We do a lot of complaining about ref's - about the ref who was surely stoned, about the ref with byzantine ideas about offside, about refs who police according not to football rules, but (in women's games) according to how he thinks ladies should behave. And then there are the refs who've been bought off, who extend the first or second half beyond regulation time for just as long as it takes you to lose the lead you'd carved out, or the refs who are too easily persuaded by theatrics. One sees a fair amount of crazy refereeing in the amateur leagues. (Pictured here, ref Kim Milton Neilson - famous for sending Becks off during a WC match with Argentina - about to eject Rooney from a 2005 Champions League game for this snarky clap.)
For all their limits, though, I'd rather have the odd crazy ref, than take the field without one.
The most complicated and dangerous game I play is a weekend kickabout - not only because it's mixed football, but because a lot of the players in that game have never been refereed and so don't have even that "internal ref" which experienced players use to curb their instincts. I must admit that when I started playing in this game I'd never played football, and started by playing defense. I would pick a player (usually this poor guy Justin, because he posed the biggest challenge and was playfully smug), and I would mark him for the whole game. I used to love this - until I learned by playing in another setting that I'd been fouling the poor guy for nearly a year. As an NCAA basketball fan, my idea of defense was borrowed from watching that sport. I was not only not very effective - I was also somewhat dangerous. It took me ages to learn that running full speed at someone with the ball - with little plan other than intimidation, or interruption of their movement - was a bad idea. I wasn't good enough to have much control over myself, never mind the ball - and a player with any experience whatsoever will, when presented with such a challenge simply pass the ball to someone else. A less experienced player might tough out the challenge, but usually the result there is some sort of collision - and the sort of contact that ought to bring a whistle if not a card.
I am to this day very grateful to my soccer-pal Ben, who took the time to explain that effective defense is more about containment, patience, persistence and good decision making, and to Mia Hamm's book Go For The Goal - a great introduction to the basic principles of the game.
In our 'friendly' game, we have players everybody stays clear of (with no ref to control them, you either back off or risk injury). I've been pulled by my arms by one of these folks - who then yelled at me (for protecting the ball in a legal manner - as an inexperienced player she didn't understand that if she was pushing at me from behind, I could shield the ball with my body and push backwards to make space). I found myself so upset by her insults that I had trouble playing afterwards, largely because no one else was willing to intervene to point out to her that her behavior (deliberately grabbing and yanking a player off the ball by the arms) was basically a red card foul.
The problem wasn't so much the foul itself, it was the feeling of exposure that it produced. With no referee - and no culture of self-refereeing - individual players are left to sort it out between themselves, to put up with or confront bullying, and to make their own decisions about how much injury they are willing to risk.
Very few people are willing to mediate such conflicts. Most people, in my experience, will put up with players who’ve broken bones of other players, or put up – week after week — with players who tease and push less confident or aggressive players to leave the game. Most don’t have the mettle to confront the problems behind such behavior and find a way to correct it, and protect everyone who wants to play. Sadly, my experience has been that in general, people are conflict-averse, and have little sense of collective responsibility towards each other. (Pictured here, Pierliugi Collina - largely thought of as one of the best refs to take the field - now retired.)
The referee turns a free-for-all into a game by taking the responsibility of setting limits and making sure people respect them. They – and the principles we internalize by playing with them - are the ones who make the game fair, and fun.
The referee also gives meaning to the outrageous act: Zidane's head butt would not have taken on the dimensions of a Greek Tragedy if it hadn't produced that red card (which became its own drama in and of itself).
Refs give us a huge gift by taking up the whistle – because in doing so, they give us a space in which we are freed from our worst instincts, and in which we gain access to something that is increasingly rare in our daily lives – fair play. I wish I could take one to work.