x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

How about a fantasy league for referees?

The football officials, like teams, should be rewarded and demoted based on their performances.

Tony Pulis, the Stoke manager, has seen his side on the receiving end of several poor decisions.
Tony Pulis, the Stoke manager, has seen his side on the receiving end of several poor decisions.

Referees, like teams, should be rewarded and demoted based on their performances

If I was a Stoke City fan - and every day I thank my lucky stars I am not - I would welcome the idea of manager Tony Pulis to relegate and promote referees.

Anyone who braves that coldest of cauldrons (it is always freezing at the Britannia Stadium, even in summer), watching season upon wretched season of dogged Premier League survival via the interminable trench warfare of Route One football, needs to take their entertainment where they can.

And what could be more entertaining than seeing a referee get relegated? The sheer giddy joy could surpass all those other sideshows which Potters fans use to keep their bodies warm and their minds off the football: singing, eating and forming welcome committees for opposing fans.

Pulis, whose team has been on the wrong end of several officiating errors this season, moots a system in which referees are rated on their performance after each match. Come May, the three at the bottom of the table are relegated, swapping places with the best performing trio from the lower tier.

Football is a creature of habit, so let's assume the Referee's League would soon adopt all the same rigmarole as the team ones.

Firstly, fans will pick a referee to follow. Traditionalists will insist on adopting the official who lives closest to their home town, while glory hunters will concoct fanciful justifications as to why they have always supported Howard Webb: "My great, great grandmother came from Yorkshire", "Baldness runs in my family, too", "He was the first ref my dad took me to see" etc.

On the first day of the season, an early kick-off would result in an unlikely referee - Mike Dean, say - briefly topping the table. "We are top of the league!" the Dean faithful could boast, for about two hours, until the more established names (Howard Webb) had a game and knocked him back into rightful obscurity.

Inevitably, pundits will start to speculate on which referees may get the chop. However, they will withhold judgement for a sensible period of time, to allow proper assessment and avoid snap judgements. I'm guessing 45 minutes, maximum.

Before long, referees would start employing managers to represent them, Arsene Wenger-style, in post-match interviews: "So, what did you think about Mark Clattenburg failing to spot that blatant handball in the box?"

"I don't know. I did not see him not see it."

And, as the stakes get higher and money floods in from television and overseas investment, how long before referees get agents? Could we see Stuart Attwell publicly flirting with a move into umpiring Twenty20 Cricket, before calling a hasty press conference to re iterate his commitment to football, with an improved contract in his pocket and Paul Stretford lurking in the shadows?

Finally, on the last day of the season, the football channels will have split-screen footage of all referees with a chance of relegation or promotion, with rolling analysis by over-excited ex-referees.

"Remarkable! Lee Probert's decision to play advantage following a blatant foul puts him back in the drop zone and Chris Foy into safety!" (Cue images of Probert fans weeping at full time, while Foy dances around the pitch, kissing his whistle.)

Well, I'd watch it. Hell, I'd even join the fantasy league. Now, how are we going to arrange the play-off system for that third promotion spot?

Don’t give racism credibility

We all know that racism is alive and well in sport, despite the ongoing efforts to “kick it out”, whatever that means.

In parts of Russia, the Balkans and eastern Europe, black footballers are regularly subjected to moronic chanting. In Formula One, Spanish fans mocked Lewis Hamilton by painting their faces black. Even in liberal, multicultural Britain (gasp!), racism lurks: Ron Atkinson, the former Aston Villa manager, lost his television punditry job after describing the French footballer Marcel Desailly with a racial slur.

But have you noticed that whenever a fight breaks out between players of different ethnicities, it is often assumed the one with the darker skin was retaliating to a racist slur?

When Zinedine Zidane was famously dismissed for headbutting Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final, it was immediately rumoured that the Italian had called the French captain’s family “terrorists” in reference to their Algerian heritage. Subsequent reports seem to agree that Materazzi made a taunting remark about Zidane’s sister. Crude, but not race-based.

When Dion Dublin butted Robbie Savage during a fiery Aston Villa-Birmingham City derby, pundits took a good 10 seconds to conclude that Savage must have said something racist. Dublin insists he did not.

And this week, after Keven Mealamu, the New Zealand rugby union hooker of Samoan descent, was handed a four-week suspension for butting Lewis Moody, “sources” suggested the England captain had “insulted Mealamu’s family”. The r-word was not used but the implication was clear, and Moody issued a furious denial.

Is it not possible that non-white athletes might lash out for exactly the same reasons as white ones do: competitiveness, intimidation, a loss of control, or, occasionally, plain stupidity?

Unless a player is caught on microphone using racist language, or the allegedly insulted player is willing to make a full statement, these perfidious and damaging whisper campaigns should not be given a shred of credibility.