service, the people who run the nation’s privitised prisons, our train operators… but referees?
No, it is a taboo subject. And all I do is ask, why? Why won’t they talk about referees?
*Type I match fixing involves making sure team A beats team B in a specific match. Type II match fixing involves making sure Team A loses a specific match. Type III match fixing works across an entire season and ensures that on where possible, Team A draws matches it might have won, or loses matches it might have drawn and thus helps team Z. It is the hardest form of match fixing to spot, but the fouls v cards figures give the suggestion that it might be widespread in the Premier League. Not, I stress, that it is present, but that it might be, and thus should be a topic of debate. And yet the subject remains closed.
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