Stop hounding the men in black

REFEREEING is often the most thankless and loneliest job in football. A referee rarely gets noticed for good work but gets all the brickbats for the mistakes, which at times are magnified to scandalous proportions. Not that all those who take to the whistle are angels. The celebrated writer Brian Glanville has often highlighted refereeing scandals in European football and how the craving for the lucre has made responsible men do the unthinkable.

Yet the game has survived and over the years grown stronger, more popular and become, as it is now, a million-dollar industry. But there is danger lurking around. The stakes now are higher, thanks to the mind-boggling earnings of players and the clubs. Understandably, there is pressure for any referee, whose earnings can hardly compare with that of the players doing duty in the high profile European Champions League where some of the richest clubs and costliest players take the stage.

Yet, at no time, had things reached such a pass as to make a top referee decide on quitting the game for good. Swedish referee Anders Frisk has just done that unable to bear the threats that had inundated him and his family following English club Chelsea's 2-1 loss to Barcelona in a Champion's League match, a contest he had supervised in February. Frisk, who is among the top referees in the world, had to leave the field earlier this season with a bloody head after being hit by an object thrown by fans of the Italian club Roma during another Champions League tie.

No longer is the saying `to err is human' applicable in this dog-eat-dog world of football. But what is dangerous is the way actions of referees are interpreted to give them the slant of a high-level controversy.

This is all the more so with television cameras prying into areas that seemed inaccessible earlier. In the current instance the root cause apparently was Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho's accusation that Frisk had influenced the game after his half-time chat with Barcelona coach Frank Rijkaard. Mourinho could not prove that Frisk had indeed breached a football protocol but had done enough damage nonetheless for the London club's followers to tarnish the Swede's name and what is worse drive him to a state where he confesses he is too scared even to visit a football field anymore.

What is clear from this incident is the growing intolerance and abuse of referees. Last December, an amateur footballer in Belfast was banned for 30 years for head-butting a referee after a match. In 2001, a fifth division player in Sweden was jailed for attacking a referee who had sent him off. A year earlier, referees in Bermuda went on strike after a player made an obscene gesture at the referee and then punched him in the face. Earlier, a referee in South Africa shot dead a player who threatened him with a knife during a match.

For a sport that is already fighting to remove the stigmas that it has carried in its history of corruption, hooliganism and misbehaviour of big-name players, Frisk's premature exit when he still had three years left in the profession should only heighten the concern of the authorities.

UEFA, European football's governing body, has expressed its shock over the Frisk incident. What accentuates UEFA's anger is that this is the second occasion when football followers from England have targeted an official from Sweden. Urs Meier was targeted after he disallowed a Sol Campbell goal against Portugal in the 2004 Euro Cup, which had stalled England's semifinal progress.

Undoubtedly, the latest event cries out for immediate attention from FIFA before matters precipitate and shake the very vitals of the sport. Since the Frisk incident, another referee — from France — has come out openly on the threats he and his family received on the same lines as the Swede.

Even as referees' bodies in Europe, and Sweden in particular, have called for restraint from the coaches and other staff so that they do not provoke players to become abusive or violent, it is the Football Association of England that finds itself in an unenviable position of having to cleanse its stables sooner than later.

English football fans have hardly heard anything complimentary about them from any part of Europe and the latest rounds of insinuations could only tarnish the FA further. Instances of stars verbally abusing the referees have needlessly whipped up waves of hatred against the men in black in the Premier League, so much so that there is a plan to soon introduce red cards on professionals who abuse referees.

Such stringent measures are necessary for football to attract good officials and keep up its image as the world's most popular sport. Or else, there will be more who will follow Frisk's footsteps. The sport can ill-afford such an exodus.