Sunday 7 June ~
Last weekend, Major League Soccer’s newest team, the Seattle Sounders, drew 1-1 at home to the Columbus Crew in a fractious encounter. “I was disappointed in terms of our team's focus at times,” said Sounders coach Sigi Schmid. “I thought we were overly concerned about the referee and were not concerned enough sometimes about our play.” This was an understated response to the fact that many of his players, following the lead of model pro Freddie Ljungberg, spent the game whining at referee Michael Kennedy instead of just shutting up and getting on with the task of taking three points.
Schmid is an intelligent man both inside and outside of football. Counter to the trends of modern coaching, he tends to be less emotional on the touchline than his contemporaries, and he usually thinks before he speaks. His carefully worded criticism was perhaps less tactfully expressed within the privacy of the dressing room. It’s open to question whether or not his players begin to subscribe to the school of thought that says they will be better off expending their energy running up and down the pitch rather than sounding off at opponents or the referee.
There’s another school of thought, under the heading “professionalism”, which believes that referees can be influenced by relentless moaning, lobbying and even hysterics. It’s unsightly, as Roy Keane once observed after seeing a mad-eyed, molar-exposed version of himself on TV while sharing opinions with a match official alongside several of his Manchester United team-mates. For television executives, it ramps up the controversy and makes everything seem more exciting than it actually is. For fans, it’s tedious, and it wastes time. Imagine you watch a Premier League team and pay £45 for the privilege of a seat. If players spend two minutes every home game jumping up and down in front of the referee, they steal 20 quid a season off you. Meanwhile, the advantages they gain are unquantifiable, but it’s never been demonstrably proven that concentrating a team’s energy on bleating at the ref has increased its trophy haul.
Some referees, who are only human, might penalise serial moaners by tending to award subsequent decisions against them. That’s not in the rules, of course, but then neither is dissent – quite the opposite, as Law 12 allows referees to show a yellow card to any player who “shows dissent by word or action”. But they rarely do, just as they do not show enough cards for persistent fouling, although in the Seattle v Columbus game there were two yellows for dissent (including one for Ljungberg) and three for unsporting behaviour, not to mention seven and a half minutes of injury time (or whingery time).
Overall, though, player histrionics and tactical fouls have become such an intrinsic blight on the game that everyone seems to accept them without question. And referees who apply the laws are criticised for being over-zealous if they actually do their job. “Very harsh decision, that,” you can already hear rasping from the co-commentator’s formerly pro rear end when a yellow card is given for an apparently innocuous midfield foul. “The referee’s spoiling the game.” But not the players.
In the days of the Iron Curtain you used to hear a begrudging tone of admiration for the stony-faced, well disciplined teams of Soviets and Bulgarians who would rarely misbehave during international competitions when presenting the public face of communism to a sceptical world. They may not have shown the kind of facially expressive character now thought to keep up viewing stats, but at least we didn’t have to put up with the perpetual petulance, or the obligatory instant tribunals over every single throw-in award. If players are looking for ways to show the fans how much they care, they could always save their breaths to try and make up that missing extra yard of pace. It has to be more fruitful than throwing your arms up in the air and howling like some kind of spoilt multi-millionaire. Ian Plenderleith