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How we have been utterly misled about football: part 4

By Tony Attwood

This is part four of the series on Arsenal, referees and the media.  The earlier parts are:

To summarise the argument made in this series, it is this:

Asking questions about referees and the organisation of refereeing in the Premier League is as legitimate as asking questions about why Arsenal’s manager chooses certain players or certain tactics.  That is not to say that discussions of referees should dominate, nor be used as an excuse for team failure, but it is a worthy and reasonable element in the debate about football, as much as how well a team has played, and which player might or might not be going to which club.

However what we find is that the media generally won’t engage in such discussion at all – which means a whole area of reasonable debate is excluded from the media.  Others use the argument that those who discuss referees are only doing it to find excuses for their club’s failure.

Worse, unexpected statistics, which can be picked up by the media, (as with my earlier example of “Nine Arsenal players have been sent off since Arteta’s first game in charge on Boxing Day 2019, five more than any other side”) are published without investigation, leaving one implication in the reader’s mind, without considering alternatives.

The implication of the “nine Arsenal players” comment is of course that the players were guilty of serious misdemeanours and the referees had no choice but to send them off.  But one alternative interpretation could be that referees are more willing to dismiss Arsenal players, while players of other teams are more likely to be let off with a yellow.  An analysis of the tackles / fouls / yellow cards data across clubs does suggest clubs are not being treated equally.

But we need more information and a lot more serious, open discussion.  Instead we find that if we suggest referees are a topic for legitimate discussion we are told we are being paranoid or stupid by some fans, and are met by a wall of silence by the established media: the classic gaslighting approach.

Clearly what is needed is for the media to debate issues concerning referees and their decision making with the openness that is found in the discussions of tactics, transfers, and the like.  After all, why should referees be beyond investigation when managers and players are so very obviously open to media scrutiny every day of the year?  That one simple point shows just how weird this situation is.

Of course newspaper editors and bloggers could argue that what the public don’t want are debates about referees – but I am not sure how anyone would know this without trying to explore these issues.

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But there is more to it than that, because I would argue that by never analysing referees and their performances at all, the public is missing a key part of the reporting on matches as the very strange Leicester figures we have reported clearly show, and as our analysis of tackles, fouls and yellow cards also shows.

Even weirder is the huge level of coverage of fantasy transfers, 97% of which never happen.  Of course this is cheap journalism, which is a reason why some sites live on nothing but these stories.  But that is no reason why serious journalists should not investigate refereeing.

Why does no one report on PGMO, and its way of organising refereeing, so different from many other countries, plus its claims of 98% accuracy, it demands for secrecy when other countries demand openness?

So we are left to do our own research – which is what we do, and have done since Walter introduced is methods of analysing referee behaviour in Arsenal matches – which was then expanded to cover the first 160 games of the season.

Meanwhile the sheer universality of the refusal to examine refereeing at all is extraordinary not least because the arrival of games without crowds has provided a rare opportunity to consider such topics.  And when considered the results of that research is alarming.

And yet the mainstream media and the vast majority of blogs not only fail to examine the research, they won’t touch the issue of refereeing and act as if the research on refereeing does not exist.  They thus become a central part of the problem.

Thus most people don’t know that the PL has a much smaller number of referees than other leagues, that some referees are used over and over again, that there is no regional balance of referees, that PGMO claimed before VAR that 98% of referee decisions were accurate, that some other countries interview referees on TV after games….  Indeed most don’t even ask why there are no black referees.

In 2016, the highly respected weekly magazine New Scientist reported research into people’s beliefs, and concluded that “Nine of out ten people hold a delusional belief,” so maybe we should not be surprised at the lack of coverage and investigation.

Certainly believing refereeing in the PL is balanced, while such evidence that we have suggests the opposite, and while coverage of refereeing topics is seemingly forbidden in the mainstream media could be described as delusional.

I’m almost at the end of my little series on referees. In my final part I shall draw this together and suggest why we have the situation we do, and what could be done to resolve it.

8 comments to How we have been utterly misled about football: part 4

  • Kc

    Yesterday’s match between MC and Liv, if it was David Luiz or any other Arsenal player who pulled Salah back, it will not be just a penalty BUT a sending off.

  • Anthony smith

    I think I agree with your findings. The most disturbing fact is that VAR only serves to reinforce decisions. e.g. how could anyone in front of 2/3 screens not notice Martinez grabbing Laca’s shirt? It was ignored as ref. had not penalised it. You very rightly point out the limited ‘pool’ of referees; never is there any mention of who does the selecting or what abilities ref’s must show etc. Appeals are judged in secret by ref’s panels – it is colleagues judging colleagues – never independent. The laws of the game -like the Ritz- are open to all……
    Keep up the good work.

  • John L

    Kc,
    I made the very same observation about the penalty awarded to Liverpool.

    Definitely a red card had it been an Arsenal defender

  • Nitram

    Why would the media question the referees when it is they themselves who dictate how they referee.

    Put in a nutshell, the media want referees to treat Arsenal as harshly as possible and almost unanimously applaud them when they do. Why would they question them?

    In fact they do sometimes challenge referees, usually when they think they’ve been too lenient with us or given us a penalty.

  • Steve Vallins

    I may be wrong but all the newspapers/media have to pay to print the football fixtures , tables and results and maybe within that contract they are not allowed to criticise the FA and PGMO in how they run football .
    As you have stated Tony before many years ago a BBC employee Alan Green football radio commentator would really have a go at what he thought were wrong refereeing decisions , I think he was the only one , now he is a run of the mill commentator with no agenda with refereeing decisions , he must have been told to stop the criticism of referee
    Maybe the unseen power of the FA is the reason of no debate of referees .

  • Dublin Gooner

    Banging on about refereeing bias against Arsenal as you have done in the past, is unlikely to achieve much other than get uncritical agreement from your like minded followers.
    Your recent articles are highlighting something that might get wider attention, the nature of the PGMOL and whether it is fit for purpose. This is surely, as you indicate, a legitimate and worthy area of debate. It cannot be healthy to have a small, secretive, and unaccountable organisation deciding the outcome of so many matches. Your observation from Hackett that it operates as an old boys club is evidenced by the way appeals are judged. It will be interesting to see how they decide the West Ham ref card. They are in a bit of a pickle with that. It was surely wrong, yet after a lengthy review it was given. So how can it now be overturned as a clear and obvious error.?

  • mick shelley

    Dublin Gooner
    You ask- “So how can it now be overturned as a clear and obvious error.?”
    Answer- Because the player in question does not play for Arsenal.
    The irrefutable evidence for that was seen a few days ago when the Louis red card appeal was denied but the Southampton players appeal (for an identical ‘foul’) was granted.

  • Dawie van Tonder

    My suggestion would be to see if it can’t be arranged by UEFA, that the VAR operator for every area and set of matches, should be from another country. Can you imagine a referee from Spain, Italy, France not looking at these decisions and changing them??

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