By Tony Attwood
What is in a word?
Quite a lot sometimes if it allows us to express something complex in a simple way.
The word gerrymander (originally written Gerry-mander) was invented by a writer on the Boston Gazette in 1812. It was used when the electoral boundaries in Massachusetts were redrawn to help the re-election of members of Governor Elbridge Gerry’s party.
So what does it mean when we change it to refer to refereeing in football?
Basically, it is a newly created word (thanks to our European correspondent Christophe Jost) referring to the manipulation of football matches by referees or a refereeing organisation, either to promote the interests of some clubs to the detriment of others, or to focus more power upon themselves and make it ever harder for others to challenge that power base.
And it turns out to be very handy to have this word, as opposed to the traditional phrase “match fixing” for a number of reasons.
First, match fixing can be undertaken by players who are persuaded through financial rewards not to put 100% effort into winning a game. Indeed this tactic might happen quite openly when a club just needs a draw to avoid relegation at the end of the season. In such a case the players will forego the normal desire to win in order to guarantee the one point they need. However this tactic would not in itself be against any rules providing only one of the two teams is engaged in this.
However “reffymandering” exposes the power of the referee or indeed a set of referees both to act against one team and in favour of another, and to reinforce its own absolute control over a league.
Second, it has traditionally been imagined that bias by a referee would be easy to spot – and ultimately easy to expose – because the actions of the referee can come under close scrutiny by the media. But this in itself can be overcome where a number of other factors found within the concept of reffymandering are brought into play. These factors include…
First, a general feeling that “this simply doesn’t happen,” because no one is talking about it. Thus the reffymandering organisation needs very close liaison with a compliant media – a liaison that is so strong the media can be induced not even to discuss even the possibility of match fixing by referees
Second, where the effect is hidden through Type III match fixing in which it is the matches of rival clubs that are affected by dubious refereeing practice, rather than the club which benefits from the match fixing.
Third, where the match fixing is spread across a season, so that we have to look quite deeply at the data to see it. This is achieved by not making all the relevant data available on one place, so that compliant journalists anxious to knock out a quick article, miss the connection, or don’t do the maths. And it is aided by the media having the view that “fans are not interested in the minutia of statistics.”
To explore this third element a little further we can look (as we have done recently) at the “cards per game” data between clubs and comparing these figures with the number of fouls. Although this is not desperately complex, the figures become easy to hide in England where there is a long term tradition of match commentators suggesting that maths is not something they understand, nor that the average fan is interested in or can understand. (Remember BT Sport’s approach to the Emirates cup where the commentators claimed the award of a point for a goal as well as three for a win and one for a draw, made it impossible for them to work out who had won the trophy).
So at the moment of writing (and to take one simple example), we have a situation where Leicester get 1.05 yellow cards per game while Arsenal get 2.57 cards per game. That seems a huge difference, and multiplied across all 38 league games in a season means many more Arsenal players than Leicester players will be suspended, and Arsenal will play many more minutes with players being extra careful in tackles etc because they are already on one yellow card.
But in order to see the effect fully, a second set of data has to be introduced: how many fouls the club has committed. Data that is required because one would expect in broad terms a club that gets a lot of yellow cards might be expected to be committing the most fouls.
Interestingly the Premier League figures give us loads of data but not that particular factor. You can find the most fouls committed by a player on the official site, but not fouls committed per team – which is rather odd. For that data we have to go to the independent Footchart site.
So when data which compares fouls per team and yellow cards per team is hidden away, while so much other data is made available by the authorities, one starts to wonder. It is no proof of anything underhand going on, but it is a little strange.
Then when virtually no one from the media seems to want to pick up this story and consider it, one wonders a little more. And when one does the analysis and finds a very odd disparity that shows that four of the London teams are getting far more fouls given against them than others, and there are no London referees in the League, one wonders further. Still no proof, but it is suspicious.
Add to that the fact that the referees’ organisation is so highly secretive that referees are forbidden from talking to the media, and indeed the organisation goes so far as to offer financial inducements to its referees not to talk to the media even after retirement, and we have further reason to be concerned. Throw in the fact that it would be very easy to reduce suspicion about referees if no referee was ever allowed to take control of a game involving the same team more than twice in a season – but this is NOT done, and suspicion grows. (And with this issue this can hardly be a question of cost, given the incredible profits that Premier League football makes).
And finally add in the fact that the mass media – even the intellectual liberal end of it – won’t touch this topic at all, and that makes the case that Reffymandering might well exist. It is not proof, it is a suggestion that something odd is going on and needs investigating.
Indeed so many issues are raised here that one gigantic question comes to the fore: why on earth is none of this being examined by the media? Of course, I don’t know but when faced with something I can’t explain I do try and use the scientific training I had in my student years to look for viable explanations.
One explanation is that media editors and publishers believe that the public are too stupid to be able to understand how such figures can arise legitimately and so don’t raise the issue. Another is that PGMO has, as part of its contract, an agreement that the fairness of referees must never be questioned. Another is that the media think that football fans wouldn’t be interested. Which one? We can only gather information and take an informed view.
Highlighting these figures has come about through the work of people like “Nitram” and Christophe Jost who with many others kindly support the work of Untold Arsenal by providing information and undertaking research. My position having received this data is that it doesn’t prove match fixing is going on – but it is suspicious (to me at least) that no one in the media ever takes up this issue. Just as they ignored the fact that Uefa has admitted it does not have the resources to deal with the rise of match fixing.
That’s what makes me think Reffymandering probably exists. It is the existence of all this data, and no serious discussion. By which I don’t mean a 3 minute piece interviewing “an expert” on BBC Radio 5, followed by 3 minutes with the BBC’s football correspondent saying no, it is all a bit “conspiracy theory”. I mean something much more in-depth. But the fact that we don’t even get the two sets of three minutes shows just how deeply hidden this topic is.
Reffymandering. It’s a funny word. But then it’s a funny ol’ game.
- 93 players rumoured to be going to Arsenal. Are the journos getting lazy?
- The home and away scandal: ignorance, or cover up?
- The reason why Liverpool and Man C are ahead of Arsenal.
- How which referee a club gets has a major impact on the result of each game
- The statistical evidence that shows PGMO are biased against Arsenal