11 October ~ In WSC 284, Ian Plenderleith looked at how referees and footballers on Twitter can give an inside view of the game
One day, when referees are interviewed after games to explain why they made certain decisions, people will ask: why didn't this happen years ago? Like the introduction of goal nets, substitutes or a muzzle for Ken Bates, the most obvious ideas are often the best ones, but can take decades to implement. There are simply no good reasons to prevent referees offering their views, yet the momentum for changing the status quo is negligible.
Soccer America's online columnist Paul Gardner has been pondering this issue for years, and so in August welcomed Howard Webb's overview of his decisions during the previous month's World Cup final. "For the first time that I can recall," Gardner wrote (and he's been around almost as long as Brian Glanville), "we have a World Cup final referee speaking out, fairly promptly and fairly straightforwardly, on controversial incidents from the game. This is progress." Silence, though, was the preferred policy because "referees, as a group, do not have a voice" and suffer under "a form of secrecy that is imposed on [them] by the threatening power of FIFA".
But one US referee, Alex Prus, has broken free. In a recent MLS game between Chivas USA and the Seattle Sounders, he sent off Seattle's Leo González and Chivas defender Mariano Trujillo for a skirmish, and then recanted via Twitter, admitting his mistake. Well, apart from blaming his linesman for the whole thing. "After review[ing] my tape, red to Gonzales harsh," Prus wrote over four tweets. "Even though Gonzales was instigator he did not make a contact above shoulders like I was told by my crew member on the field. Not having the best view of the incident, acted on opinion of my crew members. Saying that I am taking full responsibility for this call. In officiating we survive as a team and sink as a team. As a head referee I take the blame even though it wasn't really my decision."
If this is how referees talk after a game, let's please hear more. To paraphrase: I take full responsibility for the decision that was based on the bad advice of my idiot linesman. Yet strangely, the referee's Twitter feed has been very quiet ever since. Did he receive a visit in the night from a cabal of FIFA henchmen? "Mister Blatter is not happy with your Twitter page." (Sound of knuckles cracking.) "Mister Blatter believes that referees should whistle, not tweet." (Luger pistol is tapped gently on wooden table.) "Are we making ourselves clear?"
Another feed that's gone all silent is Nicolas Anelka's, tweet-free since May 17, when he joyously greeted Chelsea's double. Nothing to say about the World Cup, Nic? Too busy concentrating on leading France to another final, probably. I also had to admire Toronto FC's Jim Brennan for having only one follower. With tweets like this it's not that surprising: "Had a great few days of training and the boys are looking forward to the weekend game in Dallas." His baby son also has two new teeth.
Bolton's midfielder Stuart Holden saw fit to recently inform the world: "Feet up on the couch contemplating what to do for dinner. Went to the carvery in Bolton for my grandma's birthday today, so good!!" Though maybe that's preferable to getting all introspective, like Chivas USA's Alecko Eskandarian, who deep-tweeted: "If you forget where you come from, you're never going to make it to where you're going." So, so true.
Trawling through Twitter in search of something wise, funny or illuminating written by a football player is like dredging Lake Windermere in search of that half-pence coin you threw off the side of a pleasure boat for good luck while you were on holiday in 1973. But a Twitter link directed me to The Sabotage Times and Rohan Ricketts's Secret Life of a Footballer. It's not very secret, what with it being out on the internet, but Ricketts serves up some genuine insight about the life of a pro.
"I can tell you personally," writes the former Tottenham player, now with Dacia Chisinau in Moldova, "the closing of the transfer window may be entertaining to the fans who watch on, but it's a time where players and their families are not guaranteed stability. Questions arise such as, will we have to send the kids to a new school again? Do we have to sell our house again? Daddy, why do we keep moving?"
Ricketts uses the column to not only attack David Pleat for dropping him for no good reason (at least, from the player's point of view), but for once messing him about on the transfer front. Pleat told Ricketts he should look for a loan move, but after his agent set up a deal with Reading on deadline day: "Pleaty had other ideas... He had told me to call him if we found a club... [and] he asked me why was I calling him, so I told him about the Reading interest. He then says, ‘You ain't going anywhere and how did you get my number?' Like he was the damn Queen or something."
From there it's on to slagging off agents, the majority of whom, says Ricketts, "are just out to get a buck at whatever the cost. Not giving a flying toss about morals or [the] value of others." He's seen "many players" whose careers were dictated by the actions of unscrupulous agents. "I believe," he concludes, "that for an agent/player relationship to be of any substance, the agent must have an emotional attachment to you or your goals."
Certainly it's not front-page news that agents can be dubious characters, or that David Pleat is not always a man of sound judgment. But hearing it from the inside adds weight to such issues and concerns, and makes you wonder why more players, and referees, don't use the open forums of the internet and social media to express themselves and prompt better-informed debate about the game as a whole.