Sports Gazette spoke to Dutch referee Jan ter Harmsel who gives a cross-channel perspective on the more challenging aspects of refereeing at high levels of football.
Ter Harmsel is widely respected as a referee and the author of a popular refereeing blog in the Netherlands.
We asked him specifically about the verbal abuse of referees and officials, which has long pervaded many levels of the game in Britain, on both amateur and professional football fields.
It is a common trope among football supporters that referees rarely, if ever, give their opinions on their perspective. They are certainly rarely asked about the effect that such verbal abuse might have on their state of mind.
There are recently enforced rules that allow referees the chance to punish players guilty of dissent or abuse, but ter Harmsel does not see much evidence that this has had much of an impact.
“Bas Nijhuis, a FIFA referee in Holland, tried to caution players with a yellow card after every instance of dissent,” said Jan. “But this only led to more comments on his role than the fact his players were behaving badly.”
Jan believes that the excuse of “emotion” is overly used and a specious defence of such behaviour.
“I have no problem with a player or coach being frustrated during a game and saying ‘come on ref!’, but there is no reason why they cannot remain professional. Players go far further than is necessary or reasonable by crowding around a referee or swearing at them.”
He does not see a quick fix for the current state of affairs as such behaviour is ingrained and often indulged and excused. He only offers that consistent and sustained cautioning of players is the only way, even though it may not be ideal and would infuriate many in the short term. “If everyone is booked for any dissent it might lead to less protests and therefore less cards.”
Football compares unfavourably with a near sporting relative in Rugby when it comes to dissent levels and players’ conduct towards the referee. Rugby players can often be heard addressing the referee as ‘sir’ while the amount of complaining let alone swearing is negligible. Memorably, England captain Dylan Hartley was sent off for calling the referee a cheat a few years ago, such is the intolerance for dissent.
Rugby penalizes dissent by moving a penalty forwards by 10 yards, a significant territorial punishment and an effective deterrent.
When I asked him if a similar rule could be enforced in football which might turn a free kick 25 yards out into a penalty, Jan said this application might be more difficult given that football moves faster.
A better rule, he thought, would involve giving the fouled player the option to take a quick free kick. “Any players who stopped to complain would be caught out of position. This idea was trialled in a recent professional game and it worked to great effect.”
Either way, it is clear that dissent and abuse in football is an unnecessary part of the game that could, in time, and with a concerted and coherent plan, be minimized.