I’ve been a qualified and active football referee for over thirty years now and for pretty much all that time I’ve only ever refereed at the most amateur of levels. I was sneaking up the pyramid once, but my election to the European Parliament in 1999 ended all that.
I have been lucky enough to referee all over the country and in Belgium as well. I have no idea how many games I have officiated at, but it must be close on a thousand. And yes, like every other referee, I’ve had my fair share of controversial decisions and shown my fair share of cards.
I can remember qualifying as a referee, in the early 80s. Back in the days before Sky Sports, I, like other fans, gobbled up the highlights of games on “The Big Match” and “Match of the Day”. Back then, as now, what happened in the professional game was almost immediately replicated on local parks and recreation grounds across the country.
From my very first game as a referee, I have always thought that football cannot and should not be held responsible for society’s problems, but it should always endeavour to set itself a high benchmark in dealing with problems within the game.
I often ask myself why is it that some players, when the put on their kit, or some supporters, when they turn up to watch their team, seem to believe that a different set of rules, a different range of standards and values apply for the following 90 minutes.
When they might have only thought of an insult if at work or out with friends, it often seems to be uttered on the pitch. If someone bumped into you on whilst getting on a bus, would you then deliberately seek out the opportunity to bump back into them? No, of course not! Alas, on the football pitch, there is always one player in the 22 who would - and as a referee you even get to know their name!
When Premier League Referee Andy D’Urso was chased to the touchline and leant over by a number of Manchester United players and didn’t take strong enough action, it sent a signal to every player in the land that they too might get away with doing the same thing. Of course, the incident didn’t repeat itself in every game; nonetheless a number of players found their names in many a refs' notebook,as a result of this sort of behaviour becoming a more common event.
A few years later and The FA introduced the “Respect” campaign and I’d like to think there has been a very gradual improvement in the way that players treat officials and fellow players since it came in. Certainly the use of top professionals to promote the campaign has helped it tremendously - showing once again that they do lead by example. Yes, you still get a reasonable amount of dissent and bad fouls, but the message has gone out from The FA that everyone in the game needs to respect everyone else taking part and that message is getting through.
However, something you could occasionally see in the professional game that I had not come across in the amateur one was racism.
At European level over the last decade, I’d become very aware that the number of incidents of racism - player on player, or crowd on player had seemingly been on the rise.
Alas I can remember the chants that black England players had to endure in their game against Spain in 2004 and that were repeated only last year in England’s game in Bulgaria. Both times ridiculously small fines were eventually handed out by UEFA to the Spanish and Bulgarian FAs. Indeed, unbelievably, both FAs endeavoured to deny anything bad had happened to start with and in doing so, indirectly condoned the behaviour.
As a referee you often get to see some amazing skills and one of the best forwards I have seen play (unfortunately not live) is the Cameroonian, Samuel Eto'o. Now playing in Russia, I believe, he made his name in Spanish football, scoring over 100 goals in five seasons for FC Barcelona.
Alas, Eto’o probably paid the price for UEFA and the Spanish FA’s unwillingness to clamp down hard on racist chanting. In 2005, he was subjected to racial taunts from Real Zaragoza fans. The referee and match delegate did not report it, even though the player was obviously distressed. The following season the same thing happened and Eto’o decided to walk off the pitch, only to be persuaded by his teammates to stay on for the rest of the game.
Eto’o then moved on to play in La Liga in Italy. Alas racist chants followed him there. Due to ongoing racism from La Liga crowds, Eto'o stopped taking family members to his matches. He said: "It is something that has affected me personally. I think players, leaders and the media have to join forces so that no one feels looked down upon because of the colour of their skin. At this moment in time, I prefer my children don't go to football matches. In the stands they have to listen to things that are difficult to explain to a child. it is better they aren't exposed to it."
This was happening to him in his place of work.
Why do I recall all this?
Well, on April 2nd, 2011, I had to do something that I had never had to do previously as a referee - send a player off for racial abusing an opponent.
To say I was surprised to hear what the player said would be an understatement. Over the years I have refereed teams with just about every ethnic breakdown you could imagine. I’ve refereed dozens of games between teams comprising of all black players against all white players and never, ever had a problem. Yes, they’ve tried to wind each other up in just about every way possible, but it seemed that football’s battle with racism had been won in the lower amateur leagues.
Perhaps what I had witnessed was just an isolated incident, but I do worry that the way professional football has weakly dealt with racism in the last decade has now begun to permeate down into the amateur game.
Recent events have heightened my fear. This season has been a disaster for those trying to fight racism and sectarianism in the game.
Millions of people have watched You-Tube footage of John Terry allegedly abusing the QPR defender Anton Ferdinand. By the way, lip reading is a skill that referees also develop over time.
The FA took forever to give Luis Suarez an eight match ban for racially abusing Man Utd’s Patrick Evra; eventually publishing a 115 page report to ensure it covered its backside against every eventuality. Liverpool’s reaction to the ban was unbelievably arrogant and stupid - initially wearing warm-up tops with Suarez’s picture on them. Hardly a crushing or mighty blow against racism.
Fortunately, the way they and the Police seem to be dealing with the fan who racially abused Tom Adeyemi, the Oldham player in the FA Cup tie last week seems to suggest they are getting the message: quick and tough action is required to rid the game of those who feel that by putting on a pair of boots, or standing and watching a game gives them an excuse to do something they wouldn’t dare do in any other public place.
It has been said before, too many times, but this gradual flow of incidents surely must say to those who govern it that now it is essential football deals with this issue and that it needs to act at every level and with real determination.
The domestic FAs need to set their stalls out now: If racist or sectarian chants are recorded at a game, then the penalty should be the next home game played without home fans. If it happens again, then points should be deducted. If a player is found guilty of racially abusing another on the field of play, then he should not only be banned for a decent number of games, but the file should always be handed over to the Police for action to be taken.
UEFA needs to do the same thing in the European game. I doubt many of the Bulgarian fans even noticed that the Bulgarian FA was fined after the chanting in the England game last year. Their next home game should have been played either behind closed doors or with just away fans present.
And FIFA needs to redeem itself somehow after the bizarre comments of its President last year. It can and should set the example at the highest level.
It really is time for players, leaders and the media to come together in the world of football and act decisively against this gentle rise of racism in the most beautiful of games.
I know there will always be dissent in a game of football. Fouls would be committed in a game between two teams of Priests. There are some things you can not eliminate from football; racism is not one of them.