The Football Film Institution Kicking and scouting recently listed his favorite referee movies. Of the three titles they chose (all titled “The Referee”), two were documentaries about European referees made almost exactly at the same time as “The referees” (no room for nuance here), a Belgian production which focused on a handful of referees at the 2008 European Championship. The films are fascinating for the way they successfully reveal the high pressure and the furious intensity of control games at the top, but also reflects how dramatically things have changed over the past decade. In short, it is surprising how quickly we have become accustomed to Video Assistant Referee (VAR ).
Mattias LowThe half-hour film about the Swedish referee Martin Hanson (“Referee/Rättskiparer“) was accidentally shot down in the same year (2009) Hansson and his team failed to spot Thierry Henry’s double handball during France’s World Cup qualifier against Ireland in Paris Hansson had earlier that year refereed the Confederations Cup final between the United States and Brazil, and his ambition was to officiate at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. an otherwise flawless game and 12 months nearly cost him the only chance he had of achieving his lifelong ambition.
The FIFA observer, said Hansson, told them that “we were fantastic during the game. We got it all!” Except for the handball before the goal which decided the result. “I completely cracked,” admits Hansson. In the end, despite an international public hate campaign against him, FIFA accepted the explanation from the refereeing team that it was literally impossible for any of the three teams to have seen the infraction. Hansson went to the World Cup after all. The following year, the governing body European Union UEFA introduced additional officials behind the goals in Champions League matches, a measure that was eventually replaced by VAR.Given the international uproar over this unique incident and the threats that were made to Hansson, it’s no exaggeration to say that the introduction of VAR was entirely justified.
However, there were other courses of action at the time. Henry could have confessed to Hansson on the pitch that he handled the ball. A player of his quality didn’t need to cheat. France could also have either offered to replay the match or give up their place at the 2010 World Cup to the Irish. Simple acts of sportsmanship (stop laughing over there in the cheap seats) that could have saved us from a technical revolution that was probably undesirable.
In “The referees” (trailer only) is Howard Webb and his team who are plunged into dressing room despondency when they allow an offside goal by Poland in the Euro 2008 group game against Austria, their first game of the competition. (Webb is also facing death threats from Poland for correctly giving Austria a last-minute penalty for a waiting violation.) England’s referees know their tournament will be over once They’ll have completed their second designated game, which they’re just happy to pass without further controversy. Again, it’s striking to think that none of this would happen now – the offside decision would be recalled by VAR, and the penalty hold appeal would be reconsidered if it appeared seriously wrong. When you see this level of stress, it becomes harder and harder to argue for the abolition of video reviews again.
The third movie, “The Arbitro“, follows Miguel Perez at the very end of the 2008 Spanish season. As with “The Referees”, the viewer is aware of the headset conversations between the main referee and his assistants. In a tense game between Sevilla and Villareal, Pérez berates his young assistant for almost blowing him offside on Sevilla’s first goal. The assistant had actually said “OK” to assure Pérez that the player was in on it, but just hearing the voice unsettled Pérez. “If it’s okay, don’t say anything, I almost whistled for offside! he growls. Now ARs have the luxury of VAR as a backup and don’t have to make such split-second calls – if in doubt, let the flag down.
Pérez watches the English Premier League from his hotel room and wistfully comments on the decent sportsmanship of EPL players compared to La Liga. Then he takes charge of the Barcelona-Espanyol derby, and we see exactly what he means in the face of a relentless verbal barrage from protesting players. “Now shut up!” Pérez takes on the youngster Lionel Messi during an incident. Despite these remonstrances, the Barcelona captain Charles Puyol and his fellow defender Gabriel Milito never stop kvetching, challenging even the clearest pleas with enough vehemence and conviction to shatter any mortal’s trust.
Pérez is tough and experienced enough to deal with the endless acrimony, dealing cards you can’t help but cheer for – especially for the belligerent Puyol, who is shown a yellow card for moaning as he leaves already the ground to be replaced. The game ends 0-0, and the referee notes how the players tried to distract the crowd from their own poor performance by pressuring the referee, making it look like he is solely to blame. It’s also reassuring to hear players saying the exact same nonsense – word for word – that I hear every weekend as a referee on the amateur football pitches in Frankfurt am Main. “You have to know how to live with criticism and insults,” says Pérez. “We [referees] We have to learn to control our emotions. When an audience member yells at him that he’s a “fucking sissy”, the referee bursts out laughing.
I still don’t like the way VAR is applied to penalty area handballs and offside decisions which are impossible to see with the naked eye, and which often cancel out goals that players and fans come to spend a whole minute celebrating. Yet the apologetic expression on Webb’s assistant’s face, Mike Mullarkey, when he realizes in “The Referees” that he screwed up on the Polish offside call, pushes me to concede that it’s a better world of football when the intervention of VAR allows him to to escape the totally excessive recriminations of a rapacious media and an enraged public today more impatient than ever to evacuate its just anger. It’s sad that we’ve come to this, and referees at all levels are still subject to unconscionable rage and abuse, but until good sportsmen can be good sportsmen, and until football results are treated as something way more important than they really are, so I guess VAR is here for good.
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• “El Arbitro” (Spanish with English subtitles) is available in Youtube.
• “Rättskiparer (The Referee)” Swedish with English subtitles is available on Vimeo.
• “The referees” trailer.