“The Referee’s a w*nk*r…”

Anyone with an interest in soccer in these islands will probably be familiar with this chant. It is part of what is often referred to as – football culture. It is now so normalised that, what otherwise is deemed to be grossly offensive language, can be audible in living rooms across these islands on a Sunday afternoon – and yet no one seems to actually hear it. 

Or if they do hear it, no one seems to be concerned that the person charged with adjudicating the sporting entertainment they enjoy should be so abused by thousands of those present at the event.  

Being much more of a rugby fan than a soccer fan myself, it is quite rare for me to attend a soccer game – but back in the day (January 2020), when crowds were permitted to attend football matches in Britain, I ventured in (with a friend) to see an English Championship match. For those unfamiliar with the structure of the English game, the Championship is the level below the Premier League.

Being the Championship – it was a reasonable game in terms of quality.

At half time, on what was a very cold evening and on my way back to my seat with a warming cup of coffee, I noticed a sign which encouraged fans to text the seat number of any fans they observed involved in ‘offensive’ behaviour.

This seemed like a simple, practical initiative to stamp out those unsavoury (and sometimes illegal) elements of soccer culture which have blighted the sport for decades. The main target of this and similar initiatives is undoubtedly racism and the soccer authorities have had considerable success in this regard.

Back in my seat, with the second half underway, I reflected that the atmosphere was in general very friendly – although the visiting fans who are always corralled in a separate area for their own safety – were at the opposite end of the ground. So I might have missed any of the traditional threats of violence which may have been directed against them.

Then, with the game in the balance the referee made what was deemed by the home supporters to be a controversial and unwelcome decision. Immediately, to my right, what seemed like most of the people in the stand, began that chant (see title).

This was a clear case of offensive behaviour. No need for seat numbers I thought, as most of the fans in the stand will be captured on CCTV – I will report it to the club.

But my – no sh!t Sherlock – moment, that the chanting by fans, that the referee was a wanker, was clearly offensive, didn’t turn out to be quite the open and shut case I thought it was.

The club, in responding to my email which outlined my views on the matter, argued that although the individuals could be identified, it was not for them to say if the chanting was offensive. It was, they suggested, a matter for the referee himself and they pointed out they encourage respect for the match officials.

In my reply, I respectfully disagreed with the club’s conclusions, but decided I would check with the relevant referees organisations if they considered the chant to be offensive.

To my surprise, one of the referees organisations adopted a similar position to that of the club, suggesting that it was a matter for the individual referee as to whether they determined it to be offensive. In some regards, it seems a strange position for a referees organisation to adopt, given that their members are regularly and publicly being chanted at with language which most people would view as offensive and which would not be acceptable in many, if any, other workplaces.

Referees, in the English professional game being self-employed (as I understand it) do not have the same rights as those that cover employees under British employment law.

Another referees organisation I contacted, suggested it was the responsibility of the club to deal with the matter and offered no further opinion as to whether they deemed the chant offensive.

On reflection, of course, there may well be legal, practical and financial considerations for clubs and referees organisations should it agree that such a chant is “offensive” and it is quite the philosophical poser as to whether offence is given or received – or both.

Perhaps the embarrassing nature of the chant means that the awkwardness that may surround it being discussed, has insulated it somewhat from criticism? Or maybe I’m just letting my experience of attending rugby matches unreasonably colour my expectations of the standard of behaviour to be expected at soccer matches?

Perhaps.

But, I can’t help feeling that at some point in the not too distant future – that many people may look back and reflect with some amazement as to how such a chant, designed to bully and intimidate its own officials, continued for so long to be an acceptable part of soccer culture and how soccer players were expected to have respect for the match officials during the game whilst everyone in the ground listened to the outrageous abuse being directed at the referee.

And perhaps be even more amazed that nobody seemed to want to do anything (serious) about it. The beautiful game?  Not from where I’m sitting.

Photo by planet_fox is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA


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