I think any real fan would agree that one of the great joys of watching football is to witness the flawless administration of the game, in accordance with the respective rules and regulations. An overarching schedule guarantees that on match day, the same sequence of events is followed in stadiums across the country, at precisely the same time. The walk-in, captains' handshake and coin toss are beautifully choreographed fixed-stars for any ceremonial admin enthusiast; spiced up by the occasional playing of a national anthem or, if one would be so lucky, a minute of silence to commemorate a recent tragedy or the passing of a great of the sport. And then there is the game itself, of course, efficiently guided by an unwavering and unshakeable scholar of the FA's Laws and Rules - what a thing of beauty!
The referee, master of ceremonies if you will, stands as the silent hero at the heart of football. Basking in his own dullness, he is fully aware of the crucial role he will play in the game to come, yet desperately trying to reflect modesty and restraint. It is expected of him to display such qualities while at the time being authoritative and in control of the situation in a stadium filled with thousands of, more or less intoxicated, madmen. Good thing only twenty-two of them at a time are allowed to run free on the greenery in the centre. At no time was it easy for referees to be simultaneously invisible and dominant, calm and measured in a highly emotionally charged environment. However, I believe their job has never been harder than it is today. Running up to officials, in a bulk no less, stopping mere millimetres in front of their faces, yelling, has become such common practice, that last year it spurred the FA to act! Living up to its reputation of a forward thinking organisation, proactively shaping the future of football, new rules on player and manager behaviour were introduced. The idea here, one would assume, was to stomp out a worrying trend swiftly and decisively, read after just a couple of decades, before it could turn into a real problem. Lives were saved, Diego Costa is now much less likely to stab a referee.
Progress is clearly being made, the FA is getting more involved and not known to take half-arsed measures. So why bang on about it then? Well, the fact that club managers were explicitly included in the new rules is alarming. It might have do to with the emergence of superstar coaches, and full on dickheads, such as Jose M. The type who would rather crucify a hundred officials than to admit their side had simply been beaten by a better team on the day. All in all, officiating a game of football must still be considered a most daunting task (... much like writing a blog no one has asked for on an award-winning podcast).
It is in this context of ever increasing scrutiny that I believe time has come for a true paradigm change in the attitude with which referees approach their job. The traditional understanding of the role demands humility before, composure during and self-criticism after the game. I say the hell with it! We do not live in decent, composed, self-critical times. Referees should go on offense, strike back. A more spectacular arrival at the venue and entrance to the stadium would be a good start. The day before a match, the most expensive car of any of the home team's players should be confiscated and handed over to the referee for the weekend. He could then rock up to the stadium in style, parking sideways over the president's disabled spot. Or how about instead of just booking a player rolling around on the field like an epileptic mid seizure, after having zero contact with his opponent, the referee mocks and calls him names first? He could wear a devise connecting him to the stadium's speakers for everyone to hear. The technology exists and is successfully used by officials in the NFL (although, admittedly, not to publicly humiliate players). Match of the Day would soon include a segment on the funniest insults by referees, the dis of the month would rival the goal of the month in popularity. And finally, when after the game Jose M. blames the loss on a piss poor performance by the officials, the referee should take the podium to discuss, at length, his impressions of Jose's players lack of fitness, mental weakness and overall lack of leadership. Juergen Klopp would no longer have a lock on the unofficial most-entertaining-post-game-press-conference-award.
Before anyone now simply dismisses these ideas as utopian fantasies, it is worth keeping in mind historic examples of men with whistles who bravely swam against the stream before, making it all seem more attainable. One such man is Wolf Dieter Ahlenfelder, former Bundesliga referee.
In 1975, he officiated a game between SV Werder Bremen and Hannover 96. Before kick-off, Ahlenfelder had a rich lunch and, as you would, beer and Schnaps with it. Naturally, running around on a full stomach and with a heavy head gets old fast. Ahlenfelder consequently decided to blow the whistle for halftime just 32 minutes into the game, thereby demonstrating a Fuck-it, I am the boss!-attitude often sorely missed in modern day referees. To this day, one can order an Ahlenfelder at Bremen's clubhouse and will promptly be served a beer and a Schnaps. The incident turned Ahlenfelder into somewhat of a celebrity and after being briefly reprimanded by the DFB (Germany's version of the FA and equally fun-loving), he continued on with his career. Along the way, Ahlenfelder had legendary exchanges with players, irrespective of their star status. For example, when German international Paul Breitner told him he was refereeing like an ass, Ahlenfelder replied maybe it was because Breitner was playing like one.
Finally, in 1984, Ahlenfelder was awarded referee of the year honours and received the DFB's Goldene Pfeife (transl.: golden whistle). The award is somewhat of a joke in itself as the German word Pfeife is also used to denounce someone as a fool. Following that logic, Ahlenfelder, at the height of his career, was declared the golden standard bearer of fools. I like to think a great man like him would have appreciated the irony.
So, impossible is nothing (adidas sponsorship opportunity here), let's go British referees, channel your inner Ahlenfelders. It may not actually improve the situation but it would be a lot of fun to watch. And who knows, you might actually enjoy it, just a little bit, too!
The Naked Germa