MICHAEL WOLSEY: Infection that is destroying sport for our children
The referee said it was a foul but Bruno Fernandes disagreed; he ran over to the official and wagged a finger in his face. Soon the midfielder was joined by most of his Manchester United team-mates and they surrounded the ref, waving and gesticulating in a fruitless effort to make him change his mind.
Their protest drew a response from the stands. Sky’s broadcast unit picked up only a little of the vitriol but, even from that, it was clear the supporters were baying for blood.
A week later I saw a similarly unpleasant scene playing out around me. I wasn’t at a Premier League stadium or even a League of Ireland ground. The venue was the local park where my 10-year-old granddaughter was playing.
The trouble didn’t arise from her game but on an adjoining pitch where boys were playing; they looked in their early teens and I was told later that it was an under-14 side. I don’t know what sparked the incident. When I turned to look, all of the players from both teams had surrounded the referee and were waving and shouting at him. One youngster pushed an opponent who fell into the ref, knocking him sideways.
As with my Premier League example, some of the supporters added their voices to the argument. There were no TV microphones to pick up the unpleasant comments – none were needed since there were only about twenty people standing around the pitch and they could be heard clearly.
That made it worse. These people on the sidelines were, presumably, parents or relatives of the young players. They could easily be identified but were still prepared to shout abuse at a man who had given up his Sunday morning to help their children.
Boys were the on-pitch culprits here, but a neighbour, who used to be a referee, tells me he also had trouble with girls and that some level of abuse was common from spectators at any juvenile match.
My neighbour is a former footballer who thought refereeing would let him give back something to the game he loved. He packed it in because he found the young players impossible to control and the parents as ill-disciplined as their offspring.
He quit a couple of years ago, just before the Dublin District Schoolboy League (DDSL) controversially revealed that, over the course of six weeks, it had abandoned seven games because of fights and other violent incidents.
Things have not improved. The North Dublin Schoolboys/Schoolgirls Soccer League, a successor to the DDSL, was forced to cancel a whole weekend of matches because referees were no longer prepared to put up with threatening behaviour from supporters, players, coaches and managers.
I referred to the Bruno Fernandes incident because I believe this bad behaviour is a problem that starts at the top and spreads down. Every week on television we see the super stars of soccer arguing with referees, huffing and stomping around the pitch, while their managers go ballistic on the sidelines.
They set a bad example but the infection might not have spread if juvenile leagues had backed their referees and made it clear that discipline would be enforced with yellow and red cards and that spectators who misbehaved would be banned from grounds.
The problem is not confined to soccer. It also arises in GAA club games at all age levels because there, too, criticism of the referee is tolerated from both players and spectators.
It is not a problem for rugby where the convention is that only the team captain speaks to the referee. If he has a complaint, he makes it politely and if the complaint is rejected he accepts the referee’s ruling without protest.
It’s a custom not a rule and it is not always followed, but in general it works and imposes order on the game at all levels.
Last week a rugby player told a radio interviewer why discipline was better in his sport. “I played rugby for 10 years,” he said, “and I can remember the name of the referee in every match I played – it was Sir.”
Soccer and Gaelic sports will continue to have problems unless and until their young players can say the same.