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Monday, June 18, 2007
Getting it wrong and losing it

Dave Roberts

I know it is hard to believe but we referees do have bad days, occasionally. Mine came eighteen months ago in an S-League game between the top two professional teams in Singapore. Poor Craig Thomson, his match-to-forget came just a couple of days ago in the UEFA Under-21 Championships shown live around the world on ESPN.

This time of year UEFA give their 'Elite' officials a rest, the Merks, Cantalejos and De Bleeckeres are allowed to sooth aching legs after enduring punishing Champions League and European Championship campaigns. So the B-list officials get their run out and up stepped Thomson, a Scottish referee obviously keen to impress after living in the shadow of Hugh Dallas.

Israel against Belgium U21s should not have caused any problems, but as the eyes of the world watched on, it did. The problem was typical of what happens to the best in the business; in the best competitions, more of that later.

Thomson's first yellow card on twelve minutes to Belgium's Marouane Fellaini was harsh but not too early. There is a refereeing train of thought that a very early card sends out an equally early message to players that you will not stand for any nonsense.

Personally, I cannot subscribe to this as I think you are provided plenty of opportunities in most games to pull out a card, so why go looking for them. After all if you are consistent, as players and managers demand, and give them cheaply you will end up with a sack full.

But alas the bed was made for the Scottish referee and he was about to lie in it. The same player made an even less innocuous challenge just 6 minutes later and instead of common sense prevailing with the muttering of 'You've just been booked and you're still at it. Stop it, or next time you will be off' Thompson went by the book. Immediately, the red card cost him far more than he could know.

All respect from those around him evaporated like a snowball in a volcano, he had lost control of the game, and more tellingly himself, on just eighteen minutes. The tackle warranted nothing more than a warning, but somehow his 6th sense failed him at the moment he so badly needed it, foresight.

There are key times in a match when even in these days of black and white interpretation of the laws of the game you have to protect what is in front of you, the match. You have to feel its pulse.

Thomson knew a yellow card for that challenge was not mandatory, but he still pulled it out. His real mistake was failing to consider what effect the card would have on his match control. The thought takes only a split second but it can save your bacon.

He fired too quickly from the hip. You could see his eagerness to pull the cards out, to impress those who need to be impressed. These were the first of ten yellows and one red, well, two red cards if you count the one he showed by mistake to Belgium midfielder Anthony Vanden Borre. Proof, if proof was needed, that he had lost it personally.

This is the reason why in England referees have used an almost circular red card. If you are the type of official to keep both cards in the same pocket, and that is not advised, you can feel which to pull out first  but that is another story.

Back to Thomson. Now do not get me wrong here, I'm not for one moment suggesting referees should shirk their duties to make their lives easier. When tackles are reckless they deserve a yellow card, followed by a red if the player has already been cautioned.

After all I write as a referee who sent off a goalkeeper in the 88th minute with his side trailing 6-0. He had committed the so-called 'professional foul' denying an opposing striker the chance to make it seven. It was so tempting to agree with the players and coaches that the game was over and I should be sympathetic.

What I'm saying is there are many situations, 'opportunities' I like to call them, where not everything is black and white. The grey area allows experienced referees to assess what the game and its players need and if that simple assessment dictates whether a card is needed or not, that is good officiating.

What Belgium v Israel certainly did not need was such a petty dismissal by such a senseless officiating. What it produced was typical; a powder keg waiting to explode. Fortunately it did not, though that had nothing to do with the subsequent officiating, but by the self-control of the players. A frightening scenario.

So why did Craig Thomson do it? He probably knew the consequences, but thought being only an U21s match he could go on and control it. I touched on why earlier, 'pleasing the men upstairs'. The very same reason refereeing in World Cup Finals changes mid-tournament.

Do you remember the farce of France 1998 where referees dished out cards like confetti in week one? Players, coaches and the public rightly complained, even current UEFA president Michel Platini at the time stepped in. After the furore dissipated much more sensible officiating was seen. One or two over officious officials were sent home.

It is also the reason Graham Poll was so annoyed at his 'three card trick' in Germany last summer. All referees want 'a final' and if the paymaster was to instruct the men in black/ blue/ yellow to say 'Wear a blonde wig', the response would be 'For how long?'

Thomson knew to progress in the tournament he had to do it by the book. If not he would scupper his chances of 'a final' and also his progression to UEFA's Elite List. Think about it; big nights in Moscow, Athens, Paris, Munich in the confederations elite competitions... yes, I would wear the wig too.

The unfortunate thing in all of this is that the referees at this level are great officials but when we come to the big stage the rules change.

The very thing a referee has consistently done to get right there at that very moment is simply thrown away. Special directives are issued before tournaments like this: 'Clamp down on shirt pulling', 'Come down hard on tackles from behind', 'Punish reckless play', referees are driven by the very people who appoint 'the final' to officiate in robotic style 'for the good of the game'.

Almost every time the game suffers in the early stages and referees are then allowed to revert to the very style that has impressed 'those above' and normality returns. How do we get round the recurring problem? It is difficult. You see all us referee types have a little thing inside us called ego. Do not believe any one who tries to tell you different. We referee for the ego.

I am no exception. I crave that golden verse at the end of every match, 'Great game ref!' I was in my element walking out into the cauldron of Calcutta's Salt Lake Stadium 18 months ago to referee one of the world's most hostile derby matches, East Bengal v Mohun Bagan, with all the furore surrounding it, live TV cameras and 110,000 fans in the stands.

Right now I desire more than anything to get back to refereeing in the professional game, but alas red tape and bureaucracy in my new found home of the United States bars all but US Citizens and Permanent Residents to officiate in the 'Pro Game'. No exceptions, no matter how talented, even a fully fledged FIFA badge wearer has to get a Green Card to referee. I am a resident alien, can legally work, pay taxes and buy property, but I cannot whistle in the MLS. There you go, it is all 'ego'.

And it is that ego that drives top flight referees to do whatever is asked of them to get 'The Final'.

If FIFA, UEFA, CONCACAF, etc tell their officials to caution every blade of grass that moves, they will. So why not try a novel approach, let us remind the officials of what is expected from them in major tournaments, but let us also encourage the referee to utilise the very natural talents that first brought him to the notice of the governing bodies.

Dave Roberts is a regular part of the ESPN Soccernet Press Pass team and anchor on Sportscenter. He is also an international referee.

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