Referees are exposed to verbal and even physical aggressions that harm the image of football.
“That day I led a First Division match in Puntarenas. I was raised in that province and had not returned to my homeland for many years. The encounter was played at 11:00 in the morning at the Lito Pérez stadium, better known as the ‘Magic Pot’. Although the home team lost, there were no incidents on the field. After the game I wanted to visit my mother, who was still living in Puntarenas. When I arrived at her house, I discovered that a crowd of infuriated fans had already beaten me there. The window panes were shattered. They had bombarded the house with rocks.”
These are the words of Orlando Portocarrero, a former referee of the First Division in Costa Rica. “Other than the damage to the house, we were fortunately unharmed. Referees are often exposed to situations like this”, explained the current member of the Arbitration Commission of the Central American country. “In the First Division cases of violence are not so common, but in amateur football security is a lot more scarce; police shine in their absence and clubs do not worry about stopping these madmen in their tracks. It’s like jumping into a ring without barriers.”
To a lesser or greater extent, similar occurrences happen in every country. “Verbal abuse is part of the everyday life of any referee, but physical aggressions also happen from time to time”, states Portocarrera. Football is a social outlet. A lot of pressure is always generated around this sport and referees are the ones who always have to pay the price. Everyone sees the referee as a necessary evil, like the number one enemy of the people… Never as someone who’s work enables the football spectacle to happen.”
Insults, aggressions, spitting, vexations, attempts to run over, etc. A governmental report shows that in Spain there were 115 violent episodes perpetrated against referees over the course of the 2015-16 season. An increase of 47% compared to the previous season. Despite this, referees state that these figures have “no credibility”. The Syndicate of Referees, a collective dedicated to denouncing violence in football, assures that “the official data is nothing more than a slim reflection of reality,’ and indicates that “the problem lies most of all in regional and formative football. Every week we come across more than 50 new cases and the sanctions applied are derisive. We are persecuted by all and defended by none.”
“Everyone sees the referee as a necessary evil, like the number one enemy of the people”
According to an investigation held by the Universidad de Valencia, violence increases in relation to the age of the players. Specifically, a large part of the verbal and physical aggressions against referees that taint the image of football happen in the U-16 category. Furthermore, the study shows that “the mistakes made by referees seem to be just an excuse to instigate violence”. The aggressors often do not even know the rules of the game, but this does not stop them from hurling insults against the mediator of the encounter.
¿An inevitable curse of the game?
The episodes of violence against referees are so frequent that many consider them as a inevitable curse of the game. Sometimes the very referees grow used to dealing with these types of situations and cease to perceive the full extent of their danger. Almost as if the insults were a part of the game. After all, we have yet to come across a referee who blows the whistle during a football match that does not suffer some sort of reprisal from the public.
“You have to just accept these types of situations. There’s no other way around it, especially if you want to move up to a higher category”, declared Jorge Villanúa to the press, who was attacked by three players during an U-18 match in Ceuta. One grabbed him by the neck and slapped him; while the other two threw him to the floor and kicked him. “There is no respect, I often wonder whether it is all worth it and think about quitting, but I do not want to give up on something I love because of four or five undesirables.”
“You have to just accept these situations, especially if you want to move up to a higher category”
Most referees prefer to not comment on the subject. They fear possible reprisals. however, when the situation reaches its limit, this collective is forced to take the initiative. Over the last few months, First Division referees have declared themselves on strike in countries such as Albania and Greece after being harassed not only by fans, but by club directors as well. In Greece, referees have been submitted to vandallic acts against property and even explosive attacks. A year ago, the president of the PAOK actually entered the pitch armed with a gun.
Nobody is spared. In Switzerland the amateur referees in Ginebra announced a strike at the beginning of the season after one of them was attacked. In Uruguay the guild of referees just announced a stoppage in all categories after various Nacional fans assaulted the headquarters of the Federation (AUF). In the United Kingdom, authorities talk of some 61 cases of violence against referees in last year alone. A tally that adds up to 681 in Italy, which forced the Government to intervene approving a law that states that all violent episodes will be dealt with by the ordinary courts.
“If we look ahead, we obviously have much to improve, but if we look back we can see that we have made a lot of progress and we receive a lot more support than before”, said Eva Alcaide, who was harassed last season while acting as assistant referee during an U-18 match in the Segunda Andaluza. From the stands all sorts of sexist insults rained down on her. “I had to endure it, but was scared about what might happen after”.
If the referee is a woman, discrimination comes twofold. “They have insulted me as much for being a woman as for being a referee. Nevertheless, I have felt more discrimination due to being a woman, as I have heard insults that are not usually used against male referees. It’s hard because we are criticized for trying to do our jobs as best we can. Refereeing has made me see football in another way. When you love doing something and are criticized for it, you have to give it your all. I think in the end, rather than taking so many measures on a Federation or Governmental level, what it all boils down to is simply education, and this is learned at home.”